How to Build a Sustainable Business: 6 Effective Strategies to Adopt

Paige Smith

Prioritizing environmental sustainability in your business has an overall positive effect: it helps protect the environment while also benefiting your bottom line. The only difficulty is figuring out how to get started and where to focus your time and effort. 

If you’re wondering how to build a sustainable business, we’ve got you covered. Below, you’ll learn why small business sustainability matters and how to audit your business’s current practices for environmental impact, plus discover sustainability strategies you can put into action.

The power of small business sustainability

Environmental sustainability means making decisions and adopting practices to better manage the Earth’s natural resources, including coal, air, water, soil, metals, and wildlife. When your business commits to sustainability, you’ll have a direct impact on three key areas: 

  1. The environment: Operating in a sustainable way can help conserve natural resources and reduce carbon emissions to slow climate change. 
  2. The economy and small business industry: Sustainable business practices can shift consumer preferences, affect the cost of resources, and influence trends.  
  3. Your own operation: Making eco-friendly changes can set you up for long-term success, having a positive impact on everything from brand reputation and customer retention to cost savings and growth potential. 

Want more information on environmental sustainability and why it matters? Read our guide to small business sustainability 101

How to build a sustainable business

The process of building a sustainable business will be different for every operation. A start-up company needs to get buy-in from stakeholders on all sustainability initiatives, while entrepreneurs starting businesses from scratch need to think about what it takes to build a sustainable business model. 

Established small businesses, on the other hand, might need to make sustainable improvements gradually so they don’t have to disrupt operations or overhaul their entire business strategy to affect change. 

Regardless of what stage your business is in, there are two critical steps you should take before getting started. 

Step 1: Audit your business

An internal sustainability audit can help you determine where your business currently stands. Taking the time to assess your current practices and estimate your carbon footprint will give you a clearer picture of your environmental impact and what needs to change. 

There are a handful of important areas to review, including: 

  • Waste management: What types of trash does your business generate? How much of each type does your business produce each month? How do you dispose of the trash? How often? What’s the ratio of recycled/reused materials to waste? Where can you make improvements?
  • Energy usage: What types of energy does your business rely on? How much electricity do you use per month? What types of appliances do you use in your workplace, and are they energy efficient? Where can you make improvements? 
  • Resources: How much water does your business use each month? What other resources (including supplies, raw materials, and technology) does your business regularly rely on? Where do you source those resources? Where can you make improvements? 
  • Transportation: What kinds of transportation do you use for day-to-day operations? What kinds of transportation does your business rely on throughout the supply chain? Where can you make improvements?

Once you have a better idea of the numbers and patterns behind your operational practices, it’s a good idea to put it all together and estimate your business’s carbon footprint. You can use this business carbon calculator from California or input your business data using SME Climate Hub.

Pro tip: Ask your local electric company if they can visit your workplace to conduct an energy audit. Many companies perform audits for free. 

Step 2: Write a sustainability plan

Now that you understand your business’s environmental impact, it’s time to write a sustainability plan. The purpose of a sustainability plan is to provide a roadmap to building a sustainable business. 

In the process of writing one, not only will you set realistic sustainability goals and brainstorm actionable strategies, you’ll also choose metrics to measure your progress, then calculate your financial investment and savings potential. 

For a step-by-step breakdown, check out our comprehensive guide to writing an effective sustainability plan

6 business sustainability practices to consider

Incorporating sustainability into your business starts with making strategic changes that support the environment. Here are six sustainable practices that make a big impact:

1. Recycle properly

Recycling saves non-renewable resources—like plastic—by reusing them. Chances are you already have some type of recycling system in place, but you probably have room for improvement. 

After all, thorough recycling isn’t just about properly disposing of the trash you generate in your workplace—it’s also about finding ways to recycle or reuse the materials you accumulate during production. Plus, many states and counties have business regulations for proper recycling and waste management that you need to comply with. 

Here are some recycling best practices for businesses: 

  • Take a visual assessment of the various items you throw away in your operation, including food scraps, plastic, paper, aluminum, and glass. Do you know where everything is supposed to go?
  • Check that you have the correct containers to dispose of everything—and that they’re accurately labeled. 
  • Create a bin for items you can reuse or donate, like decor, appliances, or raw materials. 
  • Designate a day of the week and an employee responsible for properly disposing of the waste. 

2. Use sustainable packaging 

If you ship products to customers, one of the most eco-friendly changes you can make is to rethink your packaging. According to 2022 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, nearly two-thirds of all global plastic waste comes from plastics with lifetimes of under five years—and 40% of that plastic waste comes from packaging. 

