4 success secrets for small business sustainability

Companies typically implement sustainability programs because they want to improve company culture, encourage employees to contribute to positive change and increase profitability by reducing costs. Yet even when the commitment is there, implementation can be challenging, especially in small companies where resources are limited and time is at a premium.

After my company, Briteskies, recently established its own sustainability program, I’ve determined four key principles that make the difference between success and failure.

1. Keep programs simple and cost effective

A simple program is easier to implement, increases employee acceptance and improves the probability of success. The first rolled out at Briteskies was the wellness program, which has just three requirements:

  • Sign a non-smoker or smoking cessation affidavit (no cost).
  • Complete an annual physical or health screening (highly encouraged and 100 percent covered by health insurance).
  • Participate in one company-sponsored wellness activity. Employees can meet the wellness activity requirement by attending, either in person or over the web, presentations available free through membership in a local program such as COSE, the Cleveland-based Council of Smaller Enterprises). In our case, COSE donated pedometers for our office-wide pedometer challenge.

Other wellness activities include local charity walks and runs, and volunteer service that includes physical activity such as Briteskies’ trail work in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

2. Look for ways to scale big ideas down

There are a lot of ways to scale things to a small business. Recycling programs are most effective when volunteers take a box or two of cardboard and a bag of plastic and glass home each week for inclusion in their municipal recycling streams at no cost to the company. Company event planners also can look at the menu for company events and find a caterer with healthy food alternatives, preferably sourced locally. It might be possible for a local food truck operator to set up in the office parking lot, coordinating the time with other offices in the area to make it worth the operator’s time.

If reducing waste is a goal, companies can look at installing motion detector light switches in less frequently used rooms or offices. A company of any size can reduce printed output just by eliminating the printing of presentation slides for meetings.

3. Engage employees by encouraging and rewarding positive change

Employees who fulfill Briteskies’ wellness program requirements "buy down" their health insurance premium contribution by 10 percentage points, a direct financial incentive to them. This program has been so successful that 100 percent of eligible employees qualified for the premium buy-down for the 2013 plan year, and over 75 percent already have qualified for 2014. Employees not currently on the Briteskies plan participate in case they switch plans during open enrollment.

Once engaged, employees often contribute additional program ideas which they have the opportunity to implement and manage if they choose. As an example, one Briteskies employee coordinates an office community-supported agriculture program, which he suggested during a company survey to identify wellness activity interests.

Several other employees have approached the recycling coordinators with questions about recycling and composting at home, confirming that our offices practices are becoming part of employees’ daily activities. The recycling program also came up in a recent meeting with local city officials who approached us about ways to improve the climate for local business.

4. Be consistent

One objective of any program should be to embed sustainability goals in as many daily activities as possible. Inconsistency sends a mixed message, reduces the changes of long-term participation and runs the risk of appearing as though the company is simply greenwashing. It’s better to implement just a few small programs to get going and be consistent than to try to launch a wide-ranging program that no one follows through on.

For a small business, competing priorities easily can get in the way without a top-down mission by the CEO and management team to talk, walk and live the sustainability message. At Briteskies, we have learned that once the message and behaviors filter through the organization and are reinforced in manageable initiatives on a daily basis, sustainability programs become, in fact, sustainable.

Image of open sign by mctrent via Shutterstock