11 min read

17 Actionable Sustainability Ideas for Small Businesses

Worried about your small businesses impact on the planet? We propose 17 actionable sustainability initiatives that can help your small business reduce its impact on the environment.
17 Actionable Sustainability Ideas for Small Businesses

Worried about the impact that your small business is having on the environment?

You might be one small operation, but you’re not alone. There are 400 million small and medium-sized enterprises in the world. If every small business owner was to take steps to become more sustainable, then added up it would have a massive impact on the planet.

I searched all over the web for ideas. Here is a list of 17 initiatives that will improve the sustainability of your business, help you become more eco friendly and reduce your environmental impact.

1. Make your products more sustainable

The first step is to look inward.

Review your existing lineup of products, map out the end-to-end value chain for each from the source materials to how it is manufactured and distributed, and determine whether there are steps that can be made more sustainable.

For example:

  • Are materials sourced sustainably?
  • Are there materials used you could replace with more sustainable ones?
  • Are there materials used you could replace with recycled materials?
  • Could you reduce the overall weight?
  • Is there excess wastage that could be removed in manufacturing?
  • Could you reduce the amount of shipping needed, or volume shipped?

This idea is first for a reason. By making your product lineup more sustainable you are not only helping the environment, but can also market your products differently to customers. And encourage a virtuous cycle to continue.

2. Use sustainable packaging

For businesses that ship products, packaging is a major part of the operation. From the packaging that each unit is sold in to the mailers and boxes they are eventually shipped out in, this material adds up quickly.

Recycled paper and cardboard are tried and true sustainable packaging options, but there have also been strides toward creating completely compostable packaging that results in zero waste at the end of its cycle.

Here are some examples of materials that have a minimal impact on the environment as they do not contain toxic or ozone-depleting substances:

  • Recycled cardboard or paper
  • Compostable bags
  • Biodegradable mailing pouches
  • Biodegradable filler
  • Packing product made from corn starch, bagasse paper (sugarcane fiber pulp) and mycelium (mushrooms)

Alternatively, here are materials to absolutely avoid using at your small business if you can:

  • Plastic wrap or cushioning
  • Mailing pouches with plastic bubble lining
  • Styrofoam packing peanuts (or Styrofoam anything)

3. Choose sustainable shipping and delivery providers

Small business sustainability doesn’t stop once your products have shipped, going green with your shipping practices will reduce your carbon footprint even further.

Many shipping and delivery providers have now invested in delivery infrastructure that is powered by and uses as many sustainable sources as possible. So you can consider switching to a more environmentally conscious shipping and delivery provider.

In addition, following on from Tip #2, you can think about how your packaging impacts the resources needed to ship your product to customers. For example by reducing the weight and size of your items that get shipped. Here are some quick tips for achieving this:

  • Use packaging that is as compact as possible to minimize cost as well as the amount of space your product takes up in the carrier. This will result in fewer trips and fewer emissions. Don’t put a tiny package in a box five times its size.
  • Cut down on waste (and cost) by reducing the “Russian Doll” effect of putting a boxed item into a second or third box before shipping.
  • Consolidate orders when possible.
  • Offer discounts for multiple orders to encourage bulk purchases.
  • Use environmentally friendly shipping materials.
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4. Reduce single-use items

Here’s a concerning fact:

Single-use items like straws, cutlery and cups account for about 200 million tonnes of plastic waste each year.

That’s equivalent to one hundred million passenger cars. Luckily there are simple ways for most small businesses to reduce their environmental impact with little effort:

  • Remove unnecessary plastic straws, cutlery, plates and cups.
  • Replace plastic straws, cutlery, plates and cups with compostable or recyclable alternatives.
  • Consider replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable bags.
  • Consider charging for single-use plastic bags.
  • Have employees bring in their own cutlery, mugs and containers to reduce the usage of single-use paper or plastic cups.

Look around your business for every opportunity to replace single-use items with their reusable counterparts.

One interesting strategy here is to start from zero and only add back the essential single-use items. It can feel extreme, but it works and shouldn’t impact business. On Day 1, remove every single-use item from your business and only add back the ones that customers or employees can’t live without.

The world and it’s oceans will thank you.

