How to develop a sustainability plan for a small business in four steps

July 03, 2019

As society grows increasingly eco-conscious, it's no wonder that the business world is following suit. Companies and their leaders are beginning to recognize the value of environmental stewardship not only as a means of safeguarding natural resources but also as an intelligent PR strategy.

Of course, there's a big difference between reducing paper use around the office or purchasing a few ENERGY STAR computers and implementing effective long-term business policies. Here's how to create an effective small business sustainability plan that you can be proud of.

What should your sustainability plan address?

One of the challenges of sustainability planning is that many leaders don't know where to begin. Although it's great to say that you want your company to "go green," this is a somewhat vague goal, and it doesn't provide a good starting point. Make your sustainability strategy more actionable by covering the following topics.

1. Assess where you are currently

Evaluate your operating processes to get a better feel for their environmental and community impacts. For instance, if your company fulfills retail orders for other businesses, then you might consider how your vehicle fleet's movements contribute to regional air quality. 

Thinking about your compliance stance and seeking input from employees can both be useful steps at this stage. By using regulations as a guide, you can contextualize your activities to identify gaps and unknown hazards. Regulatory agencies like the EPA offer a variety of compliance assistance tools categorized by industry to help companies understand the inherent risks of their business processes.

As with most forms of business planning, knowledge acquisition lays the foundation for everything else. Before solving the sustainability puzzle, you need to define the problem, so take the time to explore where you stand.

2. Identify the steps you'll need to do better

There are many ways to transition to more sustainable practices, but it's critical to choose tactics that support your business model. Imagine that your small company offered computer and consumer electronics repair services. Using RoHS-compliant parts with fewer hazardous substances would probably be a wise move. The efficacy of such methods would be limited, however, if you failed to dispose of old circuit boards properly or let materials like solder enter the general waste stream. 

Using the risks you previously identified, try to devise a comprehensive policy made up of specific steps for different business areas and processes. Going back to the example of the electronics repair company, you might equip your shop workstations with special hazardous material receptacles, start logging your dumping activities and try to find compliant waste-handling partners.

Environmental auditing is an excellent addition to any sustainability strategy. The EPA publishes a broad range of resources about what constitutes effective auditing, and there are many independent services that can help small companies implement programs, so it's fairly easy to find your bearings.

3. Start tracking your performance

Objective self-monitoring is crucial to the success of sustainability plans. When your desire to engage in environmental stewardship conflicts with your business model, you'll need to rely on concrete figures and statistics to determine how to proceed. 

Suppose that you want to reduce the emissions released by your fleet of delivery trucks. There are many ways to go about this, such as using tracking software to analyze and choose the best routes, monitoring maintenance histories to keep vehicles in good condition and phasing out gas vehicles in favor of electric models. These solutions all come with different costs and hurdles, so it's critical to start looking at the numbers to determine which options are the most attainable.

Fortunately, such practices should be familiar to anyone who's created a regular business map. Similar to how you might pick key performance indicators to evaluate consumer engagement or service call efficiency, you should choose monitoring data points that make it easier to keep your organization honest. These sources of feedback will also help you switch tactics if it turns out that your initial strategy was flawed.

4. Assign responsibilities

Sustainability is a whole-company affair. For instance, even though different governments promote diverse sustainability planning strategies, most highlight the importance of employee education and training. Teaching your team how to adjust their work habits is vital because they're ultimately the ones whose actions contribute to your environmental impact

Smart ways to make your sustainability plan promote profitability

How can cash-strapped small businesses ensure that their attempts to go green don't send them into the red? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Implement an environmental management system, or EMS. These frameworks focus on continuous review, monitoring and improvement to let businesses meet their environmental goals and manage compliance governance. An EMS can also be useful for achieving cost-saving objectives, like trying to reduce your energy expenditures. 
  • Rethink your corporate culture. Employees who have been taught to appreciate the business benefits behind sustainability, such as avoiding hefty fines, working in a healthier environment and appealing to consumers, may be more likely to participate proactively.
  • Integrate your environmental stance into your marketing plan. Promoting your social responsibility can be an effective marketing tactic when you make genuine efforts to back it up with improvements. For example, according to one Nielsen survey, many consumers are willing to spend significantly more on goods produced by companies that are committed to making positive environmental and social changes

Transitioning toward a more sustainable operating plan can be lots of work, but it's worth it in the long run. As a small business leader who doesn't have to reconfigure an entire massive corporation, you're in a unique position to leave a lasting legacy that benefits your bottom line and the world at large. In other words, there's no better time to start planning than the present.