Big companies dominate the news when it comes to environmentally sustainable initiatives. But there's less information out there for smaller businesses on how to be sustainable. You might think that your efforts aren't big enough to make a difference, but there are still many steps you can take to reduce your company footprint (and your running costs). And making sustainability an active part of your employees' lifestyles is a big step in the right direction.

Sustainability has been in the spotlight a lot in the last few years. Just in the last few months alone, Starbucks pledged to ban plastic straws by 2020. Additionally several Australian state governments have banned single-use plastic bags. There is no doubt that today, environmental impact is a hotter topic than ever.

Other parts of the corporate world have also adapted to this new climate (pun intended). Deloitte has committed to partner with both NGOs and governments to find new solutions for climate change. Consumer giant Unilever has been named the premier leader in global sustainability for the seventh year running. When big business jumps on the bandwagon, it’s a sign that being ‘green’ is no longer only the concern of fringe groups. Today, it is simply a part of how business should be done.

We applaud the efforts of these larger companies, but at the same time, there is less information out there for smaller businesses. As a small business, you might not have the resources to go 100% renewable. Or you might think that your efforts aren't big enough to make a difference. But there are still many steps you can take to reduce your company footprint (and your running costs). And making sustainability an active part of your employees' lifestyles is a big step in the right direction.

First off – what is sustainability?

Sustainability is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot as a buzzword, but what is it exactly? If you're looking to get on board and improve your sustainability efforts, it’s important to first get a firm grasp on what the term refers to.

On this subject, we consider the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development to be an authoritative source. They describe sustainability as made up of three overlapping pillars. There are people (social sustainability), profit (economic sustainability) and the planet (environmental sustainability). We're focusing on the planet here, but it's hard to separate environmental considerations from people and business. So, you need to consider all three in how you approach business practices that are better for the planet.

Why take up sustainability?

So, what is it that both large businesses and small businesses have in common? Chiefly, the people they serve. As the public becomes more environmentally conscious, purchasing decisions change. Offering sustainable solutions is no longer a matter of personal preference. It's an important business decision. In fact, a worldwide survey in 2014 found that 55% of people were willing to pay more for goods and services from sustainable companies. Now more than ever, consumers care about how products are made, and what companies are doing to reduce their carbon footprint. This means that sustainability is a part of competitive business. If you want to grow your customer base, take a look at what they're looking for. Embracing sustainability is both a smart decision for your business, and the planet. They're no longer mutually exclusive!

And it's important to note that sustainable business practices just make sense. Whether your business employs 300,000 people or 3, we all have our part to play in alleviating climate change. This doesn’t mean that your efforts have to be disproportionate. It’s about taking into account your company structure and considering ways that you can ‘go green’.

Put a badge on it.

If you are going to brand yourself as a sustainable company, you will need to back it up with some evidence. Consumers are getting wise to brands that practice ‘greenwashing’. This refers to companies who spend more time marketing themselves as sustainable than making themselves sustainable. You need to provide customers with more evidence than just sticking the word left, right and center.

For example, at noissue our products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC verifies that we source our paper in both a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Official recognition reassures customers that you practice what you preach. It also means that purchasing from you adds to their own sustainability efforts. Partnering with other green companies is another great way to expand your sustainability impact. By aligning yourself with like-minded companies in your supply-chain, you can make your operations all the more environmentally friendly.

Get your employees involved.

To make your efforts a success, approach sustainability from both an operations and a personnel perspective. For starters, try getting everyone in the company together for a brainstorming session. You'd be surprised how many people are ready and willing to start taking steps to improve their environmental impact. They just need a push in the right direction! Having your employees at the front and center of your sustainability efforts is crucial to an eco-minded office culture. Try, for example, a beach clean up day, or a tree planting excursion instead of traditional team-building activities. You'll find that these activities are not only great for company morale, but will bring your employees together around a common cause. Plus, a day outside is always good for morale!

Another idea is investing in reusable coffee cups for your team members. Oftentimes, barriers to personal environmental sustainability are low. Providing an alternative to takeaway cups can be a welcome-to-the-team gift! And there are plenty of branding options out there. For example, KeepCup allows you to customize reusable cups with your logo so that you can (literally) brand yourself as sustainable. And if you haven't checked out their ReuseHQ they have some excellent information on eco-friendly practices and can track your company's environmental impact.

It's good to note as well that the difference between recyclable and non-recyclable goods is often not communicated well. Taking your employees through what can and can't be recycled allows them to understand better how they can help. This education also encourages them to be more eco-friendly when it comes to their personal lives.

Here is a (definitely not exhaustive) list of suggestions:

  • Going paperless, or else buying green-certified stationery
  • Offering employee stipends for bicycle purchases
  • Providing passes for public transport or organizing group carpools
  • Making recycling more prominent in the workplace
  • Turning off all electronics at the end of the day
  • Using LED light bulbs
  • Buying second-hand office furniture
  • Reusing packaging materials
  • Involving your customers

How to get customers involved:

As well as selling a sustainable product/service, you can capitalize on your message by giving customers the option to get more involved. Whether it's donating a portion of profits to environmental charities or inviting more active participation, this ensures that you take sustainability to every level of your company.

An initiative that we have started (and would encourage all to join!) is our Eco Packaging Alliance. This allows customers to partner with us to plant trees across the world, and comes with a badge for their website or storefront. We’ve also put out a video on the topic as part of our Beyond the Box series! Check it out here.

At the end of the day, showing that you take the environment seriously, not only gives your company a competitive edge but helps do your bit for the planet. And we're all grateful for as much as you can do.