5. Use sustainable products

Workplace consumables are a great place to look for quick wins.

Consumables are items like pens, paper, ink cartridges, toilet paper, cleaning products, and many more that are a mainstay of every workplace. Many of these products can be easily replaced with more environmentally friendly options.

It’s quick and easy to do. Here’s how:

  • Look across your workplace and take an inventory of all these products.
  • Review the labeling that says it is made from post- or pre-consumer waste.
  • Replace any products that aren’t recycled or have toxic chemicals with recycled products and products with natural ingredients.

Using these products helps maintain a circular economy and reduce overall waste and keeps toxic ingredients out of the streams and their waste out of landfills.

6. Manage energy use

There are huge sustainability gains to be made in looking at your energy usage and finding ways you can manage how and when you use energy. Consider the following options to manage your electricity and energy usage.

On your premises:

  • Install timers on lights.
  • Turn off lights when leaving premises (considering security of course).
  • Where possible, make use of natural light.
  • Turn off equipment when it's not being used.
  • Reduce energy use during peak periods by switching off unnecessary equipment, installing automatic timers or using alternative sources.
  • Buy energy efficient light bulbs.
  • Replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs.
  • Reduce heat escaping by double glazing windows and insulating walls.
  • Reduce draughts by sealing doors and windows.
  • Supply employees with laptops instead of desktop computers.
  • Consider replacing old appliances with more energy efficient appliances.
  • Purchase or lease energy efficient equipment.
  • Install timers, smart meters and displays.
  • Regularly maintain equipment.
  • Regularly clean and replace air filters.
  • Consider energy efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and use the thermostat to automate temperatures.
  • If you’re a big power user, look into energy capture technology.

In your vehicles:

  • Switch to gas or electric vehicles.
  • Switch to a more fuel-efficient vehicle.
  • Keep up a regular maintenance schedule.
  • Optimize routes to reduce distances travelled.
  • Batch orders to reduce overall trips.

7. Switch to an alternative energy provider

These days, in most regions, alternative energy providers have emerged who offer to sell electricity through the grid that is generated from sustainable sources. They build and maintain the solar arrays, wind farms and other renewable electricity generation assets and simply offer to sell your energy from these sources. You can consider switching to a green energy provider.

Before you decide, consider all your options to ensure they suit your business needs and explore all potential costs and benefits.

8. Generate your own green power

Consider installing solar and other power generation systems to generate your own sustainable electricity.

Before you decide, consider all your options to ensure they suit your business needs, explore all potential costs and benefits, and find out if you can get money for electricity you send into the network.

9. Manage water use

Clean water is a scarce resource. Here are some tips to reduce your water use in your small business:

  • Look for water leaks in fittings.
  • Report leaking taps, toilets and showers.
  • Replace tap washers and seals annually.
  • Use a water meter or flow restrictor where possible.
  • Install rainwater tanks and water-saving devices.
  • Consider reusing or recycling water where possible.
  • Reduce frequency and volume of water used on garden areas.
  • Use mulch to reduce water loss.
  • Purchase or lease water efficient equipment.
  • Consider having a water management plan.

These are great places to start. If you are a big water user, you could consider doing a full review of your end-to-end water usage, find out how much water you need in all stages and look for ways to make it more efficient.

10. Manage waste

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

This can be your new mantra around your business.

The order of the Rs is important. First, small businesses should endeavor to reduce usage where they can. Instead of disposable cups, plates and utensils (not to mention coffee pods), they can opt for real glass and ceramic alternatives.

Second, reuse items whenever possible. In the warehouse, instead of throwing out structurally intact boxes, they can go another round. In the office, employees should be encouraged to use both sides of the printer paper.

Finally, when reducing or reusing aren’t possible, recycling is the next best thing. Many cities helpfully provide bins for this and have made the recycling process less complicated, so it’s much easier to leave the trash can entirely empty these days.

