For more than 50 years, the environmentalism movement has been pushing businesses to adopt eco-conscious policies and practices. While we've made significant strides to raise awareness about environmental issues, the stakes have never been higher for businesses of all sizes to ensure they're doing all they can to counteract the causes of climate change.
Environmental sustainability presents an opportunity for small business owners like you to implement practices that can have a positive impact on the longevity of your business and community.
Sustainability for SMBs
Sustainable business practices may not be at the very top of your priority list, but implementing these changes will have economic and productivity benefits as well as environmental ones.
Focus on digital marketing
You may already be using digital marketing in some way, whether it's email, social media, or search engine marketing (SEM). Compared to traditional marketing channels like newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, digital marketing channels are dramatically more cost effective, which is great for your bottom line. They also make it much easier to measure success and ROI, but that's not where the benefits end.
There's some disagreement about whether the large data centers that support digital marketing efforts are more energy efficient than traditional advertising mediums, but there are certainly more sustainable options to align your marketing efforts. Many tech giants like Google and Facebook have made commitments to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and operate solely on renewable energy within the next decade. Expanding your digital marketing efforts with these advertisers will be more cost effective and more sustainable in the long run.
Reduce single-use packaging
Many big names like Target and Starbucks have already begun promoting alternatives to single-use packaging and incentivizing their customers to get on board. The idea of "reduce" and "reuse" as a sustainability strategy is by no means new, but it does present an opportunity to establish a business model based on environmental consciousness.
If you're in the retail or restaurant industries, consider implementing a BYOB (bring your own bag) or BYOC (bring your own container) policy that encourages customers to bring something they already have instead of relying on single-use plastics. You could also upcharge customers who don't bring their own reusable materials or offer a discount for customers who do. This has the double advantage of reducing waste and expanding your profit margins by cutting down on supplies.
Encourage remote work for employees
Not only does remote work give your employees more flexibility, but it also helps cut down on the cost of rent, utilities, internet service, and other requirements of maintaining a physical office space. You may have alternative expenses like video conferencing software and security platforms to contend with, but the overall savings in operating costs for a distributed workforce are significant.
As evidenced by the widespread shift to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic, a distributed workforce can also have a positive environmental impact as well. According to the EPA, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and more remote workers mean fewer commuters every day as reported by The New York Times.
If you require some form of office space but don't need anything specific to run your business, consider opting for a co-working space like WeWork, Workbar, or Galvanize. These communal offices consolidate energy consumption and operating costs for each patron in addition to the flexibility and convenience they offer. Remote work and shared workspaces aren't compatible with every type of business, though, so this sustainability idea may not be a viable option for you.
Related: Best Remote Work Tools 2021
Source second-hand furnishings
Before purchasing brand new furniture and equipment to outfit your business, look for a thrift store or consignment business that may have what you need. Many people list their second hand items for sale on sites like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, eBay, and Etsy as well.
In most cases, upcycling fixtures will save money for the same exact item you would otherwise buy new. Sure, you run the risk that a used item won't be as pristine or as effective as something that's straight out of the box, but there's also a chance you might find the opposite to be true.
Buying second-hand furnishings means you might find a one-of-a-kind item that fits better than you expected, like a vintage cabinet that adds character to a merchandise display, or a mid-century modern office chair that effuses a sense of stylish sophistication. Perhaps most importantly, upcycling these kinds of items prevents them from ending up in a landfill and also reduces the demand for new items that require additional materials and resources.
Digitize your processes
Digital transformation is a tech industry buzzword that touts many business benefits including productivity and scalability. Digitizing your processes will likely yield all-around better outcomes for you and your customers, and it will also reduce your business's environmental burden, too.
At the most basic level, digitization reduces the need for paper files. When you can store all of your contracts, tax documents, operating licenses, and other business files on a cloud storage platform, for example, you can reduce (or eliminate completely) the paper waste your company produces. You can also offer your customers a more digital experience in small ways, too, like providing email receipts instead of paper ones or using an online check-in process instead of keeping a paper ledger.
On a more advanced scale, digital technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning can identify areas of your organization that are inefficient or draining your resources that you might not have realized otherwise. Digital technologies are sometimes more expensive than analog processes and systems, but the benefits for sustainability and efficiency alone usually offset these costs.
Sustainability starts at the top
Creating significant change for your organization in the name of sustainability starts with you. To identify the best areas to implement change for your business, consider conducting a sustainability audit or working with a sustainability consultant. If you lead by example and set the tone for a more environmentally friendly workplace, your employees and customers will follow suit.