20 Sustainability Practices for Small Business

7 min read · 3 months ago


Sustainability benefits the business bottom line and brand reputation as well as customer and employee relationships. Making an effort to address environmental and social concerns feels good too. But that doesn’t always make it easy. This article shares several sustainability practices for small businesses

Let’s be clear; we’re not just talking about going green here, though that is a key part of business sustainability. We’re taking the broader view that looks at environment, social, and governance (ESG) considerations. The focus is not only on making the planet healthier but also on socially responsible and ethical business practices.

Yep, no one is going to tell you ESG is simple. However, it is important. That’s why we’re rounding up several sustainability practices for small business. Our approach will lay it out in terms of:

  • Quick wins
  • Step goals
  • Long-term objectives


Quick Wins

Whether you want to term them “quick wins” or “low-hanging fruit,” this section’s sustainability practices for small businesses are ideas that are easier to implement immediately. 

#1: Power Down

Leaving technology in standby mode all day or overnight draws a lot of energy. Instead, require employees to power down computers and other devices at night. It’s estimated that activating the sleep function on just one computer prevents about 300 pounds of carbon emissions each year.

Turn down air conditioning and shut off lights too. All of this can help cut utility costs and reduce environmental impact. 

Bonus tip: Asking employees to stop using screensavers and instead let the computers go to sleep can also reduce carbon footprint.


#2: Make It Casual Every Day

Not every business can take this route, but letting your employees wear more casual clothes to work can cut back on dry cleaning. The dry cleaning industry is innovating the chemicals used to mitigate environmental impact, but it is still using hazardous materials. The cleaning establishments themselves also emit these chemicals, which impact the land around the actual building.


#3: Encourage Environmentally-Friendly Commuting

Does your office have a bike rack or locker? Are you subsidizing employees’ public transportation costs? Do you have free, premium parking spots available near the office for those who ride in together? These are just a few simple changes you can make to encourage people to cut back on their carbon footprint contributions.

Use this calculator to determine the carbon impact of your commute. 


#4: Make Recycling Easier 

Place recycling bins strategically throughout your work environment. Give people a place to recycle plastics and aluminum in the break room. Paper bins should be throughout the office, especially by the copier and fax machines. 

Have a system in place to recycle ink cartridges and batteries. Also, look into partnering with a retailer for recycling your old electronic devices. Some technology manufacturers today will take back and recycle their old products. 


#5: Provide Eco-Friendly Office Supplies

Instead of stocking disposable pens, put only reusable ones and their refills in your office supply cabinet. Other green options include:

  • Reusable coffee mugs 
  • Bamboo utensils
  • Tote bags
  • Recycled paper (or paper made from bamboo, hemp, or organic cotton)


#6: Change the Bulbs

Incandescent bulbs use as much as 75 percent more energy, and they don’t last as long either. Switching to compact fluorescent bulbs can bring cost savings as well as sustainability benefits. Plus, if you’ve heard that it’s better to leave fluorescent bulbs on all day (because of the energy used to turn them on), that’s a myth debunked by Cambridge here.


#7: Audit Pay

Income disparity is a real issue for our society. Whether it reflects racial and gender inequities, or some other bias, not paying employees the same amount for doing the same work is a sustainability issue. Salaries, after all, are a major budget line for any business. Plus, what someone earns impacts their professional confidence and personal lives.

A pay equity audit is a good place to start. The Harvard Business Review recommends “comparing the pay of employees doing ‘like for like’ work…(accounting for reasonable differentials, such as work experience, credentials, and job performance), and investigating the causes of any pay differences that cannot be justified.”


Step Goals

These are going to take more time and effort than the suggestions above. Still, they can help small businesses and entrepreneurs demonstrate that they are shouldering responsibility for ESG.

#8: Remediate Pay Inequity

Make changes when your audit shows you that there are people not getting paid fairly. Your business may not be able to afford that all at once. But you can begin increasing the income on an incremental basis to level the playing field.

Bonus tip: Plan for pay transparency. In a radical move, a social media management company began publicly publishing its salaries. A bump in job applications from higher-quality candidates followed.


#9: Go Paper-Less

Building on the suggestion to make recycling easier, your business could take it a step further by going paperless. Invest in software that makes it easy for employees to create, share, and collaborate on digital documents. Then, set a business policy requiring digital copies instead. For everything. From emails and presentations to forms and files.

