The Huge Implications of the Eco-Public Health Connection

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Someone recently asked me if there was a public health angle to greening small businesses.  After thinking it over, it became clear there is.  First, when we talk about green we are also talking about issues of safety and health: Materials should foster healthy environments, current and future. This means avoiding toxic and dangerous chemicals. It means using an appropriate ventilation system. It means projects should be well-built to minimize safety risks to the occupants (fire, collapse, etc.). It also means making larger ties between the products we buy and energy security, homeland and foreign security, and other “issues of the day.”

Please keep in mind that there are 27 million small businesses in the US and consider these facts from the SBA: Small businesses…

  • Employ just over half of U.S. workers. Of 119.9 million non-farm private sector workers in 2006, small firms with fewer than 500 workers employed 60.2 million and large firms employed 59.7 million.
  • Represent 99.7 percent of all employer firms.

I see three distinct public health implications:

Public Health Implication #1: I have a case study in my new book that talks about greening that is recognized by the EPA and OSHA as exemplary and that points out that quality, environmental, health, and safety standards are all intertwined; a company that set and meets the highest health and safety standards is the surest route to profitability and competitiveness. The Ideal Jacobs Corporation, a commercial printing company in NJ, has been recognized by both the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for environmental and social responsibility. One of a few, small independent manufacturers in the EPA’s Performance Track program—a program for companies with the best environmental management systems in the country.

Says Andrew Jacobs, President: “You can’t get the best profits, you can’t even compete worldwide unless you are the ultimate in making as little garbage as possible, having the least amount of it around so your people won’t get sick, and being one of the safest you can be. So by being the best employer, you’re also being the most profitable.”

Jacobs chose to focus on two high-impact areas of his business: solid waste and hazardous waste.

“After working through the EPA application [twice], I realized the correlation between reducing solid waste and higher profit margins. It suddenly dawned on me: Of course, create less pollution and [you’ll] have more end-product…We invited in OSHA, which was unheard of at the time. Then, I realized that the healthier and safer our place was, the more money I was making. Every click we made in terms of quality, environmentalism, and safety, every time we notched up, we made more money.”

Since 2002, the company has reduced its solid waste per dollar of sales by more than 50%. By substituting less toxic materials in its sheet-fed printing operations, the company achieved an 18% reduction in pounds of solid waste per $1 in sales and a 23% reduction in pounds of hazardous materials used per $1 in sales. Ideal Jacobs is proof that good sustainability practices are good for business.

Public Health Implication #2: In my chapter on Green HR strategies, I talk about a movement that has significant public health implications: promoting walking and biking. These practices provide the added benefit of keeping employees healthy and saving money. There are many example of organizations embracing this to great success:

  • The Alliance for Biking & Walking has lots of resources that argue for the health benefits of bicycling and walking. Included are resources on the obesity epidemic and how bicycling, walking, and community design can contribute to improved public health.
  • Increasing physical activity in the population has been described as the “best buy” for improving public health.
  • Companies like New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, are on the forefront: they give every employee a free bicycle after one year of employment and run a program encouraging staff to bike to the office at least once a month.
  • The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has believes that “improving conditions for walking and bicycling in our cities is vital for improving America’s public health.” They study the public health consequences of unsafe and inconvenient walking and bicycling conditions in American cities.

Public Health Implication #3: In a 2006 article in Environment Magazine, “Green Marketing Myopia,” researchers concluded that consumers value green for health and safety, convenience, efficiency and the associated cost savings, performance, and (at times) status.  Therefore, the implications of small businesses positioning themselves as being in the health and safety business is huge.  Its a winning positioning strategy.

  • Given the mixed profile of green consumers, businesses need to think carefully about what motivates consumers in the market and position their products and services accordingly. In general, some marketing messages—and some green practices—tend to be more powerful motivators than others.  Health and safety are proven to be two of the strongest green marketing messages.
  • Once a business can say that their product or service meets fundamental consumer needs, then they can consider how it might incorporate health and safety benefits that consumers desire from green products and services.
  • By embracing health and safety as a “green” benefit, small businesses can be transformative and move the dial on health and safety.

So, if all small businesses greened in ways discussed, the public health implications could be huge! Are you doing anything to change the face of public health through your small business? Please share!

Photo by BarunPatro at


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