Sustainability is one of the buzziest of the buzzwords in today’s business world. That is not to say that it is a fly-by-night passing trend. The ideas behind the sustainability movement have been percolating for decades, with every year creating more urgency and greater awareness among the business world and consumers alike.
But sustainability, like many buzzwords, can mean very different things to different people. So first, let’s define what we’re talking about. In some contexts, when people talk about sustainable business practices they’re talking about how to keep a business model functioning in the long-term. There is significant difference there from the idea of environmental sustainability (though you could certainly argue that there is some overlap), but sometimes the two meanings get muddled up together. The term can also be used to refer to all socially conscious business practices – not just environmental consciousness.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume that you want to make your business more environmentally sustainable. Is your company looking to make a change? Great news: Several of these steps can be instituted right now, today.
1. Get the team onboard
The absolute first step is to state your intention to your employees and partners. Just saying that sustainability is now a priority will make an immediate difference in behavior and in how your team thinks about the resources being used in their workplace. Also, you will need to rely upon their knowledge of their various purviews in finding ideas specific to your business. It may also be useful to assign someone to run point on sustainability efforts.
In the medium term, ‘getting your team onboard’ can also mean adding it as part of your hiring process. If you want to build a culture of sustainability at your company, bringing on people with that same philosophy is essential.
2. Assess where your company is lacking
The first step toward change is defining the problem.
Where is your electricity coming from? Find out if your power company utilizes renewable energy.
Are your offices overflowing with single-use plastics? That’s an opportunity for positive change.
If your company sells a physical product, what kind of packaging do you use for that product? Is there more packaging than needed?
Is there a paper recycling bin next to the copier? Great! But are there ways that less paper could be used in the first place? Are there memos that could be emails? Are there manuals that could be PDFs?
Companies that sell carbon offsets (which we’ll talk more about below) can help you identify the size of your carbon footprint. We Are Neutral and Climate Action Reserve are good places to start for help in that.
3. Examine your supply chain
An important part of sustainability is identifying where in your supply chain you are experiencing loss (if applicable). This is especially true and especially problematic in food services. According to the UN, nearly 14% of food is lost in the supply chain. That is both a waste of resources and a waste of product. Plugging the leak begins with identifying it.
4. Get serious about recycling
Recycling usually isn’t quite as simple as having a separate bin in the office and at the curb. Especially for larger-scale businesses, some research will likely need to be done. Contact recycling services in your area to find out about exactly what materials they are able to recycle and what the best way is to get it to them.
It’s simple and may seem simplistic, but posting reminders about recycling are effective in adjusting behavior.
5. The easiest way to reduce energy use
Light bulbs! The biggest way you can reduce your energy use (and therefore your carbon footprint) overnight is to switch them out. According to the Department of Energy, LED lights use 75% less power than the ones you’re probably using in your office right now. Though there is a larger up-front cost, LED lights generally last 25 times longer. So in the short term you’re saving money on power, and in the long term you’re saving money on lighting.
Encouraging employees to turn off lights whenever possible is another way to make a difference around the margins.
6. Carbon offsets
When a company or industry is making a significant push toward reducing their carbon output, they can apply to become part of the carbon offset marketplace. If they gain approval, the carbon output they reduce can be sold to companies or individuals unable to reduce their output by other means.
It seems strange at first, and it’s not a perfect system. But it provides a profit motive for environmental responsibility. By purchasing carbon offsets you are encouraging other companies to reduce their carbon output which reduces the aggregate output.
We Are Neutral is a group that helps you calculate your carbon footprint and then purchase offsets for it. They are more suited to small-scale businesses and individuals. For a larger scale solution, you may want to try Climate Action Reserve.
Depending on the size of your enterprise and the difficulty of calculating your footprint, this is another way that you can begin to make a big step forward in your sustainability efforts very quickly.
7. Join organizations of companies that are focused on sustainability
Support from outside your company can be extremely helpful in your efforts to become more sustainable. The first step could be to find other local businesses to partner with. This type of partnership could help with both moral support and logistical considerations.
On a larger scale, there are many organizations that help businesses as they work toward the goal of sustainability. Some of these organizations are industry-specific but a number of them are more general. Here is a short list of just a few to get you started.
One good place to start is the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. The WBCSD is an organization consisting of over 200 companies that work together to advocate and implement sustainability efforts. Their website provides a massive library of resources, many of which are industry-specific across many sectors.
If your company produces a physical product that uses packaging, a great place to start is One Step Closer, which runs a “packaging collaborative” that helps pair businesses with relevant resources for sustainable packaging. This could mean using recycled materials, compostable packaging, or a number of other solutions.
Fair trade principles are most commonly associated with coffee, but if you’re in the food business and your supply chain includes the third world, the Fair Trade certification group can help you move in the right direction.
The Climate Collaborative is an organization for companies in the “natural products industry” who are seeking to improve their sustainability.
If you’re feeling really ambitious, you may want to look into CLIPCO, an organization with a strict set of guidelines for sustainability. This includes a mandate to not just become carbon neutral but carbon negative, meaning their carbon offset efforts make up more than their carbon production.
8. Now the real work starts
Now that you’ve done the foundational work, it’s time to get going for real. Hopefully, after following the guidelines above you have been able to get your team onboard. You have been able to identify your company’s particular opportunities for improvement by examining your carbon footprint, supply chain, resource use, and energy use.
Now it’s time to take action based upon those opportunities. What those actions look like will depend upon your specific company and business sector, but finding organizations within your industry that work on sustainability will provide you with resources. If the organizations listed above aren’t within your sector, finding one that is is generally as simple as a Google search.
Issues of sustainability will only become more important as time passes. Now is the time to get started before you’re left behind the curve. Your customers, your employees, and the planet will be grateful.
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