Long-term, you might look into blockchain too as a way to manage your supply chain with more details about the sustainability efforts of suppliers. For instance, the World Economic Forum in 2020 introduced a blockchain effort “allowing users to have a comprehensive picture of the flow of goods and other key environmental and social indicators and certifications of supply chain partners.”

 Bonus tip: If you really must print, try a smaller font!


#9: Reduce Business Travel

This one is easier to do in the wake of the pandemic. Nevertheless, your hearty road warriors may be eager to get back out there. Yet, business travel causes carbon emissions. 

At just one tech company in 2019, employees traveled so much for work that they generated a combined 146,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. So, Salesforce’s business travel was the equivalent of the carbon emissions of 17,500 homes over an entire year!


#10: Switch to Electric

If the business operates a fleet of service or delivery vehicles, consider making any new purchases electric. You might also partner with delivery companies and other suppliers who use electric vehicle (EV) fleets. Not only can this cut carbon emissions, but you could end up having a positive impact on the consumer market for EVs.


#11: Prioritize Asset Longevity

Shift the rip-and-replace mentality to one that looks for ways to prolong asset lifecycle. This could mean being more proactive using access to new data insights to take a preventive maintenance approach. 


#12: Review Hiring Practices

Being a business that emphasizes business sustainability will help you access a better talent pool. Yet you need to take that sustainability approach to how you hire also. One popular approach right now is hiring for a “cultural fit.” Only this tactic can be discriminatory in that it keeps demographics homogenous.


Long-Term Objectives

Finally, here are the sustainability practices for small business that require long-term planning and consistent, continued effort. You’re not going to be able to implement these changes overnight. But, in setting and achieving these goals, you’ll be making a concrete contribution to the world in which you’re doing business.

#13: Involve Customers

Informing your customers about your sustainability efforts can help boost your brand loyalty. At the same time, though, think about ways to engage customers in the efforts. You could:

  • Supply information about how to repair, reuse, resell, and recycle your products
  • Reward consumers for sustainable behavior related to your brand (something as simple as offering a discount for bringing in a reusable grocery bag is one example)
  • Provide your customers with a connection to secondary markets to extend your products’ lifecycle


#14: Invest in Smart Building Tech

Internet of Things (IoT) innovation offers many new technologies to power sustainable building management. You can connect the energy-efficient lightbulbs to building management software that turns lights off when sensors indicate rooms are empty. Or use tiny IoT devices to control airflow or water consumption more effectively to reduce utility bills and cut carbon emissions.  


#15: Explore Renewable Energy Options

Your business may even be able to become a power company! With renewable energy technology growing more affordable, more entities can generate their own power. They could even have excess power supply that they can sell to the market at a profit. Take this soccer stadium in Norway, which has 5,700 square meters of solar panels on the roof. It powers the field floodlights and provides electricity in the neighborhood.


#16: Emphasize Sustainability in Developing Company Culture

Create and maintain an organizational chart, write and disseminate (digitally, of course) an employee handbook, and document job descriptions. These efforts can help create accountability and ensure everyone is following the same policies and procedures.


#17: Recruit Diverse Board Members 

Finding board members is already a challenge for small businesses. Still, you want to think of the cultural fit point above. If you are only turning to people who look and sound like you, you’re more likely to build your business with blindspots. Working with someone who brings a different background to the table can help open your business to new ideas and opportunities.


#18: Introduce a Mentoring Program

Mentoring provides individual employees with the connections they seek. Plus, they gain valuable skills from their interactions with industry experts. According to the ATD, “unlike other tactics companies have used to improve diversity, mentoring is proven to make a difference.” Compared to “mandatory diversity training, grievance systems or job tests,” mentoring increased managerial minority representation “from nine to 24 percent.”


#19: Establish a Risk Management Team

Making it someone’s job to evaluate and anticipate risk can help your business thrive. This small business sustainability practice will support efforts to:

  • Minimize fraud
  • Improve internal controls
  • Maintain relationships with ethical suppliers
  • Anticipate risks (to avoid being reactive, which can put speed over sustainability)


#20: Establish a Sustainability Plan

Lay out how your business wants to make a difference as far as sustainability. Set clear goals and communicate them to all stakeholders. Assign roles and responsibilities to ensure that monitoring is ongoing. Establish accountability by having these individuals report directly to the CEO. Make sure that your business is always looking for areas of improvement as well.

Now that you have all these ideas of sustainability practices for small businesses, we encourage you to share your sustainability story. We’ll talk more about how to do that in the next article in this series. If you missed our discussions of What is Sustainability or Why Your Small Business Should Prioritize Sustainability, check those out too!