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Consumers, corporations, banks and governments are increasingly committing to sustainability, whether it's how they shop, trade, source or operate. For small business owners, adopting greener practices can feel like extra work and expense. And maybe it is — but the payoff is significant.

This article originally appeared on Discover & Learn on March 30, 2022.

Consumers, corporations, banks and governments are increasingly committing to sustainability, whether it’s how they shop, trade, source, or operate. Adopting greener practices can feel like extra work and expense for small business owners. And maybe it is — but the payoff is significant.

The reality is that committing to sustainability is not only good for the planet, it’s also good for business. More and more consumers are seeking brands that commit to sustainability — and many will pay more for the products and services those companies sell. Businesses with established climate goals are looking to partner with suppliers and vendors that are taking action for a more sustainable future.

Your goal to run a more sustainable business doesn’t need to start with installing sweeping measures. Start with these steps to begin your journey to sustainability.

1. Assess your impact

What’s your current carbon footprint? If you haven’t taken a close look at your environmental impact recently, evaluating it now is a great first step in your transition to a greener way of doing business.

Assessing your carbon footprint is a logical place to start because it’s a clear measure of all your company’s emissions while also providing a benchmark of your business against your industry.

“The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere causes the earth’s temperature to rise. By measuring the carbon you generate, you can measure how you are performing and track your improvement. 130 countries are, or are in the process of, committing to being net-zero (i.e., generating no more carbon). Each of us and our businesses needs to own our path to net zero. It’s possible if we all apply ourselves to the challenge,” says Peter McArthur, VP, National Cleantech Lead, RBCx.

While fully and accurately measuring your carbon emissions can be challenging, there are simple ways to get started. Business owners can begin by auditing fuel use and later expand to other resources such as electricity. Or, you can focus on looking at the waste your business generates to operate and/or produce goods, identifying whether there are any simple ways to reduce excess resources, fuel, food, paper, plastic or electricity.

As you look at your output, try to assess your clients’ footprints too. Can you spot opportunities for them to reduce emissions or waste? Being aware of your impact — and the impact of those you do business with – is a great starting point for change.

Ready to look longer term? For those looking to take the next step, a variety of organizations provide industry-specific advice on measuring your carbon footprint. You can also consider hiring a consultant to help you assess and manage your impact in the future.

2. Seize the low-hanging fruit

The idea of changing the way you do business can feel overwhelming. But incorporating sustainability into your business can be simple — there are many changes you can easily implement that can collectively make a difference in helping the planet.

Here are a few simple ideas:
  • Switch to LED lights. Whether your business operates in an office, warehouse, factory (or all of the above), switching from incandescent or fluorescent lighting to LED is one of the easiest environmentally-friendly changes to implement. For one, LED lights are up to 80% more efficient than traditional lighting, and their reduced energy usage means less demand from power plants and less greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Use green cleaning products. For many businesses, cleaning is a big task, using considerable resources. Sustainable cleaning practices can help reduce pollution and water waste and contribute to the fight against climate change. Consider environmentally friendly products that are created using safe, non-toxic and biodegradable ingredients instead of traditional cleaners – using equipment designed to use less water and chemicals can also significantly improve your environmental footprint.
  • Go digital and reduce paper. More and more companies have transitioned to a digital way of doing business, reducing costs and environmental impact. Did you know? Cutting down on the use of paper both saves trees and conserves the energy used in converting those trees into paper and transporting products. Paper manufacturing is also a major contributor to environmental pollution – according to The World Counts, approximately 26% of waste dumped in landfill sites is discarded paper and paperboard.
  • Reduce food waste. Food produced but not eaten ends up in landfills and degrades over time, creating methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. If you’re in the hospitality industry, there are a few steps you can take steps to address and minimize food waste, such as:
    • Creating a log to identify how much food is being wasted and which foods are typically being wasted
    • Using a FIFO or JIT method of food preparation so that food is not stored for too long in your facility
    • Revisiting your food storage practices to ensure you’re using containers that can preserve food
    • Partnering with organizations that can use your excess food to help feed hungry people in your community.

3. Engage your workforce

Who better to flag waste and inefficiencies in your processes than those who perform them daily? “Your employees know where there is waste,” says McArthur. “They are your best source of information, your best champions for change and are best positioned to offer solutions that can help you create that change. Even within a large organization like our bank, our employees come up with some of our best ideas for minimizing our impact,” he adds.

It’s up to you as the business owner to encourage your employees to speak out and identify waste leakage and provide opportunities for employee-driven solutions – this could involve offering incentives for ideas or simply creating a safe and welcoming environment for feedback.

4. Embed sustainability into your future plans

While the above actions make for a great starting point, sustainability should be part of your future thinking and strategic plan. As you plan out your next one, five and ten years, look for ways to incorporate sustainable practices into your marketing, packaging and company DNA. Here are some ideas:

Revisit your packaging
  • If you run a restaurant, consider reusable takeout packaging.
  • If you’re a retail store, encourage the use of reusable bags.
  • If you are a manufacturer, see if there are ways you can right-size packaging or reduce the amount of packaging for your products; alternatively, consider environmentally friendly packaging that uses biodegradable and/or recycled materials.
Share your goals with suppliers

Communicate how you would like to decrease waste in your supply chain, either through the production of goods, use of resources, shipping channels or inventory management.

Engage your customers

The Global Sustainability Study 2021 revealed that 86% of people globally have shifted their purchase behaviour towards being more sustainable over the past five years. More than ever, customers love companies who put people and the planet before profit, and many of them will choose a sustainable alternative when available

Telling your customers what you’re doing to make a difference and involving them in your sustainability efforts can help drive engagement, loyalty and change.

Bottom line

Creating a more sustainable business can help reduce your environmental impact, decrease costs, strengthen relationships and build customer loyalty and engagement. Making positive change doesn’t need to be difficult — it’s just a matter of getting started.