Shining a light on sustainability - How rental operations are working to reduce carbon footprints
by Connie Lannan
Sustainability might be the hot new buzzword today, but it is nothing new to those in equipment and event rental. The industry has been practicing sustainability since its inception.
Josh Nickell, American Rental Association (ARA) vice president, equipment segment, highlights this in his ARA blog post, “5 principles that make equipment rental the sustainable solution.”
“The equipment rental industry is a great example of where economics meet sustainability,” Nickell says in his blog post. “I don’t think business owners were thinking about creating a more circular economy or increasing sustainability when the industry started. They just intuitively knew that rental was a better option,” he says.
Nickell points out the five ways the industry is practicing sustainability through shared usage, repairability, resource use, reusability and recyclability.
With the changing climate and increased government regulations on emissions, rental operators are demonstrating how this industry is leading the way in creating a more sustainable future. The stories in this section highlight the specific ways small and large rental operations are not only taking these measures to heart but also actually are implementing quantifiable changes to lessen their carbon footprint. These include steps that you can take at your rental operation to make sustainability not just a buzzword but a practice.
Making sustainability part of your business plan
Consultant shows how and why you need to do this
Sustainability is a word that more and more businesses, including rental operations, are thinking about these days. United Rentals, for example, sees it as so vital that sustainability is now one of its core values. To learn more about the topic, Rental Management turned to Earthwide, McLean, Va., an energy and environmental efficiency consulting company. We recently asked Eric Oliver, PE, CEM, founder of Earthwide, to answer questions about the topic to help rental operators understand what this term means for their businesses and, more importantly, what steps to take to incorporate sustainability into their operations.
Rental Management: How do you define sustainability?
Eric Oliver: The best definition I’ve seen of sustainability is the action of constructing and occupying buildings in a way that will not hinder the ability of future generations to construct and occupy the buildings they would like to build. It’s about conserving energy and materials and preserving our natural resources. It applies to every aspect of the economy, not just buildings.
Rental Management: Do you think businesses, in general, understand the need to become more sustainable?
Oliver: I have seen a significant shift over the last 20 years toward businesses understanding the importance of sustainability and embracing it. It’s not just about saving money. It’s also about taking responsibility for the environment we live in with an eye on the future. I read recently that more than 200 of the Fortune 500 companies have hired a sustainability director. Twenty years ago, sustainability was a concept that could separate you perceptually from your peers. Now, not being sustainable will be seen as a negative separator.
Rental Management: What are the economic benefits for a business to become more sustainable? What are the downsides of not doing so?
Oliver: The obvious answer is with energy conservation. That energy is an expense and a cost. Anything you do to reduce consumption will save you money. But there are additional creative strategies under the umbrella of sustainability that provide economic benefits as well. For example, disposing of construction waste is very expensive for builders because of landfill tipping fees. Reducing construction waste saves money and the environment. Reducing the purchase of consumables by reusing elements of the everyday work environment — such as reusing ceramic coffee mugs instead of disposable Styrofoam cups — saves money and helps sustainability. Consumers have more choices than ever in the marketplace. The percentage of consumers who will consider giving their business to companies that have well-known commitments to environmental protection and mitigating climate change is growing every year. CEOs from GM to Coca-Cola recognize this and want to be on the leading edge.
Rental Management: In one sense, rental operations by their nature are sustainable entities. They are reusing existing inventory. How can a rental operator of either an equipment or event rental business expand on that?
Oliver: As an industry, there are sustainable practices that are inherent in the performance of rental services. I would say a way to expand on that would be to consider all consumables that are part of the process — whether they be napkins, silverware or paper products — and consider if there are reusable, recycled content or more environmentally friendly options. For example, there are compostable and corn-based plastic products, which are much more resilient than the ones that first came out 10 years ago, that even when disposed of are biodegradable. In addition, consider all emissions that are a function of shipping and delivery. Could they be reduced by bundling supplies into fewer vehicle trips? Could a site be assembled with fewer or shorter trips? Could items be sourced from local suppliers rather than cross-country? It would be easy to baseline the emissions your company is responsible for as a result of transportation, and brainstorm ways to reduce that number.
Rental Management: Where can a rental business begin to expand sustainability efforts?
Oliver: The first step would be to assess the baseline of your carbon footprint. This can be done internally or by hiring a consultant. Once you know where you are right now, you can generate a cost-effective plan for reducing your carbon footprint.
Rental Management: From the businesses you have worked with, does there need to be a culture change to a commitment to sustainability to make an impact?
Oliver: In my opinion, establishing a culture of sustainability is the most important step an organization can make — and it needs to come from the top. If employees see that management is completely committed to reducing the carbon footprint, then they will join along. Studies have shown that human behavior is responsible for almost 50 percent of the energy waste and the product waste in a company. If the people are encouraged to act energy-efficiently — such as turning lights and computers off, not leaving trucks idling, etc. — then many of the improvements won’t cost anything at all. People will perform every act with an eye on sustainability if they believe it is part of the corporate culture. They will feel good personally about taking steps.
Rental Management: How can a rental operator move to create it in their operation?
Oliver: Once you’ve assigned someone the role of director of sustainability, the next step would be to create an internal “green team.” This team should be represented by all divisions and job levels and would meet regularly to develop ideas and create awareness. Develop a level of funding internally that could be used by the green team to run awareness events — maybe tied to Earth Day or company anniversaries and such — promotional events or sustainable improvements like LED lights and power strips. Have an annual awards program that recognizes individuals and projects that have the biggest impact on sustainability. Make it fun.
Rental Management: How should a rental operator market the company’s sustainability efforts?
Oliver: There are many ways. You could add a page on the website for the green team and allow the team to publicize efforts and successes in saving energy or reducing waste. If you’ve completed a very creative project or one that has a big environmental impact, write an article and have it published on a trade website or in a trade magazine. Share actual numbers — if you see regular reductions in your carbon footprint — and anecdotes with your clients, suppliers and partners. If you switch to biodegradable or recycled content products, put that directly on the flyers and marketing brochures. There is a wealth of information out there on cost-effective sustainability measures as well as organizations your employees should join as a way to meet with other like-minded professionals. Groups such as the U.S. Green Building Council and the Association of Energy Engineers can be resources for a variety of information.