April 22, 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, an event designed to inspire awareness and appreciation for the environment. Many businesses may also wish to use the press coverage surrounding the day to launch sustainable and environmentally-friendly initiatives. Here are 10 steps you can take today to reduce your carbon footprint, cut down on waste, and build sustainability into your business's daily operations.

1. Determine Your Energy Consumption

Many companies put the cart before the horse by launching green initiatives without first benchmarking their current energy and raw-material consumption. But before you begin being green, you have to know how ungreen you really are. The EPA's Energy Star program offers a set of tools called Portfolio Manager to help you gauge your energy and water use. The agency has also developed spreadsheets ("energy performance indicators") that allow manufacturers in certain industries to judge their own consumption.

Commissioning, which simply means making sure building systems are running as designed, is a major part of this process because systems degrade over time and must be periodically retested. Such re- (or retro-) commissioning pays huge dividends, according to a recent study sponsired by the Energy Department. A 15 percent reduction in energy use at a cost of just 27 cents per square foot, for a payback time of less than nine months, the report found.

Dig Deeper: How to Lower Your Company's Energy Bills

2. Use Less Paper

It's easy to print out your e-mails or copy a pdf presentation for 30 people without ever considering the trees and the energy it takes to create those crisp, white sheets. U.S. businesses still use about 21 million tons of paper each year. It doesn't have to be this way. Paperless contracts are real, and their popularity is growing more everyday. Thanks to a law passed by Congress in 2000, any signature made electronically—whether it's typing your name at the bottom of an e-mail, pushing an "Accept" button, or using an electronic pen and pad—is just as binding as an old-fashioned pen-and-paper John Hancock.

A different tactic for eliminating paper: avoid it for storing or circulating information. Instead, use e-mail to send and review reports, edit materials online, ask that information be sent to you electronically, and save things on a hard drive, CD-ROM or other electronic memory device, according to an Environmental Protection Agency office paper reduction tip sheet. Also, look into software tools that stem printer waste. GreenPrint, a Portland, Oregon company, makes software that analyzes documents sent to the printer for wasteful characteristics like a last page with just a URL or banner ad and stops them from printing out. The enterprise version also provides statistics that companies can use to monitor paper use. FinePrint Software, a San Francisco company, sells a similar product.

Other paper-cutting suggestions:

  • Print on both sides of a sheet of paper. On copy machines, set controls to "Default Duplex."
  • Shrink image sizes. On copy machines and printers, set controls to print out multiple pages per sheet of paper.
  • Eliminate pages; set printers so they won't print out test pages when they're turned on.
  • Include tag lines on e-mail encouraging people not to print out messages unnecessarily.
  • Instead of printing PowerPoint slides to hand out after a presentation, use a website called SlideShare.com  to share a PowerPoint or other slideshow. At trade shows, pass out marketing materials on CD or memory sticks instead of printed brochures.

Dig Deeper: Tips to Reduce Printing Costs

3. Take a Look at Your Windows

In 2007, Anthony Malkin, whose family owns the Empire State Building and whose real-estate investment firm manages it, announced a plan to reduce the skyscraper's energy use 38 percent by 2013, saving $4.4 million in the process. Surprisingly, changing the windows will play a big part in the money savings. Malkin contracted Serious Materials, a manufacturer of sustainable windows and drywall based in Silicon Valley, to make energy-efficient all 6,514 windows—roughly 26,000 panes of glass in the historic building. But Malkin, who had had new, dual-pane windows installed as recently as the 1990s, hated the idea of simply throwing all that glass away. Serious Materials has a process that transforms the old glass into super-insulating glass four times more efficient than most energy-efficient windows.

If changing all the windows isn't an option, an alternative is treating windows with a low-emission glaze that reflects long-wave heat rays in sunlight. As a result, offices stay cool in the summer using less air conditioning. Retrofitting windows with so-called sun shelves or light shelves may help also. Made of perforated metal and painted white, the shelves sit under the top fourth of the windows (like a higher window sill). They can bring up to 50% additional daylight into a space when placed on south-facing windows.

Dig Deeper: The Business of Green Windows and Doors

4. Turn Out the Lights

Overhead lighting is the biggest electricity hog in the typical commercial building, and the traditional T12 (1.5-inch) fluorescent tube dates from the 1930s. Moreover, the heat generated by such bulbs taxes the building's cooling system. Replace the lamps with newer high-performance T8 (1-inch) tubes and the fixture's magnetic ballasts (which regulate current to the bulb) with electronic ones, and you will reduce the electric load 42 percent, according to the energy analysts at E Source. New lenses and reflectors on the fixtures will reduce energy consumption 71 percent. Daylight dimming controls and occupancy sensors reduce the load 83 percent and have a payback of just 3.3 years. Another tip: consider installing light sensors overhead that will automatically turn the lights on and off based on the amount of sunlight streaming in from windows or the amount of movement in a particular area.

Dig Deeper: Office Design and Lighting

5. Plant a Green Roof

Covering a building's roof with plants can reduce storm water runoff and keep a building cooler. But green roofs are difficult to install, especially on existing buildings that weren't designed to support the extra weight of watered plants. So do your homework before painting your thumb green.

