How to Make Your Small Business More Sustainable

How to Make Your Small Business More Sustainable
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Making your small business sustainable is like any other business project. There are many ways to go about it, many models and ideas, and there are many people who will tell you how it should be done. 

In this post, we’ll help you find your way into the topic. We’ll show you different models, help you make your own realistic sustainability plan, and show you a long list of practical tips you can start using today. 

Definition of sustainable business

A sustainable business1You’ll also see the term CSR, for Corporate Social Responsibility. is in it for more than just the money. Besides making profit, these businesses also aim to have a positive impact on the world. Some put a strong emphasis on helping society or the environment. Others see it as a responsibility to limit any negative impact they may have.

Do small businesses need to be sustainable? 

The good news is that many independent companies are already more sustainable than their larger competitors. They sell locally, they take care of their neighborhoods, and they get to know their suppliers. They take care of their employees, and they are often mission-driven. Sustainability is their superpower.

But that can also make it hard to feel like you’re making a difference. If a large supermarket chain decides to stop printing receipts that customers don’t want, they save a lot of paper fast. The size of their operation means every change has a big impact. If a multinational company cuts back on international flights by only 10%, they can dramatically cut their carbon emissions.

For a small business, the path to sustainability is different. In this article, we focus on what you can do specifically as a small business owner to make meaningful differences. 

How do you even get started on sustainability as a business owner?

Recycling is good. Building a habit of switching off the lights is good. But to really make sustainability a part of your business, you’ll probably need a bit more structure to your approach. There are several models to help with that, but for a busy small business owner, the three pillars model is the easiest to work with. 

The three pillars of sustainability

The Three Pillar Model of sustainability is one of the most common, and the easiest for a small business to work with. Created by John Elkington, the model says that a business must harmoniously combine the three pillars of People, Planet and Profit 2The Profit pillar is sometimes changed to Prosperity, to also include the impact a business has on society.. Whenever one of the pillars gets too much priority, the system gets out of balance. And such an imbalance can not be sustained in the long term. 

Your sustainable business goals and actions

You probably have some ideas of how you want to make your business more sustainable. You might be using a few methods already to reduce waste or to supply your products ethically. To build on that, it’s good to focus on a specific sustainability goal and measure your progress towards that goal. As they say, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

If you don’t have a goal in mind yet, you can explore local NGO’s in your area or align your business to one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The best goals don’t just fit the sustainable business model, but also means something to you personally. 

Setting up your own sustainability metrics

Once you have decided on your actions, you probably want to know if they work. To measure that, you’ll need your own set of sustainability metrics. These will be different for each business and each goal. For example, if your goal is a zero waste office, you can measure your success in the amount of garbage your office produces.

Once you’re started, you can share your progress on your website, and add any badges or certifications that you earn. Similar to how a non-profit website should show their numbers transparently. 

Sustainability plan for your business 

So, now you have a goal and some actions planned. You even know how you will measure your progress. Let’s bring it all together in one clear plan that you can return to regularly. Once you have chosen a time frame, set reminders in your calendar to review your progress. 

My goal for is to .

I will do this by:

  1. every
  2. every
  3. every

I will measure my progress by reviewing every .

When I reach my goals, I will .

If I don’t reach my goals, I will .  

How to make your small business more sustainable

Now you may know your sustainability goal, but need a few more tangible actions to start making progress. In this list, we have gathered ways to make your business more sustainable in different areas of your everyday work.  

Workplace

People

  • have workplace ergonomics adjusted
  • encourage regular breaks
  • have many plants in the workplace 
  • provide healthy drinks & snacks

Measure effect by: number of sick days, employee happiness survey, employee retention

Planet 

  • switch to sustainably produced power
  • measure and reduce power usage
  • measure and reduce waste
  • insulate workplace
  • use eco-friendly cleaning supplies
  • participate in warm sweater day

Measure effect by: kWs of power used, amount of waste

Profit

  • share offices with other businesses
  • offer remote work for employees

Measure effect by: power bill, cleaning bill, rent

Tools and systems

People

Measure effect by: employee happiness survey, employee retention

Planet 

  • work paperless
  • buy sustainably produced tools and machines
  • donate or recycle devices you no longer use
  • activate energy saving setting on electronic devices

Measure effect by: amount of waste

Profit

  • repair damaged equipment
  • buy used equipment

Measure effect by: equipment bills

Partners and suppliers

People

  • review partners supply chains
  • review investments by your bank
  • review fair trade certificates

Measure effect by: number of (un)certified partners and suppliers

Planet 

  • request paperless communication
  • request less packaging
  • request sustainable packaging
  • reject meaningless gifts 3Nobody needs yet another branded plastic ball point pen.