Using more sustainable packaging cuts down on your business’s resource consumption and plastic waste. Start by meeting with your manufacturers or suppliers to discuss sustainable alternatives and costs. Here are some options:

  • Reduce the size of your packages. 
  • Eliminate box fillers or switch to eco-friendly alternatives. 
  • Use paper packaging materials certified by the Forest Stewardship Council
  • Opt for recycled plastic or biodegradable plastic made from cornstarch or plants instead of new single-use plastic. 
  • Use water-based inks for printing designs on paper inserts and boxes. 
  • Clearly label your packaging as recyclable, so your customers know exactly what to do with it. 

Pro tip: Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s product-specific data on containers and packaging to get a better understanding of your business’s waste generation. 

3. Lower your energy usage 

Decreasing your energy consumption reduces your business’s carbon footprint and saves you money on utilities. Even more good news: there are countless ways to lower your energy usage. Here are some options:

  • Install LED lights in your workplace and switch to energy-efficient light bulbs. 
  • Upgrade outdated appliances and equipment to energy-efficient models (look for ENERGY STAR-certified appliances). 
  • Run heavy equipment during the early morning or evening hours if possible to reduce your energy usage during peak demand. 
  • Switch to automated lights throughout your office or workplace. 
  • Program your thermostat to run at certain temperatures when everyone is onsite and when everyone leaves. 
  • Change up your workplace layout to take advantage of natural light from the windows. 
  • Power down all your equipment at the end of the day. 
  • Use power strips for appliances and equipment to prevent passive energy drainage when they’re not in use. 
  • Change your air filters regularly to keep your HVAC system running efficiently. 
  • Switch to renewable energy sources, like solar panels for your office building or wind turbines for your factory. 
  • Invest in an electric vehicle for your deliveries or daily operations tasks. 

4. Make sustainable changes to your supply chain

Your supply chain is a key contributor to your business’s carbon footprint. The CDC Global Supply Chain Report estimates that a company’s supply chain emissions are an average of 11.4 times higher than their operational emissions. 

The materials you source, orders you place, and providers you rely on with can either increase your carbon emissions or help lower them. How are some ways to make your supply chain more sustainable: 

  • Source local raw materials so you know where they’re coming from—and have to rely on less transportation to get them. 
  • Source sustainable products made from repurposed materials. 
  • Use renewable resources (like bamboo or cork) to design your products and avoid plastics. 
  • Audit the suppliers you work with to find out how sustainably and ethically they operate. 
  • Discuss sustainable alternatives with your vendors or switch to vendors who practice sustainability. 
  • Consolidate your inventory orders where possible. 
  • Use inventory management software to track supply levels and prevent overproduction. 
  • Use transportation management software to load delivery vehicles more efficiently and reduce trips on the road. 
  • Invest in green technology, like solar panels and energy-efficient appliances. 

5. Take advantage of local resources 

Tapping into local resources for business needs is a great way to practice sustainability. Using local suppliers for office goods and inventory cuts down on energy and emissions involved with shipping and transportation logistics, while also streamlining the supply chain by reducing waiting times. 

Local sourcing also tends to be more ethical and effective, since you know exactly where your materials and products come from, and can visit your suppliers onsite to assess quality control. Plus, pulling from local suppliers and businesses is a simple way to put money back into your local community and economy, which in turn benefits your business. 

In addition to using local suppliers for raw materials and inventory, here are some other ways to embrace local sourcing: 

  • Order workplace supplies from local suppliers or small businesses. 
  • Buy workplace furniture and decor from local businesses. 
  • Hire local artists, graphic designers, content writers, and other independent contractors for ongoing work or one-off projects. 
  • Order food from local restaurants or catering companies for workplace lunches and team events. 

Learn more about the unique benefits of running a sustainable business. 

6. Participate in environmental change outside your business 

Making sustainable changes within your operation has a big impact, but if you want to extend your reach, it’s crucial to consider how you can support environmental progress outside your operation. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get involved. 

One option is to give back to organizations doing meaningful sustainability work, whether that involves protecting wildlife, creating jobs, or building new technologies. You could make annual donations to a nonprofit environmental organization or contribute a percentage of your sales to a particular cause. 

If you want to involve customers in your efforts, develop a partnership with an environmental organization for a cross-promotional marketing campaign or fundraising event. 

Keep adapting and adjusting

Building a sustainable business is ongoing work. Take time to review the effectiveness of your sustainability systems and habits, experiment with new strategies, and adjust as needed. 

Paige Smith Paige is a content marketing writer specializing in business, finance, and tech. She regularly writes for a number of B2B industry leaders, including fintech companies and small business lenders. See more of her work here:
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