"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 the use of paper goods.

"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. Here was a staff initiative that led to a strategic initiative that led to, really, an affirmation of our core values."

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 throughout the office; however, management realized that many staff suggestions were not being tapped into, and as a hedge against their being lost or forgotten, the firm formed a green committee.

"We wanted to make sure we were capturing all those ideas," said Kathy Charles, the firm's scheduling manager and chair of the green committee. Charles explained that 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?' They want to know what you do for the community. How are you trying to fit better in the environment? Those pieces, for us, 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 that generated less waste. 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.

It's a lot of fun," Charles said -- adding, however, that one of the challenges to greening is making sure that it's easy for people to implement. "You don't want to throw anything out there that's going to cause people more stress."

Going green is all about efficiency, opined Claire Woolley, vice president of Chicago-based Howard Ecker + Co., a brokerage firm that helps commercial office tenants find new office space. She sees a growing number of companies interested in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, buildings, where a ranking system provides a suite 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: "With [President] Obama's administration offering additional green incentives and having the ceiling lifted on solar and geothermal, 'going green' has become much more economically practical."

Energy economics average a two-year payback in lowering utility costs alone. Arnold said that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 has been extended through 2013. "There's no doubt this 'smarter, greener and more daring' trend will become the standard."

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 to include a naysayer among the group.

"Sometimes you only get the enthusiastic people, which are really great, but you need the right mix of members," said Woolley. "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."

Once the green committee is created, all decisions and actions should be documented. This sets out what the team is going to do, describes a time frame and outlines what member is doing what. "Create the plan and address the hot-button issues," said Woolley, explaining 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 Ð the no-cost or low-cost programs or initiatives."

To help implement those initiatives, the firm can then launch a staff education incentive program to reward employees for changing their behavior. For example, if an employee turns off their computer overnight, a prize would be waiting for them on their desk the next morning.

"The critical thing is working with your staff to explain," she said. She said that 70 percent of the United States' electricity is from fossil fuels, which create carbon dioxide, a main greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

When Plante & Moran started looking for a new building for their Grand Rapids, Mich. offices, they looked to design a center that would facilitate team collaboration, enhance their ability to serve clients, and 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; a selection of water-efficient plumbing fixtures; use of locally made and recycled materials to minimize transportation and energy costs; direct access to windows in more than 75 percent of their occupied spaces; and use of a "green" housekeeping program.

"As a firm, we and our staff recognize the importance of green building and living principles and wanted to incorporate them in our new office," Riddering said. "Our clients also expect that our firm will be environmentally and socially responsible."

Eco-friendly efficiency

A major step to a more environmentally conscious workplace is something many CPAs are most likely already doing Ð 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. Bottles had already been collected by the front office administrator and taken off premise to be recycled. Next, Lawhorn said that he would be investigating more energy-efficient computers to replace older models.

A "Green Team" at Weiser LLP in New York also helped the firm realize that it was using 17.5 million sheets of paper a year Ð primarily because documents were being printed out single-sided, according to Jennifer Lambert, one of the founding members of the firm's Green Team and a staff accountant in the Audit Department.

Lambert described the birth of the green team as a "top-down bottom-up" approach. Douglas Phillips, the firm's managing partner, met with a group of five staff members who were interested in starting a committee on environmental issues.

"We took every green idea that was out there Ð recycling, reducing paper use, energy -- and we took about a year and researched everything thoroughly," Lambert said.

To add to the challenge, the team had to take into consideration the needs and issues attached to each of Weiser's four offices. "We couldn't just streamline and make one policy across the firm," Lambert said.

Ultimately, the team Ðthree of the five members of which are at the staff accountant level -- decided that they wanted to focus on recycling and paper reduction first, and went back to Phillips with their report. Each office was then equipped with recycle bins and local collection times.

The firm then prepared to launch its paper initiative, "Reduce Your Use," which included a "Greening Your Engagement," guide.

"Our firm's green initiative is a living example of a grass-roots effort taking shape and having an impact on firm strategy and our culture," explained Brian Mandell-Rice, CPA and partner-in-charge at Hein & Associates LLP in Denver. He revealed that a small group of staff started meeting to discuss green issues in back in December.

"These individuals shared a belief in the preservation of natural resources as part of their own personal responsibility, and wanted to see if they could extend their green habits into the workplace," he said.

As a result, the Denver office provided employees with reusable canvas shopping bags to "export" green habits from the office; eliminated most paper and plastic cups and flatware from the kitchens; adopted the use of environmentally friendly soap and cleaning supplies; posted signs throughout the office reminding people to recycle; and placed a recycling bin by each employee's desk. The firm also has a goal to increase its use of recycled office products by financial quarter.

"Never underestimate the power of one," said Rhonda Maraziti, senior marketing coordinator at New Jersey-based Withum Smith +Brown. "People follow." Maraziti started a recycling program at the firm for laser and ink jet cartridges, as well as old cell phones and BlackBerries. Using the Funding Factory (www.fundingfactory.com), Maraziti collects the unwanted devices and donates the money she gets back to either community fundraising efforts or to raise money to boost the green program within her firm. Currently she is fundraising to purchase three cloth grocery bags for each employee Ð close to 1,200 bags with the firm logo.

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 in implementing across their respective firms. 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.

"I think there's a lot of information out there about sustainability and greening," Dekar said. "Get your people together and bring up this topic and give them the opportunity to participate, because what I think you'll find is, people have a genuine interest in doing things that are positive for society and for the environment. Just give them the forum where they can discuss it."

Dekar also revealed there's an increasing demand from clients who are looking for consulting advice in corporate responsibility Ð an area that offers niche opportunities in alternative energy investments, climate change modeling, corporate health and safety, enterprise sustainability, business risk issues, and green construction. Dekar said that he has upwards of 600 employees across the U.S. dedicated to the specialty area because Deloitte is looking to expand the new practice niche.

"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 while saving may not be the initial intent, improved efficiencies and saved resources usually result in a better bottom line.

"Like many accountants, our Denver office group felt compelled to put a monetary value on our green efforts as a means of selling this idea to the rest of the firm," Hein's Mandell-Rice said. "However, it has become clear to us that interest in this initiative is widespread, and a cost-savings goal is not the primary driver."

Mohler Nixon's Kelleher said that the results of his firm's green programs are also 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."

Woolley, who has been working in the green industry for 15 years, points to Energy Star, a government-sponsored program that helps businesses and individuals protect the environment through energy efficiency, as one of the best online resources for assistance.

Energy Star touts a Low Carbon IT Campaign and also explains the concept of computer power management, which are features in Windows and Macintosh operating systems that allow a user to place monitors and computers into a low-power "sleep mode" after a period of activity. Activating sleep features not only saves energy, but can save upwards of $60 per computer per year. According to the Energy Star Web site, if all office computers and monitors in the U.S. were set to sleep when not being used, the country could save more than $4 billion worth of electricity and avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of about five million cars each year.

"The thing is, times are tough, so a lot of companies respond by cutting staff," Woolley said. "My response to that is if you start to cut out your waste and be more efficient, you can save money."

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access