Why now? Why not?
Eco-friendly dentistry is no longer a fringe movement.
Forget Birkenstocks. Forget patchouli oil. Forget the long hair, laid back, hippie images you have in your head. forget all the stereotypes you’ve heard about going green. As it turns out, “tree huggers” are pretty savvy businesspeople.
Even as businesses in numerous other industries work to enhance their green credibility, eco-friendly dentistry is moving at a slower pace, in part because major misconceptions persist, the biggest being that going green is just too expensive.
The truth is, eco-friendly dentistry can actually help drive profits, drive business and drive innovation.
It was 10 years after Dr. Doug Halloran joined his father’s Fresno-based practice that Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce inspired him to consider dentistry’s impact on the environment. In 2008, he had the chance to remodel the practice and, as he put it, “take it up a notch” by incorporating green principles. Now, less than two years later, he is already seeing a return on investment.
“Going green does require some up-front costs, but this should be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. This is a dynamic trend where things are constantly shifting,” he said. “Up-front costs are not going to be inexpensive, but you will make it back in the long run.”
The main area in which Dr. Halloran has seen ROI is in his supply bill. Disposable items are priced low, but because they are purchased in bulk, costs can add up. In switching to reusable items such cloth headcovers, cloth patient bibs and stainless steel suction tips, he has eliminated several costly bills.
Wendy St. Cyr, RDHBS, a professional educator who lectures on eco-friendly dentistry topics, agrees that going green can be a financial benefit instead of a burden.
“A central part of my presentation is to help dissolve the myth that green is more expensive,” she said. “One way to manage the cost is to realize this isn’t something you do all at once. I think the best way to approach it is to come out of that three-hour lecture with three things you can do: Make one change for yourself, one thing for your practice and one for the planet. To me, that seems reasonable.”
When it does come down to concern over up-front costs—and for many, it does—companies such as PureLife hope to help ease the transition. PureLife is a dental supply company founded on a vision of bringing cleaner, more socially responsible values to the dental industry. But being environmentally conscious is just one of three pillars for the organization; the other two are competitive pricing and customer service. It’s that approach that, PureLife President, Omar Midani, believes is the key to the company’s success.
“We’ve experienced faster growth than we ever dreamed of. I think the environmental angle helps,” he said.
Midani and Pure Life CEO Rodney Hanoon, acknowledge that a supplier’s ability to order larger volumes of product makes a huge difference in terms of pricing and demand still isn’t where it needs to be to drive prices down for every product. To realistically address this challenge, PureLife takes a three-step approach.
“First,” Midani said, “for every product, whether it’s green or not, we work with third parties to compute the carbon footprint for that product. We calculate what damage is done through packaging and shipping and then we figure out how much we need to donate to environmental causes to offset the carbon emissions. This is something we can do for every product. Second, there are green products out there that are not priced out. They may be slightly more expensive, but we seek out the best prices and make those available. Third, we are helping push manufacturers we work with to go more green. We’ve been able to get people to switch to recyclable packaging to a manufacturing line that uses biofuel. In many cases, we absorb the added cost so that our customers don’t feel the impact.”
One major sticking point with Midani and Hanoon is waste, an issue that can be addressed with just a few simple steps. The ADA actually recommends use of amalgam separators as a best practice for handling mercury waste.
“Unfortunately, there is no financial ROI on an amalgam separator. It will cost, at most, $1,000 up front and then $200 to $300 a year after that,” Midani explained. “What we can do is help subsidize the cost of that amalgam separator as well as the resulting waste management services. We make it as cheap as we can to help accelerate the adoption rate of this equipment.”
To achieve financial success the focus can’t be just cost-saving, but driving additional business.
Surveying more than 3,000 consumers between the ages of 18 and 49, Alloy Media + Marketing found 57% of people are likely to trust a company more after learning that it is environmentally friendly; 58% are likely to recommend the company or its products to others. In 2007 alone, more than $40 billion was spent on wellness and complimentary services by LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability), values-based consumers. These are people who are seeking service providers who match their values. In our survey, 19% of respondents said that yes, being green in the practice or at home is something patients have brought up. And while St. Cyr has seen consumer need and dentist delivery go hand in hand in more “obviously open” areas such as Washington state and Colorado, Dr. Halloran’s experience is, perhaps, most instructive.
“This is Fresno, not Berkeley,” he said with a laugh. “They are two different worlds. I’m in a very conservative area and there isn’t a lot of ‘environmentalism’ around here. I marketed internally, and promoted green dentistry on my Web site. What I didn’t do was buy a TV spot touting myself as Fresno’s first green dentist.
“Some of my patients are already living and thinking about green lifestyles. They notice the changes I’ve made and it definitely does generate referrals.”
Another potential cost-saver/practice-builder? Reimagining external marketing.
Instead of sending postcards to thousands, why not try a four-time ad in a local paper touting your green efforts, complemented by an Internet-fueled strategy backed by a company such as Demandforce? Using the Web to drive new patients is just the first of many innovations in step with eco-friendly dentistry.
Dentists investing in new technology are green dentists—whether they realize it or not. Similarly, dentists who may not have invested much in high-tech before, but are passionate about saving energy or creating less waste, have new reasons to look.
For Dr. Halloran, the green emphasis provided the perfect opportunity to take the practice paperless.
“One of the biggest environmental steps you can take is to go chartless,” he said. “It’s a huge transition but you have to embrace it.”
Similarly, transitioning to digital radiography can save money, time and help reduce your toxic waste contribution. On average, each year dental practices generate 28 million liters of toxic x-ray fixer and 4.8 million lead foils.
A study conducted by Nature Logic, a nationally recognized consulting firm, found that in spite of up-front costs, the annual return on digital billing, charting and x-rays was $8,769. Which brings us full circle—being green really can help make (or save) green for the practice.
And it feels so good
Being informed about eco-dentistry is only half the battle. The dental professional has to have a personal connection to the cause, otherwise, it’s insincere and people will pick up on that.
“Consumer demand will help drive eco-dentistry, and cost effectiveness may even supersede that,” St. Cyr said, “but the most important thing is for the dental practitioner to get a feeling. We could talk all day about the elderly not having access to care, but it isn’t until a dentist faces that issue with a parent that the practice gets invested. The same thing needs to happen here.”
Thais Carter is the Editor-in-Chief of Dental Products Report. Contact her at [email protected].
About this survey
The April 2010 DPR Green Survey was sent via e-mail to 7,000 GPs in the United States. The link to the survey was also promoted on Facebook, where we currently have 4,613 followers. The survey was completed by 73 respondents.