Companies such as the Barthelmes Manufacturing Company based in Rochester, New York, installs edible walls — metal panels filled with soil and seeds and hung vertically. This trend in green roof technology adds an edible wall of thick vegetation on the outside of buildings to provide insulation and reduce heating and electricity costs. They have the added benefit of producing fruit, vegetables and herbs, in comparison to green roofs.

Dig Deeper: Greening Your Facilities

6. Use Organic Paint and Other Green Design Materials

When decorating your offices, consider using recycled materials in places you may not have thought it was possible. Chuck Richards of the Sunset Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon, painted his walls with a product from MetroPaint, a regional government program in Oregon that recycles leftover latex paint. Organic paint is another good option. Companies such as AFM, BioShield, and Dunn-Edwards create products that is slightly more expensive than conventional latex-based paint, and it is biodegradable and emits fewer noxious fumes.

You can also look into green floors. Carpet tiles from companies such as Interface and Avalon are made from recycled materials and they are modular, so when one square area becomes worn, you can replace it without tearing up the entire carpet. Bamboo mats and formaldehyde-free wool carpets are also available at reasonable prices.

Lastly, consider purchasing green office furniture. Companies such as Herman Miller, Baltix, and Formway offer durable products made from recycled or recyclable materials. Baltix's Ecobuzz workstations, for example, are nontoxic and made from sunflower hulls, soybeans, and wheat straw.

Dig Deeper: A Look at Green Builders

7. Purchase Energy Efficient Equipment

Office equipment has been for years a source of pollution and waste, producing tons of non-recyclable plastics, dangerous chemicals, and massive amounts of non-biodegradable components. In addition, inefficient office equipment does not just suck more electricity; like lighting, it also warms the interior space. Luckily, there's an abundance of ways to green your office equipment:

  • Purchase equipment with low content of dangerous chemicals. Computer hardware tends to contain a lot of toxic substances, and while most manufacturers are pledging to reduce or eliminate pollutants, some are doing better than others. Toxic elements that may be contained in computing equipment include lead, mercury, nickel, cadmium, arsenic, cobalt, zinc, germanium, as well as aluminum, copper, and titanium. When equipment is disposed in a landfill, its toxic elements begin to seep into the ground and may percolate into waterways, spreading into the ecosystem. Choosing equipment built with the least amount of pollutants is one of the keys to limit this growing damage.
  • Use rechargeable batteries. Disposable batteries still have a huge amount of pollutants such as mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, and silver. Some recycling programs are now in place to properly dispose of batteries, but the sheer quantity used makes it difficult to be effective. Use "nickel metal hydride" rechargeable batteries where possible instead. They contain almost no toxic heavy metals and can be easily disposed at the end of their life. Chargers also have become inexpensive and small. Some batteries can even plug directly into a computer USB port to recharge.
  • Use small solar panels to recharge your phone, iPod, or other small electronics. Lots of smart and small solar chargers are now available. They save you money and can charge your equipment on the road with no dependency on electric outlets.
  • Purchase energy efficient equipment. The U.S. government has established a certification program for energy efficient electronics called "Energy Star." Equipment that meets the low energy consumption requirements of for the certification can display the "Energy Star" logo.
  • Use a laptop instead of a desktop computer. Laptops are much more energy efficient and use fewer materials for their production than desktops. Not to mention that they end up increasing your productivity and workday flexibility allowing you to work where you need and when you need – making telecommuting a few days per week a much more viable option, helping you save gas and commute time.
  • Enable energy management policies on your computer. Modern desktop PCs use a lot of electricity, the equivalent of four to seven traditional 60W light bulbs. To reduce energy waste and make your utility bill smaller, place computers in "hibernate" mode when you leave the office. You can also set your computer power policy to make it go on stand-by (or sleep mode) after a few minutes of inactivity. The computer will resume almost instantly, but while you are at lunch or in a meeting, your PC will use close to no power.
  • Recycle your old equipment. If you have old, but still functional equipment that you are not using, donate it to a school or to programs like Goodwill. You can get a tax deduction, extend the life of the equipment and benefit a needy organization. For non-functioning equipment you can rely upon a growing number of recycling centers. You can find your local options at Earth911. It is also very important to recycle your printer cartridges, considering how often they are replaced. Most office supply stores have drop boxes for used ones and some offer refilling programs for both laser and inkjet models, allowing substantially cutting on printing costs while helping the environment.

Dig Deeper: Hardware Goes Green

8. Encourage Carpooling or Alternatives to Driving

Offer transit passes to employees who take the bus or subway and bike racks for cyclists. Let workers telecommute when it's not essential that they be in the office. Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson launched a Cool Commute program at his company, which awards $5,000 to employees who buy biodiesel or hybrid vehicles. The program also awards points--redeemable for transit vouchers or gift cards--to Clif Bar employees who carpool, walk, bike, or take public transportation to work. The program has created great press coverage. More important, it inspires employees to experience environmental sustainability on a personal level.

