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Updated Oct 20, 2023

Make Sustainability Part of Your Business Model

Developing a business with sustainability at its core can provide significant benefits down the line, like authentic marketing and operating under a shared mission.

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Kiely Kuligowski, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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At this point, the effects of climate change are pretty much an everyday conversation. As a small business owner, you can play a part in that conversation: Certain business practices can harm the environment. You might feel obliged to respond with sustainable business measures, and that’s a good move because sustainable practices can be a selling point. 

The thing is, sustainability measures can be challenging to implement while keeping your business profitable, but that doesn’t make it impossible. That’s why we’ve gathered expert advice from several businesses on going the sustainable route without breaking the bank. 

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is the capacity to continue over time without having negative environmental consequences. In the business world, sustainability is a goal: minimizing or entirely eliminating your company’s negative impacts on the environment.  

Sustainable business practices prioritize people, the planet and everything in between. As concerns about man-made climate change continue to increase, more organizations are becoming eco-conscious. They often do so by making sure they use only enough resources to meet their needs, minimizing the use of environmentally harmful materials, and establishing ecologically friendly procedures and supply chains.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Sustainability means not prioritizing immediate profit over long-term environmental impact. Most companies that embrace sustainability try to have a positive impact on the environment or society.

How to make sustainability a part of your business model

Sustainable practices can positively affect the environment and thus your whole customer base. In fact, some customers actively seek sustainable products. Of course, being eco-friendly is easier said than done. A sweeping change in company policies to implement sustainability practices takes serious time and effort. This adjustment period can go more smoothly with the proper strategies. Some of the most effective tips for transitioning to sustainability include:

1. Make sustainability part of your mission.

Making sustainability part of your business model can be difficult, and it is often more expensive or complex to implement. To do so authentically and effectively, sustainability should be a core part of your business mission, not just a marketing move or a public relations talking point.

“When dreaming of our own adult shades, we wanted to create a value proposition that felt authentic to us, something that hopefully makes a positive difference in the world,” said Molly Fienning, founder of ethically made sunglasses brand Notra, who reduces single-use plastics and eats less meat as personal steps toward sustainability. “Sustainability is infusing more and more of our own at-home lives. We [wanted] to begin taking steps and making business decisions that care for the environment today and every day, even if they cost a little more in the short term.”

Fienning’s and her partners’ eco-friendly commitment is reflected at every level of their business, be it the compostable frames of their sunglasses, their packing and shipping materials, or the manufacturing facility they partner with in Italy. For your business, you may have similar considerations, or you may be thinking about corporate partners, investors, worker conditions, or waste management and recycling. Any of these elements can incorporate sustainable and ethical principles.

“Sustainability is a core value of ours,” said Mik Breiterman-Loader, CEO of Vestive. “It affects our business both internally and externally, [from] our branding, our investment models, to what snacks we have in the office.”

Regardless of the moving pieces that make up your business, if you define sustainability as a vital part of your business’s values, it will naturally inform the decisions you have to make and create a more sustainable business model at every level.

2. Think outside the box.

It can be difficult for small businesses to find partners that are both ethical and affordable to work with. Most established supply chains, for example, are not set up to meet sustainable and ethical principles.

“A truly sustainable business model or supply chain is a step change, where you must think about disrupting the current business structure in order to make major changes to address more of the market,” said William Crane, founder and CEO of IndustryStar Solutions. “Your company and your suppliers need to think more like strategists to create new industry structures.”

When creating the supply chain for Notra’s sunglasses, Fienning and her partners had to spend a long time exploring their options. Less-expensive suppliers didn’t meet their requirements for an ethical production process, while the industry-standard plastics used to make most sunglasses weren’t eco-friendly. Their search eventually led them to a facility in Italy that produced a plant-based, plastic-like material, where they could also have their sunglasses manufactured according to their standards for worker treatment.

