Sustainability is a buzzword on everyone’s lips these days – but what does it actually mean? If you want a sustainable business, it’s important to know. At a glance, it is exactly what it sounds like: to make environmentally sustainable choices. But in reality, it’s so much more than just “going green”.
Sustainability means longevity, and making sure that the planet will be better in the future thanks to the efforts being made today on both an individual, and community level.
Businesses looking to become more sustainable need to focus on more than their environmental policies – as they are just one part of the journey to sustainability. Meaningful sustainable business practices benefit the environment along with the communities around them, and work to make the future a better place for everyone.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are a great guideline to follow. They address not only environmental concerns, but they also address poverty and inequality. These points are included in sustainability goals, because the upliftment of the groups affected by them is essential for a thriving Earth, and functioning society.
With the awareness of these goals on an international level, and the rise of social justice movements such as MeToo and BlackLivesMatter, greater trends towards inclusion and diversity are being reported across all industries – but it is only in its beginning stages, and there is still so much that businesses can do.
Becoming more sustainable is a goal that all businesses should strive for. With the rise of climate change, people are becoming more aware of the impact they have on the environment with their choices – pushing them to support more businesses with good sustainable business practices.
Sustainability in business is a trend that’s taken off in recent years thanks to awareness campaigns run by environmentalists and world organizations such as the WWF, UN, and the WHO. The COVID-19 pandemic also raised awareness for our unhealthy and unsustainable treatment of animals – both farmed and wild.
More and more companies are striving to meet their consumer expectations, and this is one of the top five reasons that nearly 60% of organizations have become more engaged with sustainability over the past two years.
Freak storms and dangerous weather caused by warming oceans and melting ice caps have been the final straw in encouraging businesses to make their practices more sustainable – after all, their consumers are demanding it.
It’s clear that sustainability is the way of the future, and any business will benefit by implementing conscious changes. So, how can you begin making your business more sustainable? Start by considering these important elements and areas of focus:
The United Nations released their list of Sustainable Development Goals in 2016. Since then, businesses all over the world and across various industries have used them as a guideline for their own sustainability practices.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals were created to address systemic inequality and climate change. The UN describes them as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.”
The UN Sustainable Development Goals are:
Image Credit: https://sdgs.un.org/goals
Since the release of these goals, many countries and large businesses have engaged with and invested in properties that support them. While it may seem impossible for your small business or start-up to have policies that address all of these elements, there are many things that even the smallest start-up can do to meet at least some of these goals. Rather than seeing them as hard and fast rules, see them as something to strive towards.
Even the smallest step in the right direction is still a step forward.
When looking to improve the sustainability of your business in meaningful ways, these goals are a great guide to follow. The best sustainable practices don’t just address one goal at a time, but begin a chain reaction that addresses other targets on the list.
Gender inequality is one of the most widespread forms of inequality, and affects even developed countries such as Japan – which has one of the worst gender gaps in the world. Women make up the vast majority of the impoverished because they are underpaid, and businesses often avoid hiring them. Worldwide, women earn 24% less than men. Research shows that, at this rate, it’ll take 170 years to close the wage gap.
Gender inequality in developing countries costs those countries $9 trillion a year — money that could go towards their own education, families, health care, and spending power. The facts are clear and simple: excluding half the world’s population from the workplace is contributing to this unsustainable world.
Research shows that when women are empowered and lifted out of poverty, the effects are staggering. Educating and employing women benefits communities and families for generations afterwards. This is because women who have access to money change the world around them for the better. They improve health care for their families, get their children educated, lower birthrates and, overall, help build more sustainable communities. When women succeed, their success is spread through their communities.
This is also easy to remedy in your business, and there are steps your business can take to close this gap. The first solution is simple: hire women. The more women you have in your business, the more meaningful your other actions towards gender equality will be, as they will provide firsthand experience for identifying the barriers women face. Be conscious that you hire women to leadership roles – as they are rarely chosen when up against male candidates.
Aim for a 50/50 ratio of men to women in your business. And hire women from all different backgrounds to reflect real world population dynamics. If you find women aren’t applying to your business, you need to question why that is the case. It isn’t because women aren’t interested in your field – it means there’s something that’s deterring them. Instead of taking it personally, rather see it as a chance to improve.
Climate change and environmental activism is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “sustainability”. For a business to be environmentally sustainable, it needs to have a low carbon footprint and a low-impact on the environment.
Oil companies are notorious for their catastrophic environmental impact, and are massive contributors to climate change. It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of so much damage, and as if your business’s “recycle-only” policy is meaningless.
