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Headslappers: The Small Ideas That Save Big

Some resource-saving strategies are so simple - headslappingly obvious, in fact - that one can't help but wonder why companies didn't implement them sooner. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorites.

One of the themes of my book "Green to Gold," and my work in general, is the idea that there are hard tradeoffs at times. The ultimate payoff, including intangible value, business relevance, and even survival if you're, say, an auto company or other energy reliant business, is large.

It's hard work to create lasting value, but sometimes win-win situation really are fairly easy to find. This issue is dedicated to those fun and clever ways companies are simultaneously saving a fortune and slashing energy and resource use. Many ideas are, in retrospect, obvious. Below are a handful of examples of these "headslappers" that I find amusing or interesting.

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Let There Be (CFL) Light

The greatest headslappers in the world usually involve lighting. The story is so common, it's important just to get it out of the way. A couple of examples: Home Depot will save $16 million a year by changing the bulbs in the lighting fixture displays in its stores - not to mention the benefit of walking the walk and demonstrating the CFL products it wants to sell. Grand Central station in New York made the change recently - only after custom-designing bulbs to fit the original style - and will save $100,000 per year.

Make Fewer Trips

Technology is allowing companies to change the way they interact. Advanced "telepresence" technologies are making videoconferencing a viable alternative to flying around. These systems are not cheap (think a quarter of a million dollars per room), but at current airfares, particularly for business travelers who have changing schedules and pay penalties often, it doesn't take long for many companies to break even (so this one breaks the low-resource-use rule, but wins on payback). Travel-intensive service businesses, like Deloitte Consulting, are embracing this obvious way to fly less.

Slow Down and Turn Off

A few companies have decided to control shipping/trucking costs with technology that keeps truckers from speeding. Schneider National, the largest truckload carrier in the U.S., is limiting its drivers to a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour to conserve fuel, and Staples has set similar rules for its distribution fleet. At first glance, restricting drivers would seem to slow down logistics. But with fewer fill-ups, total time stays the same and diesel consumption goes down - to the tune of 3.75 million gallons annually, according to Schneider. Another great logistics solution: auxiliary power units for trucks so they don't have to idle for hours to keep truckers warm or cool. (Wal-Mart says its APUs cut fuel consumption during idling by 90%.)

Produce Less Gas

No, not the fuel kind. I'm talking about the methane from cattle, a very large source of greenhouse gases that equals transportation emissions. What can you do to keep cows from, ahem, expelling? Well, some food companies are trying out some new feed formulas that can enhance digestion and reduce noxious fumes by as much as 40%.

Advanced Headslappers...

Ok, to be fair, some great operational changes are not immediately obvious or quick to implement since they require some real thinking and planning. But they are simple to understand and brilliant in their creativity.

Shorten Travel Routes

Much is made of fuel efficiency, but there's plenty to be said for cutting mileage in the first place. In what's becoming a modern classic green business story, UPS stopped taking left turns to avoid idling and wasting time in traffic. Using GPS, and redesigning delivery routes to make a concentric circle to the right (to the left, one assumes, in England) is saving the company 28 million miles and 3 million gallons annually. Similarly, the aviation industry is working on better routes (more direct) and landing practices (no slowing and speeding up) to reduce fuel use by up to 15%.

Leave the Door Open

The attention on IT as a source of emissions is growing. New numbers say that server farms alone are 1.5% of U.S. emissions, and growing. Everyone is racing to reduce energy use with new products and new layouts of data centers. But one of Yahoo's big centers uses something called "outside air economization instead of mechanical cooling." In other words, they open the door and let the air in and the heat out. Intel and others have been experimenting with "fresh air cooling" as well. This example represents a larger "advanced" model of a headslapper because it actually requires putting a center in a cooler climate - not a small choice, but potentially very lucrative one.

Honorable Mentions...

...for silly and/or small ideas.

Drop Some Weight

Airlines are getting desperate. A number are reducing weight of food carts and other items to lower total weight, but Emirate Airline is actually eliminating in-flight magazines to save fuel.

Pump It Up

Logistics and shipping are obviously ripe areas for headslappers (like the no left turns). Some companies are taking some smaller actions like filling tires with nitrogen (here and here), which helps boost fuel efficiency and reduce wear by keeping tires fully inflated.

Andrew Winston is a globally recognized expert on how companies can navigate and profit from the world’s biggest environmental and social challenges. His first book, Green to Gold, sold over 100,000 copies in seven languages. Inc Magazine included Green to… [Read more about Andrew Winston]

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