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The Small Business Guide to Sustainability Certifications

Sustainability certifications
Credit: petrmalinak/Shutterstock

Today, companies face pressure to expand their corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices. SolarCity's sustainability briefing found that 75 percent of consumers are more likely to buy a product or service if the company is making an effort to be sustainable, while 82 percent are more likely to purchase a product that represents CSR over one that does not.

How can businesses effectively market their environmental responsibility while avoiding the pitfalls of greenwashing?

Many companies have turned to accredited CSR certifications and awards. Sustainability certifications are voluntary norms and standards relating to environmental, social, ethical and food safety issues.

"These certifications help consumers and stakeholders understand that the company has gone through a third-party verification process to make sure the company is actually walking the walk regarding sustainability," Josh Prigge CEO of Sustridge said.

With sustainability reporting on the rise and a lot at stake for companies, there are several certifications businesses can choose from. Choosing the best one can be difficult, but here are some of the more popular ones to make your decision a bit easier.

B Lab certification requires companies to pass an online assessment for "social and environmental performance," integrate B Lab commitments into company governing documents, and pay an annual fee ranging from $50 to $50,000. "B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk," its website reads. Today, there are more than 2,564 Certified B corporations from 50 countries and more than 130 industries.

"We chose this certification because we feel it is the 'gold standard' for sustainable business," CEO of Vert Asset Management Samuel Adams said. "For small businesses like ours, it is not hard or costly to get."

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an ecology-oriented building certification program run by the U.S. Green Building Council. It is currently the most widely used green building rating system in the world, available for virtually all buildings. According to the company's website, LEED buildings attract more tenants, cost less to operate, and boost employee productivity and retention. Projects pursuing LEED certification earn points across several categories, including energy use and air quality. Depending on the number of points achieved, a project will either earn a Silver, Gold or Platinum rating.

The TRUE Zero Waste certification system recognizes those businesses that are working toward achieving zero waste, cutting their carbon footprint and supporting public health. Administered by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), certification is available for any facility and its operations.

To be certified, companies (or projects) must have a zero waste policy in place, and they must have achieved an average of 90 percent or higher in diverting non-hazardous waste from landfills, incineration and the environment for the past year. A detailed list of requirements can be found here. Businesses pay a fee between $1,200 and $1,500 and a certification fee based on the square footage of your facility.

Developed through a collaborative effort of the American Society of Landscape Architects, The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden, SITES (used by architects, landscapers, ecologists, etc.) provides performance measures rather than prescribing practices, supporting the unique environmental conditions of each landscape it certifies.

SITE-certified landscapes consume less water, filter and reduce stormwater runoff, provide wildlife habitat, reduce energy consumption, and improve air quality. The combined registration and certification introductory fee ranges from $8,000 to $9,500.

"My decision to earn a SITES credential reflects not only my commitment to the highest environmental standards but my commitment to provide consumers and the green building industry with the same shortcut for understanding the impact of landscapes that LEED provides for indoor environments," said Cassy Aoyagi, president of FormLA Landscaping.

The Green Business Bureau's (GBB) certification process is entirely initiative-based, so your company will receive points for each activity it completes. GBB's sustainability assessment identifies and communicates sustainability efforts that your small business has already completed, while also helping to guide and formulate future efforts. GBB certification differentiates itself from other organizations by making it easy for small businesses to customize their sustainability practices.

Member companies choose and prioritize different green initiatives. After completing each initiative, companies are encouraged to promote their accomplishments and continue their progress by focusing on new initiatives. GBB specifically targets small and medium-sized businesses. The cost of the program is dependent on the size of your business, with annual costs ranging from $375 to $875.

If these five certifications don't provide exactly what you're looking for, don't fret. There are thousands of sustainability awards available. Victoria Kate Burrows, project manager of Advancing Net Zero for the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) said the organization doesn't prefer any one certification due to a multitude of varying local conditions.

The WorldGBC's Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment challenges businesses around the world to set ambitious targets to eliminate operational carbon emissions from their facilities. Because of the complexity involved with metrics and various certifications, the WorldGBC has developed a few core principles to increase recognition among the various certification organizations.

"Even if you're developing a very specific tool to your market, you need to ensure that … key principles are met and that helps achieve alignment and commonality across a huge universe of certification schemes that are out there," Burrows said.

The same approach can be taken when choosing which sustainability certification makes the most sense for your business. Identify what certifications and measurements your competitors are using, find out what your customers prioritize, and look for a suitable certification.

Certification is an investment. David Veca, a family manager at Veckridge Chemical, stated,  "The certificates that are worth paying for are ones that align with your business's values, and, importantly, your target customer's values," he said.

Carlyann Edwards

Carlyann is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Business Journalism with minors in sustainability and music at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and will graduate in 2020. She is incredibly interested by the intersection of business development and environmental preservation. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys working for non-profit organization Carolina Thrift, running and playing the ukulele. She can be reached by email or LinkedIn.