Small business can face many challenges when it comes to sustainability.
Yet the companies I’ve seen that are most committed to sustainability repeatedly follow a three-step formula, which can serve as a model for establishing and maintaining a sustainability program in a small business.
What is this formula?
It’s simply this:
- Engage your people – simply put, you can’t do this alone. Even if you’re the person who is ultimately tasked with heading up sustainability at your company, you can’t do it all by yourself. You’ll need buy-in and support from management. You’ll need support from other departments. You’ll need participation from the rest of the employees. The professionals who do this work the best are able to engage people at all levels of the business.
- Conduct an assessment – no matter where you are on your sustainability journey, you can find opportunities to improve your social and environmental impact. Using proven frameworks will ensure that your approach to sustainability is comprehensive, instead of a set of arbitrary, ad hoc efforts.
- Implement best practices – identify your priority areas and begin to execute. You don’t have to figure it all out on your own – look at what thousands of businesses and professionals have already identified as being the most effective practices in key areas and focus on those projects.
Is it a quick fix, an easy way to do something about sustainability?
No, it’s not. It takes work. In fact, it takes a lot of work.
But it will provide you with a solid – and sustainable – foundation for your sustainability program.
Let’s take a closer look at what the best companies do and how you can apply this in your own business.
Engage Employees at All Levels of Your Organization
Even if you’re the person who is ultimately tasked with heading up sustainability initiatives at your company, you can’t do it all by yourself.
You’ll need buy-in and support from management. You’ll need support from other departments. You’ll need to engage all your employees.
To engage your people, follow these steps:
- Get buy-in from management. Without buy-in from management, your sustainability efforts will not succeed. I recently met with a woman at a company in San Francisco who explained that this is why her company was not successful with sustainability: although the CEO never said that sustainability was not a priority (what CEO would say that these days, especially in the Bay Area?), he never completely supported it. As a result, their initiatives stagnated.
- Identify an internal champion. Although the best sustainability programs are those that cross departmental boundaries, someone will need to be in charge of this. That individual doesn’t necessarily have to be the Sustainability Manager, since a lot of small businesses don’t have the capacity for that position. It can be the Facilities Manager, HR Manager, or Office Manager, but someone with responsibility will need to be ultimately responsible for making sure that things get done. Handing off the sustainability program to an intern or a part-time admin shows that the business does not really consider it a priority.
- Set up a green team. A green team consists of a group of employees who are engaged in advancing sustainability within an organization. The benefit of having a green team is that you’ll make sure that everyone gets a voice in your company’s sustainability efforts – this is increasingly important when you consider that 71% of employees want their company to provide opportunities for them to help make a positive impact on the company’s social and environmental commitments.
Conduct an Assessment of Your Sustainability Practices
Many small businesses try to figure out sustainability initiatives on their own, but you can quickly learn what other businesses are already doing to be sustainable.
Conducting an assessment is the best way to find opportunities to improve your social and environmental impact.
Using proven frameworks will ensure that your approach to sustainability is comprehensive, instead of a set of ad hoc projects, and will help you to use your time and efforts most strategically.
There are three ways to conduct an assessment, and the best businesses will use more than one:
- Conduct your own sustainability assessment. You can conduct your own sustainability audit to find out quickly how your business is doing as a sustainable business.
- Use the B Corp Impact Assessment (BIA). The BIA will fully evaluate how your company is doing in terms of sustainability. It is a comprehensive assessment that looks at everything from corporate governance to environmental impacts to your business model.
- If you’re in California, you can also use the Green Business Program (GBP) checklist. The Green Business Program checklist will give you a good framework for your environmental practices, but it doesn’t evaluate your social practices.
With each of these assessments, you can:
- Take a first pass through the assessment. Each assessment will contain a list of practices and measures that you can implement. During your first pass, you’ll mark off any practices that you’ve already implemented, such as offering a living wage or purchasing recycled paper.
- Review your areas of strength and opportunity. When you complete your first pass, any measures that you marked as “yes” represent areas of strength for your company. These are areas where you’re already meeting the best practices. Any measures that you marked as “no” or that you skipped over represent areas of opportunity. Most likely, these are practices that your company has not seriously considered simply because you weren’t aware of them.
Once you’ve conducted the assessment, you’ll get a much more objective perspective about your sustainability program and have a better idea about your opportunities for improvement.
Implement Best Practices for Sustainability
Now that you have your team in place and you’ve condcuted an assessment, you’re ready to execute.
You should be able to clearly see your areas of strength and opportunity, and you can now focus your time, energy, and resources on implementing the projects that will have the biggest impact for your company.
As you focus on implementation, you’ll need to:
- Select projects that will have the biggest impact. You won’t be able to do everything at once, so you’ll need to be selective. Some selection criteria to consider would be: which projects would be most closely aligned with your company’s strategic goals? Which projects will have the biggest social and environmental impact? Which projects will have the biggest financial benefits?
- Identify metrics and gather baseline data. Next, identify the metrics that you’ll be tracking and also look at what your current baseline is. For example, for an energy efficient lighting project, you would look at your current energy usage, for a waste reduction project you would look at your current waste service levels, for an employee volunteer program you would look at current levels of employee volunteerism, and so on. The important thing is to make sure that you establish your current baseline so that you can see what improvements result from your project.
- Track your efforts and report on your successes. Once you have your baseline in place and you’re working on implementation, you’ll need to track your efforts and report out on your successes. Tracking will show you how your project is proceeding, and reporting on your successes will let others know how you’re doing. You’ll definitely want to report internally, which also helps to engage employees (you would be surprised how often employees aren’t aware of everything that their company is already doing simply because it hasn’t been shared with them). Depending upon your project, you may also want to report externally to your other stakeholders. As you complete your projects, don’t forget to go back and update the online framework that you used!
That’s it! Those are the three steps that companies that are serious about sustainability follow. This framework allows you to establish a solid sustainability program and embed sustainability into your business.
One of the great thing about this three-step model is that it’s flexible. Whether you have 25 employees or 250 employees, you can use this. Whether your company is already actively working on sustainability or just getting started, you can use this.
I find that many small businesses tend to do one or the other.
For example, they might conduct an assessment but not engage their people. In these cases, the business has one person in charge of the sustainability initiatives. That person usually works alone, which limits the program’s effectiveness.
The flip side of this is when the business engages their people but doesn’t conduct an assessment. In these cases, there’s a lot of enthusiasm but no structure, and many important areas of impact get overlooked.
However, by following these three steps, you’ll find that employees are engaged in helping your business implement best practices across a range of areas.
Get started by reviewing these steps above again, especially the first two about engaging your people and conducting an assessment.
Determine if your business is doing only one or the other. Review the links in each of those sections for more information about how you can engage your people and conduct an assessment.
Free sustainability audit checklist
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