In general, sustainability begins by thinking about what kind of future we are leaving for the next generation.
By Doris Valade, Business & Leadership Coach, The Malabar Group Inc.
Kermit the Frog said it best around 2008: “It’s not easy being green!” As a society, we’ve been talking about greenness and sustainability for more than 20 years and although we’ve made significant progress, we’re not there yet. Sustainability issues still make headlines, the topic continues to come up in boardrooms and offices and the number of consumers who expect brands to step up and do the right thing for the planet is growing.
Big business is getting greener and taking sustainability more seriously. But what about small business? A Forbes report revealed ,“If your brand isn’t helping your consumers improve their environmental and social footprint, then you’re in danger of disappointing 88% of them.”1 What’s more, “at least 12 peer-reviewed studies show that many job seekers are attracted to organizations with sustainable practices.”2 As small business owners, how can we make sure our environmental actions are green and our efforts at sustainability positively impact people, planet and profits?
The Three Pillars of Sustainability
In 2010, the Office of Sustainability at the University of Alberta, Canada, put together a concise definition: “Sustainability is the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural and social resources in ways that allow the living systems in which humans are embedded to thrive in perpetuity.”3 It is generally accepted that there are three key pillars to sustainability — environmental, social (human) and economic sustainability.
1. Your Small Businesses and its Environmental Impact
For small business, thinking about your environmental impact is probably the easiest pillar to understand and improve upon. A good first step is to look at what’s in your garbage. How can you reduce or reuse what’s in there? Avoid plastic when you can! Think about items you order on a regular basis. Are you using sustainable packaging? Is your equipment energy efficient? When buying new equipment, check energy-efficiency ratings. Simple things, such as LED lights and smart thermostats are green actions that can save money. It’s surprising how many businesses leave their lights on overnight and on weekends – if it’s not a security issue, why not turn them off? How are your products stored? If temperature control is required at your facility, can you reduce inventory to reduce energy costs? Are you using natural or eco-friendly cleaning and sanitation products? Buying used office furniture instead of new can be a great cost-saving green idea. Are you ready to go paperless? Did you know that storing data in the cloud is far greener (and more efficient!) than storing it on site? Why not ask your suppliers to confirm their own sustainability commitment.
Perhaps you can provide financial support for your employees to consider public transportation or car-pooling to work. Add bike racks outside. Simple steps are a great beginning and every step you and your team make, makes a difference.
2. Social (Human) Sustainability
How Can Small Business Contribute?
Social sustainability centers around improving social quality. This includes the well-being of individuals, communities and societies. The focus is on building thriving communities within larger thriving societies. Key elements include health, nutrition, education, safety, diversity, freedom and standard of living.
As an employer, perhaps you begin by encouraging team members to consider their work/life balance. What can the company offer to support that balance? Think about paid training, apprenticeships, staff memberships for physical fitness or nutrition programs. You may even want to support local programs and fundraising events within the community. Review your company’s HR practices, ensuring they are safe and ethical. Is diverse hiring ingrained in your process? Make sure your HR policies are up-to-date and in line with current laws, industry standards and government rules and regulations.
3. Economic Sustainability – Embrace Practices that Support Economic Growth
It is possible to support long-term economic growth for your small business and the industry, without negatively impacting social, environmental and cultural aspects of the community. Doing good has a positive and direct impact for its own sake, as well as on your company’s ability to do well. A Unilever study found that a third (33%) of consumers are now buying from brands based on their social and environmental impact.4 The Global Sustainability Study, a major 2021 study of more than 10,000 people across 17 countries showed that sustainability is becoming increasingly important in consumers’ purchasing decisions, especially as consumers see themselves, along with profits for the company, as the primary catalysts for change.5
Ready to Create a Sustainability Strategy?
An excellent first step is to gather your team and answer the question, “How do our company’s actions impact people, the planet and profits?The success of your sustainability programs will be based on continuous improvement and innovation, both of which can be found within your company.
Your employees are a great resource for ideas on how to reduce waste and reuse materials throughout your facility. They can help identify which training programs would best to support individual growth, growth of the team and the company. They will also know about local community social programs and events in which to involve the company.
What about Your Own Sustainability as Business Leader?
Businesses have been tested through the pandemic. Effective leaders have learned to be compassionate and more thoughtful in their relationships with their teams, their customers and their vendors. But what about owner self-care? Are you overloaded? Do you feel off balance or burned out? If you do, it will be difficult to support those around you. Taking care of yourself includes getting enough sleep, taking breaks from the tasks at hand and not being too self-critical. It’s crucial to have a strong support network — family, friends and mentors.
First Steps …
Consider developing a sustainability vision statement and an actionable set of sustainability goals for the short term (the next 12 months), the medium term (the next 2 to 5 years) and the long-term (10+ years). There are many resources available to guide you. Start small — every step will make a difference! Include key members of your team to represent all areas of your operation (production, shipping/receiving, accounting, customer service, sales, etc.). And don’t forget to celebrate each goal you complete together.
Tell Customers About Your Company’s Green and Sustainability Programs
Announce your plans and achievements on your website, as well as on LinkedIn and your other social platforms. A gentle word of caution at this point. Transparency is key. Greenwashing — when a company pretends and promotes itself as environmentally conscious, but its practices say otherwise — will be noticed and called out. If you are going to flag and incorporate your sustainability into marketing and advertising, make sure you walk the talk. As we all know, the trust of customers is priceless, difficult to acquire and easy to lose.
Sustainability is not a trend and in 2022, it’s still not easy being green. But both are urgent priorities. Every company, regardless of size, has an impact on the planet and each can play a part in the future of a healthier community and society. Done well, sustainability can lead to marvellous outcomes — loyal, satisfied customers, improved supplier relationships, engaged employees who are happy to be brand ambassadors and a more viable, competitive and profitable small business.
How do you feel your small business ranks in its sustainability efforts? Canada’s Greenest Employers is an editorial competition organized annually by the Canada’s Top 100 Employers project. If you feel your business has made huge strides in being green and embracing sustainability, the competition is accepting applications for the 2023 awards. They are open to companies of all sizes. Now in its 15th year, here are the winners for 2022.
Additional Reading and Resources to help you go greener and achieve sustainability:
3 spacademiccompaniondocumentsinglev3.pdf (ualberta.ca) (Sustainability Plan Report 2016-2020)