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Make Sustainability Part of Your Business Model

image for petrmalinak/Shutterstock
petrmalinak/Shutterstock

Climate change has launched into the news in light of recent protests in London and across the world by activists demanding stronger action from governments regarding environmental policy. As the movement gains traction, more and more businesses are working to incorporate sustainable principles into their models.

These principles include a variety of ethical concerns, such as the following:

  • Workers' rights and compensation
  • Addressing environmental problems
  • Using renewable energy
  • Limiting waste
  • Addressing poverty
  • Prioritizing consumers' health through organic and low-toxin ingredients

Consumer interest in these principles could create huge economic opportunities for businesses, with a value of up to $12 trillion by 2030, according to estimates from the Business & Sustainable Development Commission. But building a business with a sustainable production model can be expensive and daunting, especially for small and midsize businesses or those just starting out.

Molly Fienning experienced the challenges of creating a sustainable business when she and her partners launched Notra, their line of ethically made sunglasses with biodegradable frames.

"We feel an innate responsibility to care for this planet for our kids, for their kids," Fienning said. That sense of responsibility helped her commit to finding sustainable solutions, from sourcing eco-friendly materials to creating an affordable marketing plan. She's also committed to encouraging other business owners to pursue sustainable business solutions of their own.

Business News Daily talked to several businesses to get their best tips for how to create a successful, sustainable business model while still growing, expanding and making it all work financially.

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. Sustainability is infusing more and more of our own at-home lives," said Fienning, who reduces single-use plastics and eats less meat as personal steps toward sustainability. "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.

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 plastic-like, plant-based 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.

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 much of its competition and using more environmentally friendly lightweight glass, which even saves the company money on its bottom line by 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 affect change in your industry or take advantage of solutions that were once outside your budget.

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," said Fienning. 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."

In addition to using the pre-existing 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. Because these businesses are operating from a place of ethics and core values, they 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," said Fienning. "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," said Fienning. "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."

Additional reporting by Katharine Paljug. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Kiely Kuligowski

Kiely is a staff writer based in New York City. She worked as a marketing copywriter after graduating with her bachelor’s in English from Miami University (OH) and is now embracing her hipster side as a new resident of Brooklyn. You can reach her on Twitter or by email.