Small Business Sustainability Guide

Updated 15 Dec, 2023 | Build a strong small business

Everything you need to know to start building a more environmentally friendly business

As a small business, you’re one of the vertebra in the backbone of the Australian economy. Small businesses account for around 30% of all private-sector salariesover 30% of GDP and 98% of all businesses in Australia. So if we all want a beautiful, comfortable planet to live on and we want to avoid the many pitfalls of environmental degradation, we small business owners and operators must be environmentally sustainable just like our larger counterparts.

More than that though, six out of every 10 of your customers will decide whether to buy from you in part based on how sustainable you are. So, being environmentally sustainable could also improve your sales and directly impact on your bottom line.

To kickstart your thinking on environmental sustainability in business, here are some key ways you can build a sustainable small business. The audio is available below if you would rather listen than read.

Choose an ethical business model

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As a small business, you have the opportunity to make a big difference. You can show your customers that you care about more than just making a profit.

You can do this by incorporating sustainability into every aspect of your business. From the products you sell to the way you run your operations, you can make a difference.

One way to choose an ethical business model is to consider your impact on the environment. This means reducing your carbon footprint, conserving resources, and minimising waste. For example, you could source your products locally, use renewable energy sources, and adopt recycling practices. By doing so, you not only reduce your environmental impact, but also show your customers that you’re committed to sustainability.

Another important aspect of an ethical business model is the way you treat your employees. This includes fair wages, a safe working environment, and opportunities for growth and development. By valuing and supporting your employees, you create a positive workplace culture and increase employee satisfaction. This not only benefits your employees, but also contributes to your business success in the long-term.

You’re probably doing some or even many of these things already. But if you want to build a more sustainable business, it’s important you start by identifying where you’re at and where you want to go. I go into further details about some of these parts of an ethical business below. How many are you already doing?

Embed sustainability within your brand

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When you think about the word sustainable, what comes to mind? Many people think of environmentalism and conserving our planet’s resources. And while that is an important part of sustainability, it is not the only consideration. In a business context, sustainability is about much more than just being eco-friendly. It is about creating a brand strategy that’s aligned with the values of your business.

Sustainability can’t be a gimmick. If you want to use it as part of your identity for marketing purposes, it’s got to be congruent with who you actually are as a brand. You’ve got to live and breathe it. A brand that includes sustainability as a core value is well-positioned to become a sustainable brand that’s built to last. It’s a brand you can be proud of, and one that your customers can trust.

Below are some ideas that may help your business become more sustainable. Not all these ideas will be suitable for every business, so you’ll need to consider what’s right for you as a brand.

Work from home

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One thing COVID-19 taught us is that many businesses can thrive having team members work remotely from home. This has all sorts of benefits, not just for the environment but also for your team members, who will appreciate the work-/life balance that this can offer.

Of course, not all businesses can offer remote work to their staff all the time. (Massage therapists and baristas can’t offer their services remotely for instance.) But if it’s an option for you, then it’s definitely something to consider. You may choose to have team members work from home some days and work from the office on other days.

Working from home is fantastic for the environment since it reduces commuting to work, which can greatly reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Reducing your carbon footprint in this way can be great for your business and it shows that you care about sustainability.

Working from home can also be great for your team members’ productivity and morale. Employees who have the option to work from home are often more productive since they can design their own workspace and schedule and save time commuting, freeing them to spend more time with family and friends.

Sustainable products and packaging

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You can’t be an environmentally sustainable business if your products and packaging aren’t environmentally sustainable. But sustainable products and packaging can mean different things to different businesses.

Let’s start with products. Environmentally sustainable products are generally made from recycled materials or renewable raw materials that are harvested in an environmentally friendly way.

Take Who Gives A Crap toilet paper as an example. The brand offers recycled toilet paper made from office paper and a second toilet paper product made from bamboo, which is a sustainable alternative to trees. The latter is made from new materials but is still very environmentally sustainable.

When it comes to packaging, you’ve got a lot of options. You can:

  • Minimise your packaging
  • Make your packaging from recycled or renewable raw materials
  • Ensure your packaging is recyclable, preferably easily recyclable
  • Enable people to reuse your packaging in store

This last idea is one of my favourites as it rewards shoppers for being environmentally friendly. The concept goes like this. Your customer buys your product. They use it and wash the container. Then when they’re ready to buy some more, they bring the clean container back and refill it in your shop, paying less for the product because they’re not paying for any packaging.

I’ve seen this system used effectively for food (e.g. flour, seeds, oil etc.), laundry cleaning products, and personal care products. And I’ve seen some great examples of brands using [Loop] to do a similar thing for products they deliver to customers.

Something else eco-conscious consumers love is suggestions for how to reuse packaging at home. Here are some ideas you could use or which might give you inspiration for something that could work for your brand:

  • Packing products in decomposable ‘plastic’ bags that customers can then use to collect food scraps before disposing of them in their green-waste bin
  • Providing instructions for kids to turn packaging (e.g. cardboard boxes) into toys (you could even print designs on the packaging that makes it fun to play with — think space rockets and cityscapes for car racing etc.)
  • Providing instructions for making practical, useful everyday items from packaging, such as plant pots, pen holders, tablet carry bags, and more

Workplace design

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Many workplaces themselves aren’t environmentally friendly. So, next time you’re fitting out, renovating, designing, updating or replacing worn out features of a workplace for yourself or your team, consider using sustainable building materials and design features that will save energy.

Something a simple as switching to more energy-efficient lightbulbs can make a significant impact on the environment and is something everyone can do. If a new workplace or workplace redesign is on the cards, you’ve got far more scope to go really green. For example, energy efficient cladding can help your building achieve a 5-star green rating. You can design the building to be solar passive and make the best use of fresh air to reduce heating and cooling costs and the impact of that energy use on the environment. And you can add lots of windows to reduce your need for artificial light.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

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One of the most important things you can do as a small business is to reduce your impact on the environment by reducing waste. The more we can keep out of landfill, the better. And it’s not just about recycling your products and packaging; you can also recycle office supplies, furniture, and anything else you no longer need.

There are plenty of places you can donate unwanted items. Many charities could greatly benefit from the donations, and you’ll be doing your bit to help the environment.

If yours is a business that produces food or green waste, you can compost it. This is a great way to reduce your waste and help the environment. You can also encourage customers and employees to compost their food waste.

There are many ways you can reduce, reuse, and recycle in your business. By doing so, you’ll be helping the environment and setting a good example for other businesses and even your customers and clients. And if you need a little help recycling to the best of your ability, I can recommend TerraCycle as a great place to find free and paid recycling initiatives you may not be aware of.

Sustainability isn’t just for big businesses

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Many small businesses lament the disadvantages of being small. But when it comes to sustainability, being small can make it easier for you to be environmentally friendly. For instance, it can be easier to implement recycling and product refill programs on a smaller scale. And being more sustainable than your larger business counterparts could just be what you need to stand out and become the business of choice for a larger part of your target audience. So, reducing waste in your business is good for the environment, can save you money and may help you become more profitable in the long run.

You — the small business owner, marketing professional, or sustainability enthusiast — are the backbone of the Australian economy. Your efforts to reduce your environmental impact and promote sustainable practices help build a more resilient future for us all. So, take advantage of your size and start exploring how you can build a more environmentally sustainable business today.