Running a sustainable business often requires an investment of time and money, which can become rather expensive for small businesses that have limited funds in which to invest in extras that aren't directly related to research, production, and sales. However, engaging in sustainable practices can become a beneficial project in many ways.
According to Bioneers, which is part of the Collective Heritage Institute, sustainable development was first defined in the modern era in the 1980s.
"What is sustainability and what are some of the challenges to becoming sustainable? In 1987 the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined it this way, 'sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'"
Some concepts are simple to understand and require specific solutions. Other concepts are far-reaching and may not have a simple and easily accomplished fix. For example, sustainable farmers must consider the overall impact of their farming practices as far as they impact agriculture as a whole and their own operation.
On the other hand, there are some issues that have a very simple solution and may not require creative answers. Switching the lights used in an office from incandescent to LED is a good example of a simple answer to the question, "how can my business use less power?"
Here are five sustainability challenges your business must overcome on the road to becoming truly and totally sustainable.
1. Measuring the success of sustainability efforts
Implementing sustainable practices usually happens over time, and it's important to revisit these practices over time to gauge their effectiveness. An idea put into practice might not offer the desired results, or the plan might require changes or updates over time. Sustainability isn't a "set it and forget it" type of business model.
The Network for Business Sustainability, a Canadian organization, shares:
"Given the proliferation of sustainability rankings and reporting standards, businesses need to know how to streamline reporting to reduce redundancy, resolve inconsistencies, and produce a positive impact."
It may not seem obvious at first how a business might measure the success of a particular initiative, which means research or trial-and-error might be required. Management will need to train employees on various techniques or standards that the business will begin to utilize, and it may come down to periodic reviews of those methods.
Consider: Compare the outcome or progress of a sustainability practice against the method that the business used previously. Has the practice shown measurable improvement? If not, when might the technique offer positive results?
2. Meeting the "triple bottom line" of business sustainability
A long-held belief within corporate sustainability is the triple bottom line. This concept suggests that "people, planet, & profit" are equally important when it comes to shaping the environmentally-friendly policies enacted by a business owner. For small businesses, the concept of "bottom line" can feel the most important since profits are often slim and budgets are tight.
According to the University of Colorado Boulder's Sustainable Practices Program:
"Often, the rhetoric surrounding sustainability and "green" practices is associated with increased costs to businesses that get passed on to consumers."
However, the program goes on to reveal:
"Increased efficiency, whether in energy usage, operational resources, or at some point during the supply chain, can often result in decreased costs while creating a more environmentally responsible organization."
Although implementing sustainable measures must occur in such a manner that the business remains profitable (or at least remains in a position without large, sustained losses), it's important to investigate available sustainable methods because they could result in savings to the business.
3. Implementing sustainability today for long-term impact
The environmentally-friendly and sustainable decisions a small business owner makes today may have some immediate impact on the planet and its resources. However, the overall plan for business sustainability must be designed in such a way that the long-term health of the planet is taken into consideration.
An enlightening article from Green Biz on barriers to corporate sustainability suggests:
"Environmental factors, such as climate change and water scarcity, are not being fully integrated into long-term business strategy. As a result, companies often miss opportunities to improve financial performance through environmental improvements in processes and product lines."
There is no doubt certain practices may require an investment greater than what was budgeted before a particular sustainable practice was implemented, but it's essential for business owners to consider the long-term impact of today's decisions and how they might impact tomorrow's generations, as well as the longevity of the company.
Some questions to ask when considering long-term growth and environmentally sound practices include:
- Will future savings make up for today's investment in sustainability?
- Can the business leverage sustainability today for an improvement in reputation tomorrow?
- Is the future of the planet more important than saving money today as a business?
- How can today's sustainable practices improve the lives of employees and customers?
4. Looking outside the company's front door for sustainable practices
A few of the first, small projects a business might consider in its efforts to become sustainable may include a companywide recycling initiative, the reduction or elimination of the use of certain materials, and the implementation of various energy-saving techniques and devices.
However, these efforts are very internal and aren't always a part of the bigger picture. A small business not only impacts the environmental health of the region in which it operates, but it also influences the use of resources in a variety of other areas. Each time a small business interacts with another business within a B2B transaction, there is the opportunity to engage in sustainable practices.
The Sustainable Scale Project explains:
"Much of the improvements in business practices have come from new ways of thinking about meeting customer needs, and redesigning production operations with environmental concerns in mind."
Sustainable efforts in which a business may engage that may reach beyond the business's immediate surroundings include:
- Purchasing goods, services, & materials from local suppliers to reduce transport impact
- Using goods that are "in season" and which don't require extra energy to produce
- Creating partnerships with like-minded companies with a core focus on sustainability
An overall plan for sustainability should not only come from within the business, but it should also come from discussions with other businesses, with customers, and with any entity with which the business communicates.
5. Engaging customers/consumers in sustainability efforts
Customer engagement is not only an important way to encourage eco-friendly behavior from all citizens, but it's also an essential part of a comprehensive plan for business sustainability. The efforts a business owner makes with sustainable efforts in-house don't need to stop once a product leaves a store shelf and travels to a customer's home or business.
"The trend towards considering the social dimensions of sustainable consumption has led to more attention to how products are produced. Consumers are increasingly concerned with not only the polluting or health effects of the consumption of products but also the impacts which that consumption may have on the factors of production, including workers and resources. As a result, sustainable consumption policies and initiatives are broadening to take into account the effects of processes as well as products and the provision of services as well as goods."
Enacting a comprehensive and effective plan for sustainability requires research, time, and financial investment. No small business owner should expect to complete the process immediately, but creating step-by-step goals may help with the transition. The concept of "people, planet, & profit" should never be too far from a business owner's mind.
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