'Going green" has evolved beyond a trendy catchphrase - it has paid financial dividends and has often helped bridge the generational gap at CPA firms.As more firms start to incorporate environmentally friendly initiatives into the workplace, many have shown noticeable results in terms of reduced expenses and overhead, while younger employees have often been the primary drivers of those greening strategies.

Such was the case at Campbell, Calif.-based Mohler, Nixon & Williams.

Bill Kelleher, the firm's chief executive, was asked repeatedly by entry-level staff members, as well as new recruits, about the firm's green initiatives. Though the firm was successful at implementing some eco-friendly strategies, he admitted that they could be doing more.

Enter what Kelleher described as the catalyst: the hiring of Vicky Gardner, a young tax accountant, who asked about the firm's policies regarding recycling and paper use.

"In her very nice way, Vicky was challenging some of the things we were doing," Kelleher said. "It was our entry-level people [who were] asking some really good questions."

The firm has since tackled a number of greening activities. It created the "Mean Green Accounting Machine," a green committee made up of employees from all levels in the firm. It applied for certification as a Bay Area Green Business, handed out recyclable tote bags, distributed a monthly newsletter with eco-friendly tips, added more glassware to the kitchen in lieu of paper cups, installed four energy-efficient dishwashers, and hosted e-waste days so staff could get rid of electronic junk.

Employees were also at the root of greening DiCicco, Gulman & Co. LLP in Woburn, Mass. Green ideas were already being implemented; however, management realized that many staff suggestions were not being tapped into, and the firm formed a green committee to capture all of them, according to Kathy Charles, the firm's scheduling manager and chair of the green committee. The majority of the group's members are under the age of 35. "When somebody is coming to look at a firm [for employment], they aren't just looking for, 'Is it a good place to work?'" she said. "They want to know what you do for the community. How are you trying to fit better in the environment? Those pieces have been a big selling point with a lot of candidates."

One of the first projects the team tackled was finding a more environmentally friendly coffee vendor service. All conference rooms have reminders to turn off lights and for common areas that don't have constant traffic, motion detector lights have been installed.

Claire Woolley, vice president of Chicago-based Howard Ecker + Co., a brokerage firm that helps commercial office tenants find new office space, sees a growing number of companies interested in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, buildings, where a ranking system provides a set of standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

"More CPAs are looking to construct and retrofit their buildings to create more energy-efficient environments," agreed Michelle Arnold, director of business development for Ernst & Morris Consulting Group, a cost segregation and energy concern based in Atlanta, who pointed to reduced utility costs, utility rebates and federal tax deductions as motivators: "'Going green' has become much more economically practical."

Energy economics average a two-year payback in lowering utility costs alone. "There's no doubt this 'smarter, greener and more daring' trend will become the standard," she said.

When Plante & Moran started looking for a new building for its Grand Rapids, Mich., offices, it looked to design a center that would use a significant number of green spaces, according to George Riddering, office managing partner in Grand Rapids. Currently the firm is seeking LEED certification for its new location.

The space, which will house 112 staff members, includes a "white" roof that will reduce energy usage; water-efficient plumbing fixtures; use of locally made and recycled materials to minimize transportation costs; direct access to windows in more than 75 percent of their occupied spaces; and use of a "green" housekeeping program.

SMALL STEPS, BIG CHANGE

Woolley suggested that the first thing a firm should do to become more earth-friendly is create a committee that includes cross-disciplinary representatives from such areas as IT, communications and senior management. Especially valuable, she stressed, is including a naysayer among the group.

"Sometimes you only get the enthusiastic people, which are really great, but you need the right mix of members," she said. "It's not such a bad thing to have the cynical, old-school kind of person, because that's going to be your test market."

Woolley said that firms can start greening via simple things such as adjusting printer settings to double-sided, turning off computers at the end of the day, or pulling up blinds when entering meeting rooms, instead of switching on lights. "It allows you to go after the low-hanging fruit - the no-cost or low-cost programs or initiatives."

ECO-FRIENDLY EFFICIENCY

A major step to a more environmentally conscious workplace is something many CPAs are most likely already doing - implementing the paperless office. Using technology to streamline workflow and communicate with clients is a significant first step in minimizing paper use.

For employees at Lawhorn & Associates, an 18-person firm in Knoxville, Tenn., the initial goal was to create a more paperless environment, but as time went on, the firm realized that it was, essentially, going green.

The firm has decreased its paper use by 75 percent through the use of a document management system, according to Jason Lawhorn, CPA, CITP and operations principal. In 2001, the firm was spending upwards of $12,000 a year on paper. Today, that cost is down to approximately $3,000.

To keep the ball rolling, last year the firm created the Green Action Team, which helped to oversee purchases of energy-efficient appliances for a new break room, and distribution of personalized hot-and-cold mugs with the company's logo. Next, Lawhorn said that he would be investigating more energy-efficient computers to replace older models.

At Big Four firm Deloitte & Touche, green programs fall under a broad category of corporate responsibility, according to Tom Dekar, corporate responsibility officer for Deloitte's U.S offices. In early 2008, a green tool kit was put together that included a series of projects that managing partners were charged with implementing across their respective offices. The kits focused on accessing and lowering energy, paper and daily product consumption. The program is monitored through a "Greening the Dot" Web site, which charts the number of tool kit projects that have been completed, kicking up competition between office locations.

Dekar also revealed that there's an increasing demand from clients who are looking for consulting advice in corporate responsibility - an area that offers niche opportunities. Dekar said that he has upwards of 600 employees across the U.S. dedicated to the specialty area.

"This is a hot topic in the boardrooms of most of our clients," he said.

GREENING THE DOLLAR

Most accounting firms agreed that saving money wasn't the most important reason they began environmentally conscious initiatives - but they usually result in a better bottom line. Mohler Nixon's Kelleher said that the results of his firm's green programs are measured beyond the financials. "My expectation is we will find cost savings," he said, adding that the firm has increased recycling by filling three bins twice a week, compared to one bin once a week. "That doesn't give us immediate payback, but it certainly feels good and is certainly the right thing to do in today's environment."

For an unabridged version of this article, and more resources on green initiatives, visit www.accountingtoday.com.

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