Sustainability is a big conversation as a small business, it’s a fairly vague term and when every business is so individual in their impacts and options it’s not something that can be laid out in black and white. This isn't a comprehensive to-do list to make your small business more sustainable (I googled forever and couldn't do anything for small businesses) but it’s a conversation about how you can be a sustainable leader as a business owner in your community.
What is Sustainability?
The definition of sustainability is to reduce the depletion of natural resources or the ability to maintain a certain level or rate of something. It’s about reducing the impact that we leave behind on this planet after we are gone, and as an influential business (no matter how small) you have the opportunity to be a leader in sustainability in your own communities that surround your business. Without taking on a huge role or responsibility you can positively influence your customers, your supporters, your competition, and anyone that is tuning in to your business.
Reduce, Reuse and then recycle.
I’ve personally had sustainability on my mind ever since I saw my first image of a duck with a plastic six-pack ring around its neck, I was convinced I would do everything I could to prevent that from happening. When I did my diploma for journalism I got a reputation for wanting to report on the environmental issues, and when I went to school for producing documentaries I made a short film about how the litter on the beach was negatively affecting our local ecosystems. But when I started a business (or two) I found that my priorities shifted into growing the business and I spent less time wondering what the impact would be.
Why integrate sustainable values into your business?
The most obvious reason to lean into sustainability for your business is to reduce your impact on the planet through the elimination of waste, energy or resources. By making conscious choices at every step of the way in a business (from sourcing materials to packing and shipping) we can lighten the footprint that our business leaves behind. Choosing to be a more sustainable business doesn’t mean that you have to go full-green, you can start with small changes.
Another benefit is that when you share with your customers that you value sustainability and are taking actions and making conscious choices with your business operations, it can help to build the relationship. When your business values align with the values of your customers it creates a deeper bond and trust based on those shared values. Your customers might even pay more for your products than a competitor because they appreciate the efforts you take on behalf of the planet.
How to lean into sustainability
The first step is to assess your current impact. Consider every aspect of your business, in-person, online, and every step from product creation to marketing and delivery. Check out the list below for some ideas, but every business is unique in the ways that it can make a difference.
Remember to take it one step at a time, it’s not a race. Committing to be more sustainable can be overwhelming if you take on everything at once. Take it slow and make changes that make sense for your business, one at a time. If you check back in with your sustainability goals often and surround yourself with accounts on social media that inspire you or teach you new tricks it becomes easier to stay inspired and keep sustainability in the back of your mind.
Spread awareness but don’t be a hypocrite. If you make sustainability one of your business values, you better follow through with the promises you make to your audience. The only thing worse than a business that doesn’t care about the planet is a business that says they do and then don’t.
Ways to be more sustainable
Reduce Returns (and Buyers Remorse) - The option to return is a great customer service piece but every item shipped (there or back) leaves an invisible footprint behind of the gas and fuel used to transport. If you can provide all the necessary information for an order in a clear and concise way it can reduce the number of returns. For example, providing a clear sizing chart or expectation so customers know what they are buying and don’t have buyers remorse when their order is not what they expected or doesn’t fit etc.
Shipping Practices - if you ship your products you can source reused or recycled packing materials - while the unboxing experience is important most of it ends up in the trash so find a balance between cute and wasteful. Don’t over-package or take up unnecessary space.
Source Locally - Take the extra time to look locally for products, materials, stationary/shipping supplies and other business needs.
Individual Impact - adapting our own thought patterns and personal actions is the root of making a difference. Beat the addiction to convenience by becoming more conscious about the decision we make every single day. This conversation is a great first step to bringing the conversation to the front of your mind.
Packaging - source paper over plastic and consider if the packaging is functional or just for fashion. Choose reused/recycled packaging when possible, you can use a stamp of your logo to customize reused materials.
Energy Use - save energy in small ways by turning off electronics at the end of the day, or enable sleep mode on electronics. Choose LED bulbs for indoor spaces, and use natural light or work outside when possible.
Reusing/Recycling Materials - consider where you buy and dispose of stationery items and materials, office recycling. Buy second-hand office furniture when possible and properly recycling electronics.
Go Paperless / Digital - save some trees and switch to digital banking and invoicing. Offer receipts to be emailed or optional, most people throw them away anyway and it’s a cost to your business to buy that paper.
Talk About It - tell your community about your efforts and why it's important to you to make those choices. Encourage them to take small steps too, you have more influence than you know!
Give Back - you can donate a portion of your sales every month to a charity of your choice to offset the places that you aren’t able to be as eco-conscious as you would like to be.
Some Resources to watch or follow