Sustainability can be overwhelming for a small business. With conflicting advice and a laundry list of ‘should do’s’ it’s easy to get lost in the details. As a small business, you need to simplify and get crystal clear on the most important aspects.
So many times I have seen a well-meaning business set up a ‘green team’ that enthusiastically brainstorms a list of actions. But then when it comes to implementing, they run out of steam because the list is not only overwhelming, but not strategically aligned with the business. And even if they do the hard work, they might not see much return on that investment or even be accused of ‘greenwashing’ because they have been focusing on the wrong actions.
From my experience, there are four critical components to any business’ sustainability approach:
- Know why
- Do less harm
- Do more good
- Talk about it
As Simon Sinek famously says, “Start with why.” If you’re just doing sustainability because you vaguely feel you should, you’re never going to get very far, and your stakeholders will see right through any wishy-washy commitment statements. So first take a moment to get clear on the purpose of your sustainability program.
Why is sustainability important more broadly? What sustainability issues are most relevant to your industry and community? This might mean brushing up on your sustainability literacy. Ask us about Impact Sustainability’s training and education packages to get started.
Do less harm
Every business has an impact on the environment. No matter how small you are, no matter if you only provide office-based services. You use electricity to keep the lights, heating, cooling, computers, on, and you purchase electronics and paper that also have impacts. The service you provide either helps people to be better for the environment or not.
Too many businesses jump straight to setting sustainability targets without recognising and addressing the negative impacts they have. Before you start, you need to take an honest look at your business to consider where you have the potential to negatively impact the environment, and identify how to do less harm. A good place to start is by measuring your impact.
Do more good
This is your opportunity to set your business apart, show your stakeholders how you’re making a real difference. Identify one or two areas where you have a unique ability to affect greater change. You might need to look beyond your direct impacts.
For example, you could plant native trees to regenerate a local natural area or clean up a polluted waterway; or educate, inspire or incentivise your staff, customers, suppliers or even peers to reduce their own impacts or contribute to a local cause.
Ideally, your impact should take advantage of a skill, activity, technology or ability to influence that is particular to your business. This is your unique positioning, or sustainability superpower.
Talk about it
When I say talk, I don’t mean tell others how great you are. There’s space for that, yes, but you also have to listen. And you also have to be honest and accountable for where you aren’t so great, yet.
No one is perfect when it comes to sustainability. And if you say you are, your stakeholders will lose their trust in you because they know it isn’t truthful.
Being open and transparent about the process you are going through is one of the most important parts of sustainability. It builds a relationship with your stakeholders and encourages others to take their first steps. Be honest where you haven’t met your goals and what you’ve learned and improved as a result.
Don’t forget the other side of the conversation – listening. Seek input and feedback on your sustainability initiatives from employees and customers.
Putting it together
Now you have the framework. How do you go about putting it in place?
- Visioning. Before you start, know where you want to go. Need help? Impact Sustainability’s advisors can guide you.
- Impacts and opportunities. Identify where you need to do less harm and where you could do more good.
- Action plan and targets. Decide how you are going to address those impacts and opportunities, including a specific plan of attack and SMART goals. Learn more about goal setting here.
- Implementation. Put your plan into action. Communicate it to staff and customers, track your progress, celebrate achievements, and keep learning and adjusting your approach.
About the author
Sara Redmond-Neal is an engineer, advisor and educator with a particular specialty in advising businesses and governments on how to care for people, planet and profit – by applying corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles and practices.
She believes in the power of small business to have mighty impact. After 15 years driving sustainability for corporates and government, she’s bringing her expertise to support small businesses – those with the passion, innovation and agility to tackle the world’s greatest challenges.