Living in California, it's hard to ignore the impact humans have on the natural world. Between drought, wildfires, and the underlying threat of climate change that feeds these disasters, I'm constantly reminded of what's at stake if we don't all make a concerted effort to protect our planet.
Thankfully, there's a growing awareness in the business world that companies need to step up their commitments to eco-friendliness -- and that includes small businesses. A recent survey found that a majority of entrepreneurs around the world are willing to turn down an investor with a poor track record on sustainability. In theory, that kind of commitment is great, but how do those good intentions translate into everyday business practices?
As yet another Earth Day comes and goes, I decided to look into what sustainability looks like on a day-to-day basis for small business owners. Here are three tactics I learned from entrepreneurs who are stepping up and practicing sustainability every day of the year.
Consider Becoming a Benefit Corporation
For some business owners, sustainability is simply a mindset that motivates certain decisions. For others, it's literally baked into their business structure.
Sabrina Williams originally founded SEED, a company that brings sustainable agriculture to small-scale farmers, as a nonprofit organization in 2010. Eventually, Williams realized that her business structure ultimately limited her impact.
"We need to be able to sell something to help us be sustainable as a company and keep going. That meant having a for-profit model," she explained. "We didn't want to lose our impact."
For SEED, the solution was becoming a California benefit corporation. Available in the majority of states, this legal structure allows a business to make money while focusing on what's known as the "triple bottom line" of profit, people, and planet. Benefit corporations also follow reporting requirements that provide transparency and keep leaders accountable. If benefit corporations don't yet exist in your state, consider pursuing B Corp certification from the nonprofit network B Lab.
Factor Sustainability Into Every Decision
You can make a positive contribution to the sustainability movement even if your product or service has nothing to do with saving the world. At every step of your workflow, simply pause to evaluate the impact of any given choice.
"Whether it's the development of the product or the contract manufacturers or partners you're working with in the supply chain, there are opportunities all along the way to implement sustainable practices," said Christian Von Heifner, co-founder of FEND, which offers cyclists an innovative folding helmet.
At FEND, the sustainability journey started with a close look at the packaging. Von Heifner and his co-founder Sujene Kong found themselves asking themselves a fundamental question: Is this component enhancing the product at all, or is it simply there for no reason? Soon enough, they were reducing their plastic consumption by eliminating unnecessary polybags and desiccant packets from their products.
FEND also makes sustainable choices in other corners of its business, such as becoming a 1% for the Planet member, a pledge to donate one percent of annual sales toward non-profit organizations supporting environmental solutions, and implementing Shop Pay checkout on its website, which offsets carbon emissions with every purchase. Considered together, these small changes make a big difference.
Market Sustainable Products as Premium Products
A recent World Wildlife Fund report found that online searches for sustainable products have grown 71% in the past five years. Another recent study found that a third of consumers are willing to pay a premium for more sustainable products. As a result, business owners everywhere are learning that the extra legwork involved in ethically sourcing goods and services more than pays off.
"Sustainability paired with transparency makes money," said Cora Spearman-Chang, founder of Hawai'i-based apparel company Coradorables.
Conscious of her industry's less-than-stellar environmental record, Spearman-Chang took a step back from profit margin and focused instead on social responsibility. This means that Coradorables products are sustainably sourced and manufactured in Hawai'i. The apparel is more expensive than fast fashion, yes, but Spearman-Chang has found an audience willing to pay the premium for a premium, environmentally-conscious product -- especially among Gen Z consumers.
"This next generation loves to look good while doing good," she observed, proving once and for all that the kids are indeed alright.