Converting to “green” is a lot like learning to ride a bicycle.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared as an Online Extra onCeramic Industry’s website,

When our son, Ian, first started riding a bike, he was a bit reluctant. He watched other people do it, talked about it, was interested in how the equipment worked, but wasn’t so sure he was ready. An early incident didn’t help matters. Ian was just starting to feel comfortable when he sailed down a hill, careening on one training wheel while he wobbled the front wheel back and forth trying to regain control. He didn’t know how to use his brakes and eventually toppled. Ian had pads on and wasn’t physically hurt, but his confidence was shaken. He figured he would leave bikes alone and let other people ride them.

Ian’s experience is a lot like how many of us approach “green.” Watching, listening, talking, showing interest but not really pushing off into it yet. Hearing about mercury in compact fluorescent lightbulbs leaves our confidence shaken. Is it going to do us harm? Maybe we’ll leave it alone and let someone else do it.

The old analogy about bike riding is true: You can read about it all you want and you can watch others, but until you try for yourself, you really can’t know how to do it and you can’t gain the benefits. And there definitely are benefits to greening our businesses on a personal, collective and organizational level - saving energy saves money.

If you reduce the amount of paper you use, you reduce the amount you have to buy. If you reduce the amount of your personnel’s travel and transportation, you cut those travel costs. If you improve the efficiency of your light bulbs or turn them off when not in use, you reduce the amount of electricity you have to buy.

Understand the Fundamentals

We went back to the Chicago area recently to visit family. There were bike riders everywhere - the fit and the flabby, the wildly carefree racers, the white-haired retirees, and the serious riders on their way to work. The hilly landscape in Austin, Texas, is a lot different than the flat streets of Chicago suburbia. It’s different riding on gravel than pavement. The environment makes a difference.

Similarly, when making the green transition, the weather affects the appropriate solutions for greening your offices and other facilities. For instance, in colder climates you want to use designs, materials and habits that encourage heat to enter buildings. In warmer climates, you want to keep the heat out. In all cases, you want to minimize the amount of heat that unintentionally transfers in and out.

The social environment also makes a difference on how accepted and expected a green existence is. Peer pressure makes a difference. Media coverage in your area makes a difference. Attitude is important. A gloom and doom feeling is not very inspiring. Focusing on problems and fear freezes action. Focusing on solutions and success motivates and moves us.

Take the Plunge

The Chicago trip inspired Ian to venture out around his hometown. He started out with a death grip on the handlebars and needed a push to get going. He focused on every obstacle within 20 ft, sure he was going to fall victim to it. But he kept going. He began to notice how little changes in the way he moved made big differences in how smoothly the ride went. In the end, he was riding leisurely, looking around at the dogs, the lake, the boaters. He was confident and proud, truly enjoying the ride. Like anything, it gets easier when you get into motion.

If you’re hesitant about becoming a green business, find someone to give you a push. You’ll find it’s fun to play the game of energy efficiency. “What if we kept the temperature one degree different? Would we notice the difference, and how much energy would it save? I wonder how few lights we can use… How about if we stagger work hours so employees can avoid rush hour traffic and use less gas on their commutes? What if we allowed more telecommuting? How about if we used teleconferencing in place of some of our business travel? How can we reduce paper and other waste? I wonder how much energy we’d save if we installed motion sensors in the bathrooms…”

Start Small - Go Big

No matter what size your business is, everyone can contribute to making a greener office environment by simply starting small. Each small movement will make everyone more comfortable with bigger steps. For instance, changing out lightbulbs is relatively simple and inexpensive to do. It’s like taking that first push on the bike - you’re on your way. Have a lightbulb smashing party for the old bulbs, signifying the company’s commitment to being a green business.

Don’t smash the new bulbs, though. About that mercury: if a compact fluorescent bulb breaks, treat it like the mercury from those old thermometers and make sure to clean it up thoroughly. Treat broken or burned-out bulbs as hazardous waste. Put them in a bag and take them with other hazardous wastes to the hazardous waste recycling center.

Computers generate lots of heat and provide lots of opportunities for energy savings. Make sure defaults are set to standby or hibernate when idle, as screensavers still use energy. Encourage staff members to start the habit of turning computers off when going home or leaving the office for an extended period. Consider using power strips to shut down all electronics completely.

When you’re ready to move onto bigger projects, your computer networks are a good place to look. Get more efficient equipment, like energy-efficient chillers for data centers, and check into computer power management for large-scale networks. In other areas, think about using solar water heaters, acquiring your own energy storage to take advantage of off-peak electricity prices, and xeriscaping the grounds to reduce the water usage. Use alternative fuels and alternative vehicles for company vehicles. For those with dedicated routes, see if fully electric vehicles will do the job. Share your research with other companies so they can benefit, too.

Knowledge dissipates fear, so continually educate yourself and your employees. Knowing that you’re contributing to the solution just feels good - like riding a bicycle.