Measure effect by: amount of waste

Profit

  • meet online

Measure effect by: travel costs

Production

People

  • create jobs in high unemployment areas
  • create good circumstances for workers
  • create jobs for people with distance to the labor market
  • hire employees with different backgrounds 

Measure effect by: team diversity, employee happiness survey, employee retention

Planet 

  • review supply chain
  • review waste management
  • review shipping and packaging practices

Measure effect by: carbon footprint, amount of waste

Profit

  • reuse or repurpose leftover materials
  • create production jobs in low-wage countries

Measure effect by: production costs

Delivery and packaging

People

  • remove pressure by not offering same-day delivery

Measure effect by: employee happiness survey, employee retention

Planet 

  • use eco-friendly delivery options
  • invest in sustainable last mile delivery systems 4Like cargo bikes.
  • use recyclable materials
  • use recycled materials

Measure effect by: carbon footprint

Profit

Measure effect by: packaging costs, delivery costs

Communication

People

Measure effect by: employee happiness survey, employee retention

Planet 

  • use email instead of paper mail

Measure effect by: amount of waste

Profit

  • have short meetings with clear agendas

Measure effect by: amount of productive time

Mobility and transport

People

  • enable home office and remote work 
  • set up a company bike lease plan

Measure effect by: employee happiness survey, number of sick days, employee retention

Planet 

  • sponsor public transport subscription
  • video calls instead of live meetings 
  • travel by public transport or bike
  • set up a company account at a car sharing service

Measure effect by: carbon footprint

Profit

  • save on travel expenses

Measure effect by: travel costs

Advertising and promotion

People

  • send promotional mails to the right people

Measure effect by: emails opened or marked as spam

Planet 

  • avoid wasteful flyers
  • replace or stop giving out branded plastic gifts

Measure effect by: amount of waste produced

Profit

  • target advertising to the right people 
  • use sustainability as a sales argument

Measure effect by: return on investment

Team and leadership

People

  • encourage and reward employee initiatives
  • lead by actions 
  • replace gifts with shared experiences
  • organize regular team events
  • implement and respect self-care strategies

Measure effect by: employee happiness survey, employee retention

Planet 

  • sustainable team outings like Green Kayak or volunteer work
  • fewer but sustainable gifts

Measure effect by: hours spent on sustainable team activities

Profit

  • use sustainable ways to save business costs
  • use sustainability as a way to attract talent

Measure effect by: overall business costs

Frequently asked questions about sustainability for small businesses

What does sustainability mean in business?

Sustainable business aims to do good for people, planet, and profit, the three pillars of sustainability. They make money by solving environmental or social problems, or do business in a way that doesn’t harm society or the environment.

How do you make a business more sustainable?

Review the impact your business has on the three pillars of sustainability: people, planet and profit. Try to make your impact measurable in numbers, so you can see the effect of your work. Strengthen your positive impact where you can, and look for more sustainable alternatives where you find negative impact. 

What can small businesses do for the environment?

Start by checking your impact on the environment. Then sit down and review options to work more environmentally friendly. Aim for low cost, low effort steps with high impact first. Use this checklist to assess your current impact on the environment.

Why do companies try to become sustainable?

Some companies are set up with sustainability in mind. They feel a responsibility towards society, and the growing power of businesses gives them a chance to make a positive change. Others recognize a growing trend among consumers. They adjust their behavior, so they continue to be an attractive brand.

How do you use sustainability in your marketing?

Mention sustainability in your marketing if it is at the core of your business. It will help you attract the right target audience. Otherwise, don’t put it at the forefront of your marketing. If you try to look sustainable when you aren’t, that’s called greenwashing. People will recognize it, and it will work against you.

Frank van Oosterhout
Frank is a copywriter for Jimdo with special interests in SEO and entrepeneurship. When he's not working, he bakes bread, grows herbs on his balcony, or goes running.
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