Clean and green more than just yada, yada

02:13, Feb 22 2013

There is a cool, little business in Taranaki called La Nuova Apparelmaster.

This industrial laundry and drycleaning firm was first established by the Craig family 50 years ago and named after the Italian drycleaning equipment they then imported.

Taranaki has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country - 4.8 per cent compared with 7.3 per cent nationally - and La Nuova can't compete with the wages offered by the region's buoyant oil and dairy industries. One way it makes itself an attractive employer to its 30 staff is by focusing on sustainability.

You might say yeah right, clean and green, yada yada. But you could do worse than to take a leaf (probably recycled paper) out of La Nuova's book.

It started out as a focus on cost savings. The firm had always been quality systems-based, and it got right into lean manufacturing. Then it found environmental considerations dovetailed nicely with that. Laundries are big energy users and its early energy saving projects cut usage by as much as 35 per cent.

Now environmental awareness is as embedded in its operations as health and safety or turning a profit, and it's reaping the benefits -  cost savings, staff retention, a marketing point of difference. Its staff are right into too. The company has its own worm farm, and employees got so worried about the ''plastic soup'' problem in the northern Pacific Ocean, they ran an improvement project to get the laundry's plastic usage down.

La Nuova was a winner in last year's Sustainable 60 awards and operations manager Bevan Broughton says that's raised the firm's profile among suppliers and the local business community even further. It now plans to set itself up as a trainer of other small businesses on how to be green. It aims to avoid full-blown sustainability policies and just give them practical tools - things as simple as a vehicle idling policy, which in La Nuova's case saves the firm $50 to $100 a week. ''Fifty bucks is fifty bucks,'' Broughton says.

It is a pragmatic approach that may appeal to Kiwi businesses feeling overwhelmed by the clean green bandwagon.

At the other end of the scale, a high-powered group of New Zealand chief executives known as Pure Advantage - including former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe, 42Below founder Geoff Ross and Kiwibank chairman Rob Morrison - is pushing a green growth agenda for the country.

Its recently released blueprint for making that happen says the country could capitalise on the global trend towards investment in green assets and technology by exporting products meeting that need. Sustainable agricultural goods and services, geothermal energy, biotechnology and higher value-add forestry products, including second generation biofuels, are all cited.

Pure Advantage's efforts have received a lukewarm reception from a government more interested in further exploiting the country's fossil fuel resources.

But La Nuova's theory is that even if business people don't care about the environment, they can still find value in reducing their impact on the planet - so everyone wins.

The need for New Zealand to make sure its fair to middling environmental credentials step up to meet the perception of its valuable clean green brand is a pressing concern.

This week the Green Party released a 2011 report to the Ministry of Economic Development's Green Growth Advisory Group which advised the government to invest in monitoring trends and the state of the environment. Instead the government has scrapped its consolidated five-yearly State of the Environment Report.

Pure Advantage has also recommended old research on the economic value of our clean, green brand be updated.

Perception is reality when you're selling yourself, and we do an awful lot of trade off the back of that  image. If we can't even get grassroots businesses thinking that this matters we will find we've been swimming half-naked as the tide of international environmental awareness turns.

Maria Slade is morning editor at the Fairfax Business Bureau