Whether you’re trying to create an ethical supply chain, looking for eco-friendly packing materials, developing a marketing plan or trying to solve any other challenge that arises in your business model, thinking outside industry norms can often lead to a more sustainable solution. Don’t be afraid to look overseas, emulate businesses outside your industry or see what previously unknown resources are available to you.

3. Accept imperfection.

Fienning and her partners work hard to incorporate sustainability at every level of their business. Their packing materials, for example, avoid plastics, and the packaging Notra sunglasses come in is compostable. But they admit on the company website that nothing is perfect.

Though the frames of the sunglasses are biodegradable, the lenses have to be thrown in the trash. Though Fienning would like that to change eventually, she doesn’t let it discourage her.

“Perfection is not possible,” she said. “But all those small steps in the right direction will add up to a significant distance over time.”

Greenbar Distillery in Los Angeles has made imperfect, sustainable practices part of its style by rejecting the heavy, “luxurious” bottles favored by many competitors and using more environmentally friendly lightweight glass, which saves the company about 30%.

Though your business model should strive to incorporate your sustainable and ethical principles at every level, that may not be possible due to your budget, industry or other limitations. That shouldn’t stop you from doing what you can from the beginning.

As more sustainable businesses enter the market, you may find that other supply chains, materials or partnerships become both available and affordable. Then, as your company grows and expands, you will be better positioned to effect change in your industry or take advantage of solutions that were once outside your budget.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway
Fully understanding the impact of one organization or set of business practices is a big challenge in going eco-friendly. Plus, sustainability is still controversial, so it's difficult to predict how your customers might react to the switch.

4. Embrace social marketing.

The movement toward sustainable business has a strong online presence, with devoted followers of #zerowastelife, #minimalistliving, #organic and other sustainability practices on social media and blogs. Taking advantage of these social communities can help you reach a wide and engaged audience, even with a limited marketing budget.

“Our marketing efforts at Notra have really been focused on making beautiful outdoor photography,” Fienning said. These images, she explains, are popular online, which has helped interest in the brand spread naturally in social media communities.

Consumers interested in sustainability are also active in finding and sharing products made by ethical brands, which Fienning says Notra has also benefited from.

“I’ve had multiple women approach me, saying they discovered Notra because their friend was wearing our shades and looked so great … This natural desire for consumers wanting to buy green has helped us,” she said. “People already want to buy and support the brand without additional marketing.”

5. Build a community.

In addition to using the preexisting online community, you can expand your brand’s presence and marketing impact by making a conscious effort to build your own community. Seek out popular bloggers who fit with your brand’s ethics and image, create your own hashtag for social sharing, and devote time to engaging with your followers and customers online.

Don’t forget to reach out to other sustainable brands. These businesses are often deeply invested in promoting the work and products of other sustainable businesses to their own customers.

“There are other really interesting green products out there from other cool companies, and we’d love to help boost those brands and their efforts,” Fienning said. “I am thrilled when I see any company genuinely trying to be more eco-conscious, because we are all starting a wave that will get stronger the more people join the effort.”

This sort of community sharing and support is essential to the growth of sustainable businesses. Interacting with other ethical brands can help you access new resources and markets. It can reinforce the value of creating a business that meshes with your personal principles if you ever find yourself doubting or struggling. You may even encourage others in your industry to start incorporating sustainable principles into their own business models.

“All these small changes, these businesses’ baby steps, add up to make a difference,” Fienning said. “If we make a … change in the right direction for our business today, maybe we inspire others – our customers, our competitors – to do the same.”

Isaiah Atkins and Katharine Paljug contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Kiely Kuligowski, Business Strategy Insider and Senior Writer
Kiely Kuligowski is an expert in project management and business software. Her project management experience includes establishing project scopes and timelines and monitoring progress and delivery quality on behalf of various clients. Kuligowski also has experience in product marketing and contributing to business fundraising efforts. On the business software side, Kuligowski has evaluated a range of products and developed in-depth guides for making the most of various tools, such as email marketing services, text message marketing solutions and business phone systems. In recent years, she has focused on sustainability software and project management for IBM.
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