Monday, October 13, 2008

How To Become a Sustainable Business

How does a business become a sustainable business? First, keep in mind that there is no easy one-step approach to becoming sustainable; sustainability is a continuous process that requires critical self-analysis, honesty, innovation, and risk. That is, before beginning this journey toward sustainability, a business should be prepared to be self-reflective, critical, and honest about all its operations and associated impacts and a business should be ready to take risks and be innovative, moving beyond its comfort zone and business as usual.

Second, consider that sustainability encompasses the operations of the entire business: every process, every activity, and every function. A business will not be able to implement one or a few changes and proclaim that the business has now achieved sustainability. A business should be prepared to apply the aforementioned critical self-analysis, honesty, innovation, and risk across all processes, all activities, and every function of the business. Sustainability is a company-wide change in mindsets, views, and practices related to how the business operates.

Lastly, realize that sustainability incorporates a triple bottom line in evaluating company performance: the environmental, social, and economic impact of the business (also referred to as planet, people, and profit). Since pursuit of this triple bottom line is central to sustainability, it requires further explanation.

Environmental Impact

The efforts that a business makes to reduce its environmental impact is equated with the term "going green." Since "green" initiatives can often be translated into financial terms (cost, return on investment, savings), this is often the first step a business will pursue in beginning the sustainability journey. Among some of the commonly implemented activities here are creating company "green teams" to explore and champion ways to become more environmentally-friendly, recycling and reducing waste, using recycled products, changing to compact flourescent lightbulbs, implementing energy-saving activities, pursuing LEED certification, and implementing ISO 14001 standards. Check out our list of FREE Ways to Begin Greening Your Business.

Social Impact

The efforts that a business makes to increase its social impact often refer to the impact of company policies, procedures, practices, and operations on employees, on those employed by its suppliers, and on communities, cultures, and society. A business should critically evaluate the impact of its own practices and policies on employees. A business should also demand transparency from suppliers to understand where all supplies were generated and the conditions under which they were produced. Common activities include the use of Free Trade products (such as coffee in the break room), avoiding products that may have been made with child or forced labor (check out Co-op America's 9 Cool Ways to Avoid Sweatshops), contributions to solving social problems, implementing SA8000 standards, providing fair and safe working conditions, living wages, insurance and other benefits, and a work-life balance.

Economic Impact

The efforts that a business makes to maximize its economic impact often refer to the economic impact the business has on communities or societies within which it operates. This does not refer to the "profit" the company shows on financial statements, but rather refers how the community or society "profits" from the presence of the business, which in turn will result in continued profitability for the company. That is, economic impact refers to the continued prosperity of the business due to the economic benefit it provides to the community or society. Common activities include the payment of fair and living wages, providing positive impacts on the local economy and on local economic development (job creation, tax dollars, property values), and assessing the stress or relief created for local public service systems as a result of the business' operations.

So how can your business become a sustainable busines? To begin your journey, pick one thing, one process, one activity, or one department. Be prepared to apply critical self-analysis and be honest in identifying the associated environmental, social, and/or economic impact of current business practices, processes, and operations. Begin by measuring the current impact, set goals and timelines for improvement, and then track and measure those improvements and results. Don't be afraid to experiment and learn what other companies are doing. Listen to employees, suppliers, customers, and others, including critics.

As your company begins its sustainability journey, remember that changes will impact operations company-wide. Therefore, sustainability education is important for employees, suppliers, and customers alike, as is communication of progress toward sustainability goals. It is also important not to overstate claims or accomplishments (referred to as "greenwashing"). Yet another word of caution is to remember that sustainability is three-pronged, while "green" is becoming mainstream, sustainability requires that you not overlook the other areas of impact (social and economic impacts).

As a company begins to build a track record of changes and successes, continue bringing more processes, activities, and departments into the fold until the entire organization is focused on the triple-bottom line of sustainability. There is no end to this journey, it is a continuous process.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog and particularly enjoyed the blog about becoming a sustainable business. Some interesting and good ideas.

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