How to Run a Sustainable Small Business

A wonderful project posted to crowdspring recently has got me thinking lately about the role of sustainability in the context of small business.

Iggesund Paperboard, a leading producer of high-quality virgin fiber paperboard, issued a challenge to improve product packaging.

The idea was simple: take a look around you at your local grocery, pick out a package, and reimagine how that packaging made of plastic, glass, and metal could be redesigned using sustainable materials.

The results are incredibly creative, and the ideas are wonderful. If all of the consumer packaged goods manufacturers worldwide took their own look and redesigned their own packaging,  we would see smaller landfills, a decreasing rate of climate change, an increase in recyclables, and a healthier planet.

Right now, you’re probably asking yourself, “What can a small business owner do?”

Let me tell you that the answer is simple and, if every one of the millions of small businesses around the world took these simple steps, the global results would be significant.

If you’re working on a business plan and working to start a new business selling products, this is the perfect time for you to think about sustainability and how you can differentiate from the market incumbents.

You can also do many other things even if you don’t sell products or use product packaging.

1. Recycle. Walk over to the nearest trashcan in your office and peer down. Does it contain any paper? Bottles? Cans? If so, you should separate those materials and send them to recycling instead of the local landfill. Check with your team – I can pretty much guarantee you already have at least one recycling enthusiast who will be happy to become the leader of your office effort at reducing trash and improving your internal practices. One idea is to start simple: provide everyone with two small trash baskets so they can separate their own trash and recyclables right there at their desk!

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2. Stop using that printer. Not only are those ink cartridges expensive, but they contain plastics that choke landfills,  chemicals whose manufacturing process throws off pollutants. Shipping and logistics support just to get them delivered to your door. Most of these printer toner cartridges are recyclable, so if you have to use toner, be sure to send them back when you buy new ones. Not to mention paper, right? How many reams do you go through in an average year? You can reduce the impact on forests, water use, transportation-generated pollution, and chemical runoff just by reducing your paper use. Seriously, in the age of email, smartphones, SMS, and Google docs do we really need to print so many documents?

3. Turn down the heat and turn off the lightsThat little box on the office wall controls the temperature in your office, store, warehouse, or plant. By adjusting it one degree higher when the weather is warm or one degree lower when the weather is cold, you can make a meaningful dent in our collective use of energy. Not to mention that many thermostats today are ‘smart’ devices that allow you to schedule when the heat comes on, or the a/c goes off; why not turn it way down when nobody is at work, and set it to turn on just before the first person arrives? Once you’ve done that, take a little walk around and turn off any lights in rooms or offices where nobody is working. Really, it’s OK if those places stay dark. Better yet, look into installing motion detector switches in places like bathrooms, so the lights will turn off automatically when the room is unoccupied.

4. Take a look at your own products. Maybe the Iggesund project can provide you some inspiration to find ways to improve your packaging, or streamline your shipping/receiving, or reduce your waste. If every one of us could do a redesign of a plastic package, or stop using plastic grocery bags, or consolidate our shipping processes, or reduce our dependence on paper-based-post-office-delivered marketing materials, we could make a serious dent in many of the environmental issues we all face.

5. Does your team really need to drive to work? And if they do, could they walk, take their bike, or take public transit? This is, of course, completely dependent on what kind of company you have and where you are in the world, but take some time to think and implement ideas that contribute to the greater good. Incentivize and reward the sustainable behavior you’d like to see – maybe a special lunch out for whoever racks up the most bike miles in a month? Or, a team raffle for a 1-month transit pass, or even gifting everyone with those little pedometers so they can start counting steps and measuring their walk to work (or the bus). Other strategies can include facilitating remote work and introducing flexible work schedules to help drivers avoid those gas-guzzling, pollution-creating rush hours.

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