A truly sustainable business is more than just recycling or reducing plastic. It is also about the people you work with, the quality of your product, your supply chain. It’s about thinking internally and externally, locally and globally, socially and environmentally. Being sustainable shouldn’t be a massively difficult or scary challenge so here I identify 10 steps to help make your business more sustainable without turning it on its head.
1. BE TRANSPARENT
Every business no matter how sustainable it aims to be will have a negative effect on the environment just by existing. Being transparent is key for a number of reasons; first, it helps your business avoid greenwashing accusations. By being your own critique and being transparent about your positive impact and, more importantly, your negative impact you avoid the backlash of others by showing understanding of where your company needs to grow and improve sustainably. Leading sustainable company Patagonia developed the ‘Footprint Chronicles’ to show the honest environmental pros and cons of their products. Being transparent also supports you in defining your future roadmap of where the company should be heading to and your determination to make this happen.
2. BRING SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL VALUES INTO THE HEART OF YOUR COMPANY
Building a sustainable company is far easier when your core values and vision are aligned with a sustainable impact. By integrating sustainability into your mission, vision and values ensures that future decision making takes society and the environment into account. The initial stages of setting up a company is the best, and easiest, time to make it sustainable and makes it easier to integrate sustainability into company processes and initiatives. A sustainable purpose should be at the heart of decision making including the hiring of new employees and ensuring they are aligned with the vision. Bringing a sustainable vision into the interview process strengthens the company purpose and ensures that sustainability is a core part of the company. When you look at certified B corp companies these are companies that bring purpose into the heart of their company whilst being regenerative by creating a positive impact to other companies and communities around them.
3. PRODUCE NO WASTE
It is vital that a sustainable company considers its waste production, disposable and how to reduce it. A key point is that producing no waste goes further than just recycling, the process of recycling itself uses massive amounts of energy and should be considered as the absolute last option. In order to produce no waste companies need to look at what are the inputs that are going into the company and the outputs and materials that come out. There are a number of ways that companies can reduce their waste the first is by reducing their consumption where possible such as avoiding plastic packaging or opting for biodegradable materials. The second is by keeping materials in use as much as possible by creating high quality products, offering repair services and using innovative and creative initiatives to reach the full potential of a product or material. Companies can also reduce waste by collaborating with others in order to close the circle of production and utilise one company’s waste as another’s resource, such as Toastale, that uses old bread as yeast for beer production. Producing no waste also refers to reducing time and energy wasted by streamlining processes and maximising efficiency.
4. USE SMALL AND SLOW SOLUTIONS
Many people think that becoming sustainable means turning your business on its head, but actually by making massive changes all at once the transition is unlikely to be sustainable and unlikely to create any real positive impact. The key when transitioning to becoming more sustainable is to use small and slow solutions. Don’t try to do everything at once but start with a realistic expectation. It is great to have a massive vision and aim to get there but this should be done in steps or your business could suffer. This is also the case when growing your business, if you focus on thriving rather than growth you are more likely to succeed, as fast exponential growth means there is a higher risk of your business tripping up and becoming unstable. It is also important to know when your work should start to spread out via others or other branches rather than scaling up in size, big is not always better!
Using small and slow solutions also refers to being locally attuned and responsive, the more you collaborate with smaller local businesses the more resilient you are to unexpected changes. Working with smaller partners or providers means you are supporting the local community and you have more influence on changing these other companies for the better, such as demanding that all products have less packaging or meet high environmental standards.
Whilst small and slow solutions are key the aim is to create small changes that create massive effects. This could be collaborating with local partners, or giving employees an half an hour a day to go for a walk. At the start of 2021 I started booking a meeting with myself each day to give me time to go for a walk. It is during these short walks that all my inspiration comes to me and allows me to think up innovative solutions and ideas.