One of the traps you’re likely to run into is only making changes that are easy, such as using energy-saving lightbulbs. There are other changes that are more difficult to implement, but are more sustainable and have more impact overall. To be properly sustainable in the long-term, your changes need to make a meaningful impact. Consumers are past the point of being impressed by small changes that don’t do anything. And to be meaningful requires some work.
So how can you start to consider environmental sustainability in your business structure?
The first thing to do is to assess your problems. What parts of your business are environmentally unsustainable? Perhaps you source your stock from across the country, resulting in emissions from trucks or airplanes. Maybe your office space uses lighting that isn’t as energy efficient as it could be. Or, maybe you use more plastic in your packaging than you really have to.
These are examples of simple problems that have simple solutions. So, look at what these simple solutions could be: source your products from local suppliers, use energy-saving light bulbs, or switch from plastic to biodegradable paper. Making small changes, one at a time, is what will help you get your business closer and closer to being more sustainable.
These are easy choices though, and sometimes being truly sustainable means making difficult decisions. This includes looking at your investors, and removing those with ties to harmful industries such as oil and gas. These investors will only want your business to help benefit industries that are causing climate change, and will block any of your attempts to find alternative, green power sources. So, instead, find alternative investors who will support your choice to become sustainable.
Another sustainability strategy is to stop offering animal products in your work space. The environmental effects of farming animals is devastating. Cattle farming is one of the top sources of emissions — releasing 25 times more emissions than farming vegetables. Beef production also accounts for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon. Those soybeans farmed there? Humans don’t get a bite of them. It all goes towards cattle feed.
Cutting meat from your diet also helps global food security. As the world’s population grows and the amount of land shrinks, food security has become an increasingly large concern. Meanwhile, beef production takes up 100 times more land than vegetable production.
By cutting meat from your diet, your water footprint is reduced by 55% (that’s over HALF!). Research shows that if all Americans cut meat from their diet, they would already be halfway to achieving the goals set at the Paris Agreement.
Cutting meat from the workplace would be one of the most meaningful sustainability strategies your business could implement. And many companies have already done it — including recipe site Epicurious.
One of the best ways to be truly sustainable is to support endeavors in regions that are often overlooked – such as Africa, Eastern Europe, South America, the Middle-East, and parts of Asia. Many of these regions have not benefited from the technology, health care, or education that other parts of the world do, and their people do not have access to the same resources or opportunities.
This is not to say that you should swoop in and set up a base to sell your product, or set up a system where you expect the people living there to do as they’re told. This has been called neo-colonialism, and actually harms rather than uplifts these communities. A better strategy for your business would be to support creators and entrepreneurs in these regions.
These regions face unique challenges, and the people living there meet those challenges with creativity and innovation. One of the best ways to guarantee the sustainability of these regions is to support education –such as the building of schools, and improving infrastructure so that there is easy access to clean water and sanitation.
If your business is in a position to participate in such sustainability strategies, supporting communities in this way and empowering them to build their communities is one of the most effective sustainable practices your business can engage in.
So you have all these ideas in your head, but don’t know what to do with them. Here are some simple first steps you can take to start developing your new sustainable business strategy:
One of the first things you need to do is to sit down and look at the problem. What do you want to achieve? Writedown your goals and organize them into clear, manageable targets. See what changes you can make immediately, and which will have to be implemented long-term.
Once you’ve identified your biggest problem areas, think about why you want to change them. Like any difficult task, you should define your end objective. Otherwise, when things become difficult, you’ll be tempted to just take the easy road, and bring back Fried Chicken Fridays.
So, to avoid this, write down your mission and make it as long as you like. Then, summarize it into one sentence that shows exactly what you want to achieve.
Once you have your mission statement, it’s time to share it with your team. This is where you’ll brainstorm and work together to figure out a game plan to implement your goals. Share your reasoning for each goal, and come prepared with research to back up your claims. Remember: you’re trying to make your team and company want to implement these changes.
One way to do this is to hold a business-wide meeting, remotely or in-person, and be transparent about the changes you’re planning to make, why you’re making them, and what you hope to achieve. Educate your team, and make sure you’re all on the same page.
The final step is to implement your strategy. Make your changes, and spread the word that your business is implementing sustainable business practices. Your team is diverse, you’re saving water, you’ve given up meat, you’ve found local providers for all your stock – tell them everything.
Record results before and after you implement the changes, and compare them after a period of six months. Assess these results and, if they aren’t as good as you’d hoped, look to see where you went wrong. If they’re everything you had hoped for, then see where you can keep improving. After all, sustainability is a continuous practice – not a simple destination.
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