Small Business Sustainability 101: Why It Matters and How to Get Started

Paige Smith

Small business sustainability isn’t just another business trend—it has a massive impact on both a global and local scale. Below, we explore what sustainability means, what your options are as a business owner, and how to start incorporating sustainable practices into your operation. 

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is a shorthand for environmental sustainability. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sustainability is based on the principle that everything we need for our survival and well-being comes either directly or indirectly from the natural environment. 

Practicing environmental sustainability means managing natural resources (including water, air, oil, coal, natural gas, metals, and wildlife) responsibly so both current and future generations can properly meet their needs. 

Most people think of eco-friendly practices like recycling or switching to renewable energy when they think about sustainability, but sustainable action addresses more than just ecological concerns. It also ties into economic and social initiatives. That’s why the United Nations (UN) created a list of sustainable development goals (SDGs) designed to address 17 distinct but interconnected issues, ranging from reducing food waste to creating more job opportunities. 

What is small business sustainability? 

This is when small businesses make decisions with environmental sustainability in mind, helping solve global problems by prioritizing positive change within their own operations and communities. 

Why does small business sustainability matter? 

Environmental sustainability is critical to life on planet Earth. Issues like climate change and pollution have widespread, devastating consequences. They don’t just jeopardize our natural environment, safety, and health—they also impact the economy and small business landscape, influencing consumer trends and resource availability. 

In fact, in Deloitte’s 2023 CxO Sustainability Report, 46% of the businesses surveyed said resource scarcity and the cost of resources was the top climate change-related issue impacting companies; 45% said the second biggest issue was consumers’ changing consumption patterns and preferences. 

The good news is that everyone—especially businesses—can help make a positive difference. Small business sustainability matters for three key reasons: 

  1. Whether large or small (or anything inbetween), sustainability efforts protect our environment, increase access to natural resources, and support people in living safe, healthy lives. 
  2. With small businesses making up over 90% of businesses in the United States alone (according to data from the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy), they have a huge environmental impact. Just like large corporations, small businesses have a responsibility to ensure that they’re operating in a way that minimizes environmental harm. 
  3. Sustainability practices are essential to your business’s longevity and success. The first reason is that sustainable businesses are no longer seen as the exception; they’re quickly becoming the norm, and if your business doesn’t follow suit, your competition could leave you behind. The second reason is that sustainability benefits your bottom line. Increasing operational efficiency can help you cut costs while improving customer loyalty and brand reputation can ultimately boost profits. 

What does a sustainable business look like? 

Companies that value and practice environmental sustainability come in all forms—from large corporations to corner stores. 

Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, regularly gives a percentage of its sales to conservation programs, donates to grassroots environmental groups, and pioneers a program that connects customers to activist groups in their communities. Seventh Generation, which sells personal and household cleaning products, creates environmentally friendly packaging and recyclable products as part of its zero-waste goal. 

Small business owners in every industry are also paving the way. LooHoo, a Maine-based business, is on a mission to reduce waste and save energy with its wool dryer balls made from 100% domestic wool. Sol Cacao is a Brooklyn-based craft chocolate company that prioritizes sustainable agricultural practices and ethical materials sourcing. 

Other businesses prioritize energy efficiency by using renewable energy in their workplaces, use recyclable packaging materials, obtain green business certifications, or donate to local environmental groups.  

There are hundreds of ways to incorporate sustainability into your business; it all starts with being more intentional. 

How to become a more sustainable business

Consider these guidelines to build a more environmentally sustainable operation.  

1. Educate yourself  

The first step to changing any element of your business: make sure you understand the problem you’re trying to help solve. Learning about the environment gives you more insight into the magnitude of the problem, not to mention a greater sense of urgency to take action. 

If you’re not familiar with the basics of climate change and carbon emissions, brush up on your knowledge using the EPA’s site. It’s also helpful to research the different ways environmental problems have affected your region, community, and business industry. Search “[keyword, like climate change or natural disaster] + [your city]” as a starting point. 

