How Small Businesses Can Bridge the Gap from Sustainability to Profitability

Small business is anything but small when you look at the numbers. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s updated standards from 2012, firms with fewer than 500 employees are generally characterized as “small.” The revenue thresholds based on sector range from under $1 million to $35.5 million, with $7 million being the most common benchmark. Half of all private sector employees work at these companies; they power the American economy.

However, a 2012 survey by MIT’s Sloan Management Review and The Boston Consulting Group found that only nine percent of companies with fewer than 1,000 employees embrace sustainability.

At our Sustainability and Small Business Summit Wednesday, September 26, 2013 at the Artisphere in Arlington, Va., leaders from small and large businesses, government agencies, consultancies, non-profits and trade associations gathered to explore the challenges and opportunities associated with going green. A host of speakers, including Antonio Doss and Natalia Olson from the U.S. Small Business Administration; Bill Valdez from the U.S. Department of Energy; Laura Abshire from the National Restaurant Association and David Levine from the American Sustainable Business Council, addressed issues ranging from navigating funding options and incentive programs to using data to measure and adjust green initiatives.

Roger Ballentine, former chair of the White House Climate Change Task Force during the Clinton administration and current head of Green Strategies, Inc., reached the crux of the challenge small businesses face while moderating the final panel of the day on leadership.

Benefiting from sustainability—in profit and reputation—today requires risk on the part of business leaders, while it should evolve to something businesses just do. How do small businesses get there? Solutions become viable as barriers to entry drop and the costs of resources and energy increase.

Resources abound for entrepreneurs and established businesses looking to reap the rewards of sustainability, though putting ideas into action and finding the capital to do so requires planning, and collaboration from partners and the community. Gary Skulnik, co-founder and president of Clean Currents, pointed to a critical benefit of a sustainable business in the marketplace. 

Gary Skulnik from.@cleancurrents, #sustainabilty is not just an operations decision, is also an important marketing choice #GreenBizSummit
— VerizonGreen (@VerizonGreen) September 25, 2013

Our host, panelist and Verizon’s Chief Sustainability Officer Jim Gowen, made a key point about conversations on sustainability: A message of fear does not motivate institutional change. Rather, focusing on the resiliency of your business and helping the consumer feel good about choosing your product over another is the path to success. Gowen noted that global corporations such as Verizon are “humbly in their infancy” in their approach to sustainability, and that businesses must consider every facet of their “process, people and products.” Sustainable businesses are resilient businesses, and resilient businesses create shareholder and consumer value.

Here are some valuable resources our panelists mentioned throughout the day for businesses interested in getting started on the road to sustainability: