How to Write a Sustainability Plan for Your Business

Paige Smith

There are countless benefits to building a sustainable business, but getting started can be overwhelming. That’s where a small business sustainability plan comes in. Below, we explain what a sustainability plan includes, why it’s helpful, and how you can write your own. 

What is a sustainability plan?

A sustainability plan is a detailed write-up that describes the actions you’ll take to make your business more environmentally sustainable. Sustainability plans are structured like business plans, but instead of breaking down your business viability and growth strategy, you’re explaining your sustainability initiatives and their impact on the environment and your operation. 

Want to learn more about incorporating sustainability into your business? Check out our guide to small business sustainability 101.

What’s the purpose of writing a sustainability plan? 

Writing a sustainability plan is a key part of a successful transition to running a more sustainable operation. Taking time to clarify your goals and assess your business capabilities can help you reach your objectives more easily—and recognize when to change course if your plan isn’t working. 

Through the process of writing a sustainability plan, you’ll gather a lot of valuable information, including which sustainability initiatives have the greatest environmental impact, which ones are the easiest or most complicated to carry out, and what your financial investment will look like.

The most common reason for writing a sustainability plan is to create a roadmap for building a more eco-conscious business, but you might also need a sustainability plan to:

  • Appeal to key stakeholders, like investors 
  • Start fundraising for the first time
  • Educate employees about new sustainability programs you’re implementing
  • Apply for a business loan
  • Get buy-in from your suppliers about making sustainable changes together
  • Apply for a business grant

Who writes a sustainability plan? 

Business owners should be heavily involved in writing a sustainability plan, but developing it will likely be a collaborative effort. You might want to ask managers or senior staff to weigh in during the process or help contribute research, strategies, and financial analysis. 

Who reads a sustainability plan? 

At minimum, your business leaders or executive team should all read the finished sustainability plan so everyone is on the same page. If you need employee support to accomplish your sustainability initiatives, consider giving your employees a high-level overview of the sustainability plan, too. 

You may also want to give the plan to your business attorney or accountant for feedback, as well as investors if you have them. If you want to involve your suppliers in sustainable changes or apply for financing to execute your eco-friendly initiatives, vendors and business lenders could also end up reading your sustainability plan. 

What’s in a sustainability plan? 

Every sustainability plan should include an explanation of the sustainable change you’re making and why, the desired business outcome, the estimated environmental impact, the steps you’ll take to implement the change, and the financial resources required. 

Depending on your goals and prior experience with sustainability efforts, your sustainability plan could be a high-level one-page brief or a comprehensive multi-page document. There’s no wrong way to write a sustainability plan, but the most thorough plans will include the following sections: 

  • Sustainability goals 
  • Sustainability practices and strategies 
  • Milestones and measurements 
  • Resources
  • Challenges
  • Finances 

How to write your own business sustainability plan

Before you jump into your sustainability plan, carve out time for some background research, so you have a better idea of what to prioritize in your write-up. Taking a deeper dive into the below topics can help lay the foundation for your sustainable goals: 

  • Industry practices and competition: Find out if your industry has any best business practices for sustainability (like energy consumption limits), then research what your competition has done. 
  • Environmental regulations and laws: Look into federal, state, and local sustainability regulations to see which ones apply to your business and what it takes to be compliant. You can view federal regulations here, then search your state here
  • Local environmental considerations: It’s a good idea to have a solid understanding of the environmental issues that affect your local business community, whether it’s a climate-related natural disaster or an ongoing concern like pollution or water contamination. 
  • Consumer interests: Research your customer demographic’s attitude toward environmental issues and sustainable products, and gather the latest information on their spending habits and priorities. 

Once you’re armed with more knowledge, take the following steps:  

Step 1: Refine your goals

The first step in your sustainability plan is figuring out what you want to achieve. Your sustainability goals should reflect the problem you want to help solve on both a global and business-specific level. That means you have to account for the environmental impact of your ideas, as well as how realistic they are to bring to life. 

When brainstorming and setting your goals, consider:

  • Where you’re starting from → What sustainable practices do you already have, if any? 
  • What you have the resources to achieve → How much money and people-power can you devote to your sustainability strategy without disrupting operations or lowering profits?
  • What would create the greatest impact → Which initiatives, if any, have the power to improve the environment and your business as a whole?

Maybe you’ll aim to cut your energy usage in half by the end of the year or switch to recyclable packaging. Or maybe you’ll set a goal to become a zero-waste operation within five years or create a line of sustainable buy-one-give-one products within the next two years.

It’s okay if your sustainability goals are fairly broad in this section; you’ll break down the processes behind them in the next section. 

Step 2: Describe your sustainable practices and strategies

The second step is to explain the sustainable practices or programs you want to implement. For each sustainability initiative, it’s crucial to explain what you’re currently doing, what you hope to achieve, and what steps you need to take to get there. 

For example, let’s say one of your sustainability goals is to reduce carbon emissions in your supply chain. Here’s what your breakdown could look like: 

Sustainable goal #1: Reduce supply chain emissions

  • Current practices: Regularly placing small or medium-size orders with several different vendors; outsourcing logistics
  • Reason for change: Placing frequent smaller orders increase transportation usage and generate higher emissions; outsourcing logistics to a company that doesn’t prioritize sustainability is increasing our carbon footprint
  • New sustainable practices: Place orders in bulk to cut down on transportation; evaluate current logistics partner and switch to one that prioritizes eco-friendly transportation methods and vehicles 
  • Desired outcome: Reduce our business’s carbon emissions by half and streamline/simplify the steps in our supply chain
  • Steps to take: Rely more on inventory management software and sales forecasting to accurately predict orders ahead of time and do one large batch order instead of ordering from several different vendors in real time; research current logistics partner, set up call to ask questions, research and vet new logistics vendors to compare 

Step 3: Choose your milestones and metrics

After you break down your sustainability goals, practices, and steps, it’s time to choose which benchmarks and key performance indicators (KPIs) you’ll use to track progress and measure success. 

If, for example, one of your sustainability goals is to switch to recyclable packaging within the next 12 months, your three-month benchmark might be to create a proposal with your packaging supplier that explores options and alternative packaging materials. By six months, you might want to have tested multiple new packaging designs and narrowed down your choices to two. 

Make sure you describe what success looks like at each milestone for each sustainability goal, whether it’s adhering to a strict timeline for tasks, having specific deliverables in your hand, or meeting certain KPIs.  

Step 4: List the resources you’ll need

The resources section is a comprehensive breakdown of everything you’ll need to execute your sustainability goals. You can include a description of cash flow or financing needs here, but you’ll have more space to dig into the numbers in the finances section.

Instead, use this section to detail all non-monetary resources, including:

  • Time on the calendar
  • Staff support
  • New hires
  • Research and development time
  • External consultants
  • Technology
  • Appliances, machinery, or equipment

For each resource listed, answer the following questions:

  • Do we have this resource already? 
  • If not, how and where will we obtain it? 
  • What’s the process to get this resource in place?
  • What does it look like to maximize this resource for success? 

Your responses will help guide the first stage of your sustainability plan implementation: laying the groundwork to get results. You’ll be able to determine what you need in place before executing your sustainability goals, and how much effort and time each task will take. 

Step 5: Consider the challenges you’ll face

Use the challenges section to imagine the roadblocks you’ll encounter along the way to a more sustainable operation—and brainstorm solutions to move past them. Obstacles can include everything from costs and supply chain disruptions to consumer opinion and competing priorities. 

For each challenge you describe, include the following information: 

  • Potential negative ramifications to your business
  • Relevant research or data explaining the likelihood of encountering the particular challenge
  • Actionable steps you can take now to prevent the challenge and/or minimize your risk
  • A response plan that explains what to do should certain situations arise

Step 6: Analyze your finances

The finance section of your sustainability plan is where you crunch the numbers to determine whether or not your sustainability plan is financially viable. You need to figure out how to balance your investment in sustainability with your bottom line and other growth initiatives. 

Start this section by sharing an updated picture of your business’s profit and loss numbers, cash flow, and balance sheet. Include any screenshots of your recent financial statements, as well as insight into your sales or revenue forecasts for the coming year. 

Then, include the following estimates for each sustainability initiative included in the plan: 

  • Total cost, including upfront spending and ongoing expenses 
  • Potential cost savings in the short and long term
  • Potential ROI/revenue growth in the short and long term
  • Potential tax offsets
  • Financing needed, if any

If you need support rounding out this section and ensuring accuracy, don’t hesitate to consult your business accountant for input and advice. 

What’s next after you write a sustainability plan? 

After you write your sustainability plan, you might want to run it by one or two trusted peers or mentors who’ve successfully adopted sustainable practices or hire a business sustainability consultant to get expert feedback. 

Once you’re confident about your plan, it’s time to take action. Just remember: good plans are structured and well thought out, but they should also be fluid. Don’t be afraid to revisit your plan and pivot if you need to.  

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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