For a deeper dive into environmental issues and business sustainability, check out these resources:

2. Consider your goals

Transforming your entire business with sustainability in mind is an admirable goal, but trying to tackle every issue at once can hinder your progress. That’s why it’s important to identify your business’s greatest needs and sustainability goals first. Try starting with these three questions:

  1. What key environmental issue do I want to help remedy first? Do you want to help slow climate change by lowering your emissions and carbon footprint, for example? Maybe you want to reduce waste or help improve biodiversity. Most sustainable practices are multi-pronged, meaning they have a positive effect across several issues, but it’s still helpful to think about where you want to focus your energy. 
  2. How does my business currently contribute to the problem? Audit your business’s energy use, waste management, and operational, sales, and marketing practices. Which processes, systems, or habits have the greatest negative impact, and which ones are more in line with your vision of sustainability? Pinpointing these can show you which sustainability initiatives are the most urgent and where your efforts will have the biggest impact. 
  3. What can my business realistically work toward right now? Think about your business model, resources, time, and sales forecasts. You want to set a sustainability goal that addresses one of your business’s significant problem areas with actionable, realistic changes.

In general, it’s crucial to start addressing sustainability internally, which means focusing on one of these areas:

  • Finances: Consider who your business banks with and where you invest additional cash flow. Many major banks invest in fossil fuel companies, which are massive contributors to climate change. 
  • Operations: Think about how sustainable your backend operations are—from your workplace energy usage and equipment to the supplies and tech you rely on. 
  • Procurement: Consider how your supply chain could be more sustainable, whether that means reducing steps, sourcing materials locally, working with vendors who prioritize sustainability, or allocating resources more efficiently. 

3. Write a sustainability plan

A sustainability plan is a detailed write-up explaining how you’ll make your business more environmentally sustainable. Similar to a business plan, a sustainability plan gives you a roadmap for making strategic changes in your operation. 

Of course, you don’t have to write a sustainability plan before you take action, but it’s a great way to focus your decision-making and visualize every step in the process. Here are the sections to include in your sustainability plan: 

  1. Goals: Give a high-level overview of your sustainability goals, reasons for change, and action plan. 
  2. Sustainable practices: List out and explain the sustainable practices you want to implement. Alternatively, you can break this section down by area of business (like sales, operations, etc.) and explain the different sustainability practices within each category. 
  3. Milestones and metrics: Outline the benchmarks you hope to reach and when, as well as the key performance indicators you’ll use to track your progress and success. 
  4. Resources: Share which resources you’ll need to accomplish your sustainable initiatives, like staff or admin support, supplies, and technology. 
  5. Challenges: Describe the potential obstacles you’ll face along the way—like costs or supply chain disruptions—and explain how you’ll overcome them and minimize risk to your business.  
  6. Finances: Break down both the cost and ROI of your sustainability initiatives, detailing the expenses required, upfront spending, potential cost savings, and potential revenue growth. 

4. Gather your resources and execute

Once you have a comprehensive sustainability plan, it’s time to take action. You may need to meet with your business accountant to discuss the plan, delegate tasks to key employees, or tweak your schedule to make space for the new work. 

It’s a good idea to involve other leaders within your business along the way—as well as employees where it makes sense—but make sure you lay a solid foundation for your goal before talking to customers or making claims about what your business can accomplish. 

Common sustainable business practices:

  • Using compostable or recyclable packaging when possible
  • Using energy-efficient electricity, like LED lights
  • Using renewable energy like solar panels in the workplace
  • Forming business partnerships with non-profit environmental organizations
  • Eliminating steps in your supply chain
  • Making your operational processes paperless
  • Making regular carbon offsets
  • Investing in creating sustainable products 
  • Giving employees incentives to participate in your sustainability efforts

5. Check in on your progress and adjust

Take time to evaluate your progress as you work toward your sustainability goal. Depending on the milestones you’ve reached or missed, you may want to adjust your plan or switch up your expectations for timing. 

Maintaining sustainability over time 

Building a more sustainable business takes time and strategy, but it’s a worthwhile investment in the health of the planet—and your own operation. If you’re not sure where to start, pick one change and go from there. 

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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