How to Overcome the Top 10 Challenges to Small Business Sustainability

Business Sustainability

Running a small business is challenging enough without adding one more thing to it, right? As a small business owner myself, I can attest to this!

Sustainability often brings its own set of challenges, and I hear some common ones from business professionals – not having the money to make the changes that you want, not having enough time to do it all, not having employees who are engaged with your sustainability efforts… the list goes on. Sound familiar?

The good news is that businesses just like yours are overcoming these challenges every day.

I’ve listed the 10 most common challenges that I’ve seen when working with businesses, along with strategies to help you surmount those obstacles. Note that these are not quick fixes – they will take work – but they can help you to get unstuck so that you can move forward towards your sustainability goals.

Challenge #1: Not having the money to make the changes that you want to make.

How to Overcome it: The strategy here is to begin with projects that have a good payback. For example, almost all projects related to energy efficient lighting will have a good payback since they result in an immediate decrease in your energy bill and there are many rebates available. This helps to both free up some money and demonstrate the business case for sustainability initiatives, which can help to secure additional funding for future projects. Also look for rebates and assistance to help you with your projects, since many organizations and utilities are available to help small businesses. If you’re in the East Bay, also check out the Good Local Money Guide, which connects local businesses with local sources of funding.

Challenge #2: Not having the time to make the changes that you want to make.

How to Overcome it: There are actually three strategies that you can use here. First, focus on your top priorities.You won’t be able to do everything at once, so you’ll need to clearly establish your priorities and focus on those first; everything else will have to wait. Identify initiatives that are aligned with your overall business goals, have a significant impact, and have a good payback and prioritize those. Second, build a team. Having a green team will enable you to receive input from other employees and get help with your initiatives so that you’re not doing it all yourself. Lastly, look for ways to integrate sustainability into what people are already doing. Sustainability shouldn’t be a standalone project that is relegated to one department or one person. Ideally, it should be a way of thinking and doing that considers the social and environmental impact of all that you do. For example, HR is already working on onboarding new employees – how can sustainability be integrated into that? Marketing is already working on communications – how can telling your sustainability story be a part of that?

Challenge #3: Employees aren’t engaged.

How to Overcome itTo have employees who are engaged, you need to give them opportunities for engagement. This might seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how many times I talk to business owners who wish that employees were more engaged, but yet haven’t created channels for them to get engaged. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink identified three elements that create true motivation in people – autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If you want employees to be engaged, you need to allow them to have some autonomy, some say in the initiatives that your business is working on, and that must contribute to their sense of purpose. This is also in line with what the experts recommend for engaging employees in sustainability. One of the best ways to do this is to form a green team.

Challenge #4: Not sure how to get started or what sustainability initiatives make sense for your business.

How to Overcome it: Here, the strategy used by many businesses – and the one that I recommend – is to use existing frameworks such as Green Business Certification and B Corp Certification. If you’re just getting started, you can build on the proven best practices that other businesses have used. Time and again, I hear business professionals say that they learned a lot by going through the process of getting these certifications. Especially in combination, these two certifications will provide frameworks that you can use to ensure that you’re building a good sustainability foundation for your business. An added benefit is that you’ll also get some public recognition for your efforts.

Challenge #5: Lack of information about specific topics, finding it hard to keep up with trends.

How to Overcome it: This is quite understandable. You’re busy, you don’t have enough time (see #2), and sustainability is a quickly evolving field. Unless you work in this field (and even if you do!), it can be a challenge to stay on top of all of the changes. To complicate things further, when it comes to small business sustainability, there is no one place that you can go to to get the latest information. I’m working to change this – join the Cultivating Capital newsletter below to stay up-to-date with developments (as a bonus, you’ll also get regular access to someone who can help you- you don’t have to do this alone!).

Challenge #6Company culture doesn’t support sustainability.

How to Overcome it: This usually becomes evident when only a minority of individuals at a company are thinking about sustainability. You can take a three-pronged approach to addressing this. First, getting buy-in from management is key because it will allow rank-and-file employees to feel that they have support from above. Second, you’ll need to expand sustainability beyond just one department so that it is a company-wide endeavor. This will also help with employee engagement (see #3). Lastly, education is key. Providing sustainability training to employees can make a significant difference, and more companies that I work with are starting to do this.  Culture change is slow, but educating and engaging employees will move you in the right direction.

Challenge #7Lack of support and limited options from vendors.

How to Overcome itTwo options exist for working with vendors. First, look for those that share your values. For example, working with businesses that are already Certified Green Businesses or Certified B Corps will assure you that those businesses are already being socially and environmentally responsible and will likely have products and services that are aligned with what you want. Second, begin the conversation around supply chain sustainability with your vendors. For example, you can develop a sustainable supply chain policy or a sustainability questionnaire for suppliers. You can also offer to work with your vendor to pilot a more sustainable option.

Challenge #8: Lack of support from upper management, making the business case.

How to Overcome it: To make the business case to upper management, you’ll need to get very clear about the numbers involved. What will the payback be for a given project? What are the metrics that you’re tracking? If you’re not already tracking metrics, three common areas to start with are waste reduction, energy usage, and water consumption. You would start with getting a baseline of your current service levels and monthly usage, identify projects that will help you to reduce those levels, and calculate the overall savings that you’ll realize. Once you can make the business case, you’ll find that the support is likely to follow.

Challenge #9Reporting on sustainability to employees and customers.

How to Overcome it: Sustainability reporting can range from producing a formal annual sustainability report using an existing framework such as GRI to simply providing regular updates through your website, social media, and email newsletters. If you’re just getting started, you’ll need to do so some work to identify the areas that you’ll focus on (see #4 above) and then set some targets for those areas. For example, if you would like to be more energy efficient, you might set a goal to reduce your energy usage by 10%. Once you’ve set some targets, you can share that information internally with employees (who of course should be allowed to provide input on those targets – see #3) and you can decide how much to share externally. Some businesses choose to share their targets publicly, while others might just share updates about changes that they have been making. In either case, you’ll want to be authentic – for more on that, see #10.

Challenge #10: Educating customers about the benefits of purchasing products/services from a sustainable business.

How to Overcome it: Marketing sustainability can be tricky and customers can be fickle. With rampant greenwashing, most consumers can also be jaded about the environmental benefits being claimed. You can try two different strategies here. First, focus on educating your customers about the benefits to them of using your products/services. For example, if your product is non-toxic, do your customers know that it is better for the health of their families? Second, tell your sustainability story in a way that is authentic. Be honest and transparent with your customers about what you’re doing and what you still need to work on.

Next Steps

Review this list and see which one of these challenges is most pressing for your business. Pick one and try the recommended strategy. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions as you go!