Sustainability for Small Businesses

Business

I thought that my business was sustainable. But a conversation with my dad taught me there are actually 3 pillars of sustainability.

4/22/2021

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Kadie Smith

On Wednesday, April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people in the United States participated in events all over the country as part of the world’s first Earth Day. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson urged students to fight for environmental causes with the same zeal they had when protesting the Vietnam War.

Girl Scout in canoe, Earth Day 1970

Girl Scout in a canoe, picking trash out of the Potomac River during Earth Week, April 22, 1970, Library of Congress.

The result? Three months later, the Environmental Protection Agency was established as a direct response to the public’s demand for a better, cleaner world. The EPA has been responsible for passing regulations that keep children safe from lead, improve air quality in big cities, banning the use of pesticides that cause cancer, and establishing superfund sites to clean up some of our largest environmental emergencies and land contaminations.

Today, we continue to celebrate Earth Day as a reminder of our responsibility to be good stewards of the natural world around us. A lot has changed since the 1970s and our understanding of how daily choices impact those around us. 

For the longest time, I thought my digital service-based business was about as sustainable as they come. I don’t manufacture a physical product, or ship anything, or work with natural resources. Or so I thought.

I had a conversation with my dad, sustainability consultant Danny Smith of Primarium, to talk about what it means to be a sustainable business, and particularly how small online businesses like mine can help move the needle. 

Today I want to share with you what I learned.

Three Pillars to Build a Sustainable Small Business

In talking with him about the concept of sustainability, he pointed out three main pillars that make a company sustainable, and it turns out only one of them is environmental.

Economic

The first aspect to look at when determining if your business is sustainable is whether you can continue being in business long-term.

In other words, does your business turn a profit? Do you make more money than you spend? If you are repeatedly spending more to run your business than it brings in every month, “you’ve got yourself a hobby, not a business.”

When a business is operating in a sustainable manner in how it treats people and in how it impacts the environment, the business is probably doing well economically. There can be many reasons for this. When you eliminate waste and use less energy, you save money. Treating employees and customers well means you’ll retain the best talent and people will want to buy your goods and services. When you strive to comply and even go beyond minimum environmental and social requirements, you reduce business risks. These things can have a significant effect on your financial success.

If you’re starting out, there are startup costs involved with opening a shop. But it doesn’t have to break the bank, and turning a profit should quickly become the focus. If you’re wondering how to start a business on a budget, you might enjoy reading this post.

Environmental

Surprisingly, even digital businesses have an environmental footprint. How do you source your materials – even your laptop, printer, office supplies? Do you travel? Do you commute to a coffee shop or attend in-person conferences?

Every business, even a digital business, has tools. How long do those tools last, and what happens to them when they have to be upgraded? How do you dispose of old laptops, planners, even pens?

If you’re a paper nerd like me, no digital project management can replace the classic paper organizer. But there are so many companies that take a stand for creating paper products that keep our world clean.

I’m a big fan of Artifact Uprising for its commitment to sourcing sustainable materials.

Social

The third aspect is probably my favorite because it has to do with people.

What is your company culture, and do you treat others fairly and with respect? How do you pay your vendors, and what is your team hierarchy? Do you have customer service policies that go beyond an FAQ page? Are you involved in your local and digital communities, providing value even when there isn’t a dollar attached? 

How does your business treat people? As my dad would say, “If you’re a jerk, you won’t be in business very long.”

I’m sure you’ve thought of at least one way your business can improve sustainability based on the three pillars above. But any effort towards sustainable practices requires a lot of extra intention. And your customers and team need to know about your efforts and why you’re doing them.

So how do you roll out a sustainability program?

Brand Values

For the sake of this example, let’s refer to brand values as ‘principles.’

Usually, a person creates a business to do certain things and provide value to someone else – this is why someone pays you money. Your brand principles are HOW you provide that value. The key factor is to select principles that are equally important to you, your team, AND the customer. 

You see, brand values are not just fluffy nice-to-haves during a branding project. When values are properly selected, they inform every decision that a business makes.

Let’s take Everlane as an example. Their transparent pricing model shows their dedication to ethical manufacturing practices, fairly paying their team members, and creating a financially sustainable business by showing how each pricing tier helps them to achieve these goals.

The way this might look for, say, a photographer, is to give clients the option to purchase carbon offsets for travel. When someone asks for an epic adventure shoot, remind them that beautiful wild places are made possible by limiting our carbon impact on the world. Purchasing a carbon offset can keep wild spaces clean and free.

Green Washing

You may be tempted to quickly align with the environmental movement and put these policies in place. Still, I want to warn you on one term that you don’t want to apply to your sustainability branding efforts – ‘greenwashing.’

In an effort to capitalize on market trends, some companies jump the gun and start marketing their products as “green” and “environmentally friendly” when their business practices don’t reflect those promises or if your sustainability branding messages are misleading or untrue.

This exploits your customer for the sake of a bottom line, and it’s highly unethical. In some cases, it can even be illegal.

Steps to Become a Sustainable Small Business

  1. First, understand your customer and what is important to them. Take a look at the market and how other brands might be solving the same issue. Put your efforts towards causes that matter to you and your customer. This is the ‘why’ behind your initiative.
  2. If you see an opportunity to do things more sustainably, do some research to see what’s required to make a real difference. Spend time understanding what it means to buy carbon offsets if you do a lot of traveling. Before donating to an NGO, do your research to select which one they do with resources. Remember, you can always support NGOs and organizations with your services, volunteer time, or financial contributions.
  3. Have a plan for how you plan to carry out your sustainability promises. Each commitment to sustainability should have a matching system in your business to strategically achieve each promise.
  4. You should review the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides to understand potential ‘green washing’ pitfalls.

  5. Take a look at your daily habits – your tools, your travel, the coffee shops you work from, the paper products your purchase – and see if you can move the needle in your own practices.

Practicing sustainability is about having awareness of the impact of our actions. It’s a practice of mindfulness and being more intentional with our actions and decisions.

If you want to learn more about sustainability practices and ways that your small business can have an impact, you can read more on the Primarium blog and even schedule a one-on-one consultation call to come up with a plan for making sure your business leaves a positive footprint on the world.

Happy Earth Day!

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