Why Making Your Business More Sustainable Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive Or Hard
It can be daunting for small business owners even to consider sustainability when they have other things to think about – like day-to-day operations and the company’s bottom line. But that doesn’t mean companies with limited resources should stay away from investing in a sustainability program.
Willis Wood, founder of Trade Show Emporium, says it’s “a common myth” that achieving sustainability costs a lot of money. “I faced the challenge of wanting to provide environmentally friendly trade show exhibits,” he says, “but at first, they were more expensive than a traditional exhibit. After working with manufacturers to get the price point down, we made it possible to get a green exhibit to be the same price of a traditional exhibit.”
Business owners contemplating how they can afford a sustainability strategy – and what the return on investment will be – need to take a long-term approach. That includes identifying business priorities, looking at the big picture, and being flexible.
Start With A Solid Framework
Sustainability should be treated like any business priority, with actual, realistic metrics that can be measured and considered in terms of a company’s overall ROI.
It’s important to have a relentless focus, recommends Kathy Nieland, U.S. Sustainable Business Solutions Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Sustainability is a wide field, and it is easy to get distracted,” she explains. “It can be hard to cut through the noise.”
Think about larger-scale initiatives, she recommends, adding that the field is moving from simple activities such as using double-sided printing in offices to transforming factories, supply-chains, and product design.
Make Integration A Priority
To be effective, sustainability needs to be worked into a business’ core strategy. This means starting with executive discussions at the top and ensuring that priorities trickle down to the everyday.
Wood of Trade Show Emporium explains that it’s important to start with a vision. “After being in the industry for a few years, I noticed the huge impact the trade show industry had on the environment,” he says.
Wood remained dedicated to his original goal, transitioning his business to recyclable and sustainable materials. “My company is now one of the top vendors for displays produced from environmentally friendly, renewable materials,” he says.
And it’s not enough just to think about what’s happening right in front of you. There are wider implications to sustainability changes as well, and it pays to look at the social, economic, and environmental impact of those changes. Wood’s company, for example, takes its program a step further by helping vendors recycle their old trade show exhibits, preventing them from ending up in landfills.
The Three Ways to Become Profitable
A recent Harvard Business Review article points out that companies will typically take three approaches to making sustainability profitable.
- Start with a more expensive investment to generate lower long-term yield.
- Bootstrap sustainability through small changes that save a lot of money, which can then fund bigger initiatives.
- Share sustainability efforts with customers and suppliers to create new and unique business models.
“Have a company meeting and brainstorm how to incorporate sustainability into your organization,” explains Wood of Trade Show Emporium. “Vote on the top 5 most important sustainability objectives. Then set a date as a goal for each of these objectives so that they can be met.”
Sustainability is far from a black-and-white field. There’s no one right way to implement any strategy, and performance metrics aren’t always fixed.
“Sustainability success measurements vary with each company’s priorities,” emphasizes Paula McEvoy, co-director of the Sustainable Design Initiative at Perkins+Will. “Savings in water and energy costs are easy to identify and for some companies, that’s the primary goal. The more interesting measurements come when companies tie their sustainability plans to their corporate mission.”
Business owners should be prepared to experiment, though, since everyone has an opinion. “Whether you’re trying to optimize office temperatures or finding an Eco-friendly soap,” McEvoy says, “people will want to weigh in. You won’t get it right the first time, but as long as you’re working towards a clear goal, that’s okay.”
At the end of the day, it’s a learning process for everyone, particularly when changes to equipment and operations are involved. And business owners shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. “Don’t overlook the educational components that will be required to make your plan succeed,” says McEvoy. “This can be as simple as posters and emails but may also require outside expertise for in-depth training.”
– Written by Ritika Puri
*Originally posted in the Business Insider on November 12, 2013