Believe it or not, many large companies and corporations are considering sustainability a lot more than you may think. While many are still a long way off developing a fully integrated sustainable business model, most are at least taking steps towards this in a way that ensures their continual financial growth, because they are aware that if they don’t, they will soon face trouble with keeping up with their competition.
Larger companies are increasingly less at fault for developing products and services that are harmful to our environment, societies and cultures. Because the impact of their operations on their surroundings is wider-reaching and their cultural presence is harder to ignore, it is more challenging for these larger companies to ignore their responsibility once they are aware of it.
Many smaller businesses, however, perhaps don’t have the same awareness, and many fear that considering sustainability in terms of ecological, social and financial considerations in their business plan is surely going to cost more than a conventional approach, with a more traditional focus on profit making alone. Small businesses and start-ups usually don’t have the perceived funds that are required for this type of investment. But what they don’t realise is that this ‘extra cost’ is often a complete misunderstanding.
So how can a small business owner really make a move towards a sustainable business model without compromising their selling power and market position? How can we reshape our practices to ensure that we remember what is right, as inhabitants of a planet shared by many wonderful organisms who don’t have a say in how our ecosystems are altered. How can we avoid selling out our deepest of human beliefs and values in order to find our emotional and financial freedom?
The first thing to understand is that you don’t have to make a jump from ‘unsustainable’ to completely sustainable. In fact, this will guarantee your immediate failure as you will likely alienate your current clients and customers. The idea is to make a smooth transition that ensures your business will sustain itself financially or continue to grow (if this is your goal) whilst you introduce new initiatives and practices.
I’ve put together a list of 6 things that you can do with your business to begin your world saving, in a world that now needs the little guys to be the ones who save it.
1. Invest in sustainability training
Yes, this will cost you time or money. But like many sustainability initiatives the cost is up front, which will soon pay off tenfold. This may include a few hours of training that provides your team with the knowledge they need to consider the environmental and social impacts of their work practices. This can be focussed on anything from remembering to print notes on scrap paper, to turning off power, to engaging staff on the meaning your product or service might have in the context of your community, to more complex training in developing a sustainable business strategy. By investing a small amount of time and/or resources into training your team on sustainability and making them feel inclusive, you will effectively create a business environment that you and your staff will be proud to work for, which will increase staff morale and productivity and reduce costs in training of new staff as they are likely to stay longer. It is important to ensure your staff are a vital and integrated part of your sustainability strategy. In addition, there are many wonderful resources and books available to help when making initial steps towards integrating sustainability in your business if you would prefer to take this approach.
2. Buy eco-friendly products for your office and evaluate your carbon footprint
There are many eco-friendly and fair-trade office supplies on the market for the same price as regular commercial supplies, and many of these can be purchased in bulk from online green shops that will save you time (I prefer http://www.ecoofficesupplies.com.au/index.html). Consider multifunction print, scan and fax equipment to reduce the need for a heavier power supply to your office. Purchase energy efficient lightbulbs and power saving electrical boards or seek out government initiatives in your area that will provide this for free. Greening your office or workspace will ensure that the behaviours of you and your staff while at work will result in a lighter carbon footprint. Energy saving in this manner will also reduce your energy costs. It can also be beneficial to hire a carbon accountant who can evaluate the exact carbon footprint of your operation, and then work towards making it lighter. By measuring your environmental impact more accurately, it is easier to set short and long term goals that are achievable.
3. Use sustainable suppliers
This depends on the nature of your business and can include anything from your electricity supplier to material and print suppliers to manufacturers. Look into using renewable energy suppliers for your business and educate yourself on where your energy is coming from. You can even generate your own energy using solar panels or a wind turbine if you are in a position to invest in something like this. While this demands more investment it will certainly pay off in the long term. If you manufacture and sell a product it’s important to understand the ecological impact of the materials and processes used in manufacturing. Whilst it’s not always easy to simply replace a harmful or destructively sourced material with something ‘green’, perhaps you can take steps towards considering the best way around this and do some research into alternative materials that might be considered. There are many resources available that can help with this. Make sure your suppliers have good waste recycling and reduction programs in place. If you decide to take your manufacturing overseas, it’s worth noting that no true sustainable business would ever use slave or exploitative labour for the production of any of their materials or products in exchange for a higher margin. Consider the ecological footprint of the travel miles that it takes to move your product around from manufacture to distribution to shop display and consumption, and how this can be reduced by buying locally.
4. Practice sustainable design and marketing
In terms of marketing messages, ensure your marketing is honest and responsible. In a world where we are exposed to hundreds of advertising messages every day, we are increasingly becoming tired of gimmicky advertising messages that feel dishonest and tell us to buy wasteful products that make us feel good for 5 minutes and then soon end up in landfill. If you can live up to your offers, this will secure your reputation as honest, which is valued by the consumers who you would likely prefer to service and provide for, and if you can’t, perhaps you should think about the meaning behind what it is you’re trying to do to make money for your own wellbeing. Using a sustainable Graphic Designer and FSC certified printer for your print collateral will ensure that all your communications are ecologically friendly. A professional Eco-Graphic Designer will be able to assist you in developing your communications to be socially responsible, engaging and successful, with no cost to the earth. This type of design costs the same as conventional design, and can often even save you money. Your Graphic Designer may be able to find a way to utilise space on a printed piece in order to save paper, or suggest ways in which you can have just as much visual impact with using a digital rather than print medium, thus saving printing costs altogether. For more on what Eco-Graphic Design involves see my Eco-Design guide.
5. Understand your clients, customers and yourself
Sometimes it’s easy to forget the human side of business interaction. With all the incredible technology in the world that assists us with our transactions and processes, it’s all too simple to lose track of who we are, and why we’re doing this. Take the time to learn about and remember what it means to be doing what you do. Who are your customers? What types of people are they and what do they value? Do they share your beliefs and passions, or are they just easy to sell to? What messages do you want to send to the world. If most of us spend more time in a week at work than we do with the people we love, have we forgotten what’s important to us as humans in our plight for survival? We are no longer in the pre-industrial 18th century. Most of us in the western world live highly affluent lives but rarely do we appreciate our position. Rather, we tend to always seek more. Above all, are you doing what you’re passionate about and for the people who you most want to do it for? Forgive the philosophical rant, but I just want to emphasise the need to think about your position as a business owner in ensuring you are true to yourself. I can guarantee you will not find any kind of emotional freedom if you are not, and without this, financial freedom will mean nothing. Only through understanding the meaning of your chosen profession in a global cultural context and the impact that your business practices have on the world in which we all exist can you make the progression towards designing a sustainable business. Being at peace with your livelihood and doing something you believe in is worth more in the long-run than any amount of money can offer.
6. Become carbon neutral and share your achievements
Finally, by showing off your sustainability initiatives you will create a wider awareness that will give others the knowledge they need to implement these things in their own business philosophy and model. This is something that we need to work together on, so that individuals who are making changes don’t feel like they are swimming upstream. You can become carbon neutral by purchasing carbon credits through a carbon offset company, who will “offset” your carbon emissions by supporting an environmental project or cause. You will also be able to market your business as a ‘sustainable’ business which will position you at the forefront of your market as an innovator and progressive thinker. Be wary of greenwashing, which is when a business oversells their environmental initiatives in order to seem favourable to consumers. Sustainability is about more than just being ‘green’, it is about integrating true values of an ecological, social and economical balance into your work life so that you can make money in the best possible way for the world and its people. It is about considering natural and social capital on an equal par with commerce. If you design your business model with more than just profit-making values, perhaps you will be the change that the world needs in order to endeavour for a new and less harmful way of being.