5. BE IMAGINATIVE
Gunter Pauli, the founder of the Blue Economy said ‘‘The core objective of my work is to go beyond sustainability. If we only teach our children everything we know, then they can only do as bad as we have performed”. Being imaginative allows us to imagine the future that may seem impossible now. You can’t create something that you can’t imagine so in order to create a more sustainable company you need to be able to envision how it could be, this future vision of the company is more than how profitable it is, it is about; What would your company be known for? What would it’s biggest achievements be? How would it feel to work in your company? What are the roles like? Who would you be working with? Rob Hopkins the founder of the Transition Movement talks about the importance of imagination in order to create a future vision and make us yearn for change.
6. APPLY SELF REGULATION AND ACCEPT FEEDBACK
No company is perfect, and one of the most challenging parts about being a founder and putting everything into your company is being able to see the company flaws. In order to be a sustainable company you need to be able to put your views aside and be able to accept feedback. Marks & Spencer, a massive British supermarket, was under attack from Friends of the Earth for moving clothing production overseas rather than in the UK (The Responsibility Revolution). In most situations like these the large companies become defensive and try to excuse their actions. In this case Marks & Spencer did the opposite and confronted the feedback head-on and invited Friends of the Earth to a meeting to discuss how they could improve, resulting in them becoming more sustainable and competitive.
Applying self regulation and accepting feedback is also important internally. This means listening to employees and ensuring that feedback is given, especially in company processes that directly affect employees. Consider that employees on the ground often know how the process works more than top level management, they know what will make processes more efficient and what will simply not work, so it’s important to get their input. Internal regulation is also about looking at the efficiency of the internal process and structure and noticing changes in employee behaviour or motivation that indicate the need for change.
7. LOOK AT NATURE AS A DESIGN TECHNIQUE
Nature has been creating innovative solutions for the past 3.8 billion years. When you think about the mass of solutions that have already been created by nature it gives a wealth of inspiration for us to learn from. In nature there is a symbiosis that means a mutual benefit relationship between different organisms, business can be inspired through this resulting in the concept of industrial symbiosis. Industrial symbiosis is the symbiotic relationship of different businesses in which costs and benefits are shared, and the waste of one business is used as a resource for another.
Other business innovations inspired by nature include; the bullet train, a high speed train that was inspired by kingfishers ability to dive effortlessly into water, or a waterproof coat inspired by the waterproof nature of leaves. ASK.Nature, Biomimicry Solutions and Biomimicry toolbox are all full of examples of how business can be inspired with nature whilst respecting the environment.
8. BE DISTRIBUTIVE
A distributive company is designed in a way that shares value across the company leading to stronger ties with the company and in turn more motivated employees. Being distributive encourages companies to fully value employees and ensure that everyone has a say in decision making. A clear way to do this is sharing the value created from the company or product amongst those that helped to create it. Another way is to create a space in which employees are treated as experts or CEOs of their projects, after all those that are in charge of their own work know it best. Creating a distributive, cooperative structure like this gives employees more autonomy, making them accountable but also more dedicated and determined in their role.
9. CREATE A COMMUNITY
A strong company hierarchy is not only often ineffective and inefficient but it is also becoming more unpopular, with employees now wanting to work in a job that they feel they have a say, and a purpose. Creating a community atmosphere in the company makes employees feel valued and supported within the company and drives motivation.
To give a few examples taken from ‘The Responsibility Revolution’. Google, whilst arguably not the most sustainable nor social company, has implemented an initiative which values the skills of the individual, giving developers 20% of their work time to work on a project that interests them personally. A second company, Linden Lab, has created the ‘Love Machine’ which allows employees to send love letters to each other in order to boost team morale and encouragement. Creating a community also applies to how employees, and founders’ lives are valued outside work. Having a work-life balance is key to having inspired and motivated employees. Both the founder and CEO of Patagonia take time for themselves to go for bike rides or take a month of holiday to destress and refocus, and this applies to employees too.
10. LOOK FOR WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN SOLUTIONS
There is a common misconception that having a sustainable business means making no money. This can be true, but it doesn’t have to be. The key thing in building up or transitioning towards a sustainable business is to look for solutions that are; a WIN for your business and reputation, a WIN for your employees, customers and suppliers, a WIN for society both locally and globally and a WIN for the environment. Being sustainable doesn’t mean choosing one or the other, it’s about choosing all and meeting the needs of the environment, the society and your company.