Twenty years ago, a company could say it was sustainable and consumers would get excited with little questioning. But in an era of greenwashing lawsuits, consumers are demanding transparency when a business claims it's socially or environmentally responsible.
To meet these demands, many organizations have turned to third-party sustainability certifications. Given the recent emergence of the concept and multitude of options available, such verifications have gained a faulty reputation of being superfluously expensive and slow-moving. According to Tensie Whelan, the director of New York University's Center for Sustainable Business, companies often assume this is the case without doing their research.
Whelan believes there's a strong and growing exposition for a business to become certified. Not only do they provide transparency for consumers, but they also push the business to comply with standards that help improve the financial, environmental and social performance of the company.
Despite such benefits, several small businesses are still overwhelmed by the certification process. As the business case for sustainability continues to bloom, executives are investigating alternate avenues to demonstrate their responsible operations to consumers.
Create your own solutions
Sustainability is a broad and overarching pillar for any business that takes it seriously. There are plenty of approaches to ensure a business' sustainable efforts are being recognized and shared, said Josh Wadinski, founder and CEO of organic skincare line Plantioxidants.
"Often, if your business has limited resources, it is up to you and your team to identify creative solutions that illustrate its sustainability efforts," he said. "Remember, actions speak louder than words."
Plantioxidants prides itself on a few sustainability driven efforts that are "practically free." It's a member of 1% For The Planet and reuses all products to divert from landfill. Due to the multiple variations of zero waste certificates available, Plantioxidants isn't certified. But Wadinski said the company keeps this goal at the forefront of everything they do.
"When we held a launch party for Plantioxidants in San Francisco, we made it known to all of our guests that the whole event was carefully planned to be zero waste from start to finish," he said.
Plantioxidants shares its entire consumer purchase process on its website, which it calls the "Lifecycle of Beauty." Plantioxidants' formulas are made in the United States, bottled in post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic and boxed in recycled paper labeled with environmentally friendly soy ink.
The company is constantly trying to improve this process, and knows it isn't perfect. Plantioxidants' goals and shortcomings are shared through social media, blog posts and traditional media channels to ensure customers are aware of its efforts.
If your business promotes sustainability as a core value, it's essential to tell (and show) your customers how. Sustainability and corporate social responsibility reports are becoming increasingly popular to improve candor. Deloitte's Sustainability Disclosure report identified significant legal, competitive and market valuation risk in the absence of reporting.
Whelan suggests "certifying" your supply chain as a straightforward tactic to build transparency. Simply purchase from a certified company when buying the materials your business uses in production, and you can advertise accordingly.
While purchasing responsible products doesn't give you license to call yourself a certified company, said Whelan, you can call yourself a sustainable company: "Your proof points are in your procurement strategy."
Costly and difficult to obtain?
The real cost of becoming a certified company isn't in the actual certification, but rather in the cost of complying.
"If you're not interested in meeting the standards it takes to get certified, you shouldn't call yourself a sustainable business to begin with," said Whelan.
Whelan noted that some certifications could even help you save money in the long run. She identified the LEED energy requirements as an opportunity to cut costs with efficient standards. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED buildings report almost 20 percent lower maintenance costs than typical commercial buildings, and green building retrofit projects typically decrease operation costs by almost 10 percent in just one year.
With a quick browse on Plantioxidants' website, you'll find the skincare line is USDA certified organic. The certification is indisputably promoted, as the company outlines exactly what it takes to earn this title. Plantioxidants points out that "most other skincare companies" will loosely use the unregulated term "natural" to describe their products when they can't meet such requirements.
USDA even provides organic certification cost share opportunities, allowing operations to receive up to 75 percent of their certification costs paid.
Regarding the time it takes to implement, Wadinski said anyone running a smaller business knows that you will have to put in the work to execute it successfully.
"If you are not willing to put in the time nor the money it takes to be more sustainable, that is your choice, but be sure to reevaluate your company's core values," he said.
Do your research
Before you decide that a certification isn't right for your business, do your research. Whelan said it was difficult to recommend a general certification for small and medium sized businesses given that most certifications are specifically developed for certain industries.
Tools like ISEAL alliance, the global membership association for credible sustainability standards, can help businesses navigate their pursuit. Evaluate your company strategy to identify which certification(s) would be most valuable to your operations.
Your small business isn't expected to obtain every certification imaginable, or any for that matter. But earning one (or a few) could help provide compliance with, and a better understanding of, the evolving definition of sustainability. Ultimately if your company is going to advertise its commitment to sustainability, you shouldn't be cutting corners.
"There are an abundance of ways outside of costly certifications that low-budget small businesses can use to still make a big difference," Wadinski said. "Every action taken at a company is an opportunity to change the future for the better."