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How to make sustainability accessible for small businesses

Here are 3 ways for small business owners to employ more sustainable practices.

Small business owner (man) checking online shipping boxes

Source: Shutterstock/wichayada suwanachun

Small businesses are the backbone of our country. They make up 99.9 percent of all U.S. businesses, according to the U.S. Small Business Association (SBA). The mom-and-pop hardware store is there in a pinch. The boutique on the corner sells handmade, personalized high-quality items, and the community craftsman can build just about anything.

Small business owners create a strong sense of community and bring incredible value to their local economies. One study by the American Independent Business Association found that small independent businesses return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales to the local economy than chain competitors. Just as small business owners operating physical shops contribute significantly to their local economies and foster a sense of community, the same holds true for owners who operate digitally and bring in revenue and create connections within the groups they serve.

While small business owners’ limited resources may make it difficult for them to offer the convenience perks of traditional, big-box retailers, one practice they should not shy away from because of those limited resources is sustainability.

Sustainability practices and efforts to better the environment may seem like something only larger players in the market can address, especially when considering, for example, the costs associated with installing solar panels on a building or operating solely off clean energy. But, in fact, there are plenty of impactful measures and best practices small businesses can employ to contribute to a cleaner planet. Here are three tips that small business owners can follow to improve their sustainability performance.

Connect with other small business owners in the community

There are almost always other small business owners in the community — whether physical or virtual — who have common goals and face similar roadblocks. For example, one small business alone may not be able to cover the expenses associated with installing solar panels or single-handedly driving the transition to wind energy in their community. However, every community comprises dozens, if not hundreds, of small businesses that could come together and contribute toward the larger goal. For example, a group of small business owners could collectively support the development of community solar, or jointly advocate that their municipality offer a green electricity option, similar to the Electricity Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Seek out one another through online support groups or community meetups about how to work together to be more sustainable. Local government representatives are also great resources to help move the community toward more sustainable practices. They can provide support by offering clean energy solutions, educating residents and business owners on recycling and reducing waste, or creating a sustainability commission.

Review current policies, procedures and practices

Resources for small businesses can be sparse; however, small business owners can take many concrete steps to operate more sustainably without breaking the bank. Owners can start by reviewing their existing policies and practices, such as for sourcing materials, packaging and shipping, and even for product returns. An operational assessment will help businesses determine what sustainability measures fit within their guidelines and what may require more action and policy change. By making thoughtful choices in these areas, small businesses can contribute to a greener future without straining their finances. 

For example, packaging and shipping is one effective way to improve sustainability practices. Is the business using suitably sized boxes and envelopes for each order or product? Could the company buy packaging made from sustainable materials or prioritize reuse? Local businesses can offer the option of pickup for nearby customers and print-free options for returns, reducing the amount of paper used and the unnecessary waste created.

For more information on concrete steps small business owners can take to improve their sustainability, see these 11 tips from eBay.

The journey is just as important as the destination

We live in a society where partial success is often viewed as failure. Yes, achieving 100 percent of what one sets out to do feels good. However, accomplishing 90 percent of a goal is still remarkable progress worthy of celebration. If a small business aims to achieve zero waste but doesn’t quite get there, the result still benefits the environment and is a positive step toward its sustainability goals. Sustainability is a long-term investment for everyone.

Small businesses make up the vast majority of companies in America and therefore have incredible power and ability to create positive environmental and economic impacts by operating sustainably.

By connecting with other businesses, reviewing and improving their practices, and embracing sustainable measures, small businesses can make meaningful changes and create a positive impact on the environment and their communities.

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