Alaska Biological Research (ABR), near Fairbanks, started a similar program. Employee car use increases at ABR during Alaska's harsh winters, so the company offers its incentive program from November through March. About half of ABR's 22 employees participate. Forty percent of those carpool, earning $1.50 a day each for doing so. Those who use no cars at all earn $3 a day. Some employees walk, a few diehard athletes bicycle all winter, and one employee skis six miles each way, mushing two dogs in front of him. The program costs ABR only about $645 each winter. (Many employees waive the reimbursement.) By offering the incentive, the $2.5-million company has avoided a costly expansion of its parking lot and saves about $300 each winter in reduced use of the company-sponsored plug-in car heaters in the lot. Plus, employees save hundreds of gallons of gas each year, and for CEO Bob Ritchie, that's the real payoff.

Dig Deeper: Helping Workers Control Commuting Costs

9. Allow Employees to Telecommute

Telecommuting is spreading like wild fire through small businesses around the country. A study conducted last year by Fort Lauderdale-based Citrix found nearly a fourth of American workers and 41 percent of small-business owners regularly work remotely. In the same survey, business owners considered telecommuting a more significant employee perk than stock options or workplace childcare. When David Nilssen went searching for ways to cut down on office space at his Bellevue, Washington, financial services company, Guidant Financial Group, he decided to send some of his 110 employees home. The company's 15-person Web publishing team works remotely, bringing the total number of telecommuters at the company to 20. Nilssen will supply these employees with laptops and Internet connections -- costs he would incur even if they worked in the office. Guidant has also begun testing out four-day, 40-hour weeks for some administrative employees. The workers will have rotating schedules and share desks to cut back on the need for space.

Kate Lister of the Telework Research Network, a San Diego-based research firm, points out that if 40 percent of the work force worked remotely just half the time, that there would be $200 billion in productivity gains by American companies, $190 billion in savings from reduced real estate expenses, electricity bills, absenteeism, and employee turnover, 100 hours saved per person not spent commuting, 50 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions cut, 276 million barrels of oil saved, or roughly 32 percent of oil imports from the Middle East, and $700 billion total estimated savings to American businesses, all annually.

Dig Deeper: The Case, and the Plan, for the Virtual Company

10. Cash in on Government Incentives

In the spirit of saving the best for last, it doesn't hurt to make a little money on your path to sustainability. Recent stimulus bills created and extended tax incentives for green initiatives. But the Feds aren't alone in attempting to green the economy. In some states, the combined incentives can defray 80 percent of the initial cost of installing rooftop solar panels.

  • Federal incentives: These include a 30 percent investment tax credit (or production tax credit, or grant) for renewable-energy systems, including micro wind turbines and solar and fuel cells. There's a tax deduction of up to $1.80 per square foot for buildings that meet a 50 percent energy savings target in HVAC, hot water, and interior lighting systems. In addition, there's accelerated depreciation for smart meters and grid equipment, as well as for renewable technologies. (For more information, visit the Department of Energy.)
  • State and local incentives: These vary widely by state and include tax credits, rebates, grants, and loans. Some programs are far more generous than their federal counterparts -- the solar credit in Arizona reaches $50,000 per company per year. For a list of offerings by state, see the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (dsireusa.org).
  • Utility incentives: There are rebates for installing renewable-energy and energy-efficient systems; low-interest loans and grants to finance energy efficiency and renewable projects; and production incentives that purchase renewable energy, particularly electricity from rooftop solar panels. Utilities offer incentives in 42 states. For a complete list, go to dsireusa.org.

Additional Earth Day Tips:

  • Tell suppliers that you're interested in sustainable products and set specific goals for buying recycled, refurbished, or used. Make the environment, and not just price, a factor when purchasing.
  • Many offices have toxic substances, such as used batteries and copier toner, on hand. Talk to suppliers about alternatives to toxics, and make sure you properly dispose of the ones you can't avoid using. Enlist the services of companies that will recycle your used computers and cell phones.
  • Consider the petroleum it takes to ship and receive products. Evaluate the impact of products you buy or sell, and find ways to mitigate those impacts.
  • Create a team to lead the company's eco-efforts and determine where you can have the biggest impact for the least amount of money.
  • Inform customers about your efforts. And get in touch with local regulatory agencies, many of which offer financial incentives to businesses that clean up their acts.

Marking Earth Day: Additional Resources

The DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (eere.doe.gov ) provides guidance to businesses on industrial technologies.

The EPA's Energy Star site (energystar.gov ) keeps a register of green service and product providers. Its Building Upgrade Manual is a thorough guide to retrofitting.

The U.S. Green Building Council has devised the leading standards for sustainable buildings and has accredited 101,000 design and construction professionals. Find one at usgbc.org .

The American Institute of Architects ' Architect Finder (architectfinder.aia.org ) allows you to search for members who practice sustainable building design.

--Additional reporting by Nicole Marie Richardson, John Borland, Michelle V. Rafter, Leigh Buchanan, Dimitra Kessenides, Andrea Peiro, Gary Erickson, Phaedra Hise, Darren Dahl, Max Chafkin