Encourage your staff to look for opportunities across all three Rs. Here’s another practical process you and your staff can run through:

  • Know what your waste is: A quick look in your bins will help you to understand the types of waste and how much waste your business produces. Measure the amount of waste your business creates and identify materials you could recycle or re-use.
  • Separate the different types of waste: It is important that you know what rubbish your business can recycle or reuse. Have separate bins for waste going to landfill and for recycling.
  • Introduce a waste reduction program: This is a great way to build cooperation and communication amongst your staff on reducing waste. Appoint a waste management coordinator who can identify local recyclers and establish a program for your business’s needs.
  • Review your products: Consider whether the cost of disposing of materials is more than the cost of producing or buying them. Could your business use fewer materials in packaging, or better still, reuse or recycle them?
  • Buy green goods: Talk to your supplier about using environmentally friendly products or materials.

The best way to keep waste out of landfills is by never sending it there in the first place. Remember, about 75 percent of the solid waste that people throw away is recyclable.

11. Compost

Another way to divert waste from landfills is to compost. An increasing number of cities are capable of composting just about any organic matter.

The difference between that banana peel in the compost and that banana peel in the dump is what it becomes. In the dump, it slowly decays and off-gases methane, a much more destructive greenhouse gas. In the compost, it decays quickly and becomes soil for gardens and parks.

The workplace is a perfect place to implement a compost program. All those lunch leftovers can be turned into soil instead of methane.

12. When you can, go second hand

When you buy a new item, it means fresh energy and raw materials had to be harvested to make it. When you buy a secondhand (or preloved) item you are not duplicating these resources, they have already been harvested in the past.

This goes for equipment, but another fantastic opportunity here is office furniture. Look in second hand markets for used (and often higher quality) tables, chairs, couches and desks.

This ensures that fully functional equipment and furniture isn’t thrown out and sent to landfills, is a big money saver, and can often be higher quality too.

13. Do business with green businesses

Your suppliers use energy too.

This counts towards your businesses carbon footprint and you can choose to go carbon-neutral with the companies they choose to operate with.

From software companies and food and beverage brands to apparel labels and shipping carriers, carbon-neutral vendors can be found across every major industry. For many small businesses, their supply chain also will have a big impact on their own footprint.

Again, becoming a sustainable business depends on the companies they support.

14. Offer remote work

Remote work is great for the environment.

It means that people do the same work as they would from an office, just from the comfort of their own home. Every time that happens, it saves a commute. A lot of this time it’s a car or bus trip saved and the fuel is not burned.

This is great for the environment. Fewer cars on the road, idling in traffic, equates to less carbon dioxide (CO2) being emitted into the air. With less employees in the office, there is less need for lighting and heating of the larger spaces that they occupy.

Remote work has become much easier these days. Before COVID-19 the infrastructure had been built, and it has only taken off since. Between Zoom, Loom, Gmail, Google Sheets, Google Slides and Canva, all the tools are there.

Small businesses that can, may look to encourage their employees to work from home and reduce the overall carbon footprint of their operations.

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15. Encourage use of public transport

Daily commutes to and from work greatly contribute to the amount of carbon dioxide in our environment. By incentivizing your employees to use public transit, carpool, or even work from home, you can help reduce the number of cars on the road and subsequently, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the air.

Many cities offer subsidized transit passes for small businesses. If that’s not an option in your area, use human resources software to provide employees with public transit benefits.

Also, consider installing a bike rack outside of your business. Both employees and customers alike can take advantage of this measure and leave their cars at home.

When employees do need to be in the office, how their commute contributes to greenhouse gas emissions still can be influenced.

Public transportation (buses, trains, vanpools) is the greenest way to commute, and companies can encourage employees to take advantage of these transport options.

16. Reduce non-essential business travel

The airline industry is a major emitter of pollution and business travel makes up a large portion of airline travel. There’s no reason to add pointless or redundant trips to the system.

Look for opportunities to:

  • Make a phone call instead of holding a meeting,
  • Send an email rather than posting,
  • Conduct virtual meetings to save the cost of making business trips.

17. Buy carbon offsets

Finally, for whatever portion of a company’s carbon footprint that can’t be reduced through changes, the purchase of offsets can move the needle to carbon neutrality.

Businesses can use a variety of carbon marketplaces to both calculate and offset their emissions. When choosing, it’s important to search for third-party certification and the projects the investments are made in.

Simply Google “carbon offset organizations” to find the right provider for you.

Final thoughts

I hope you are walking away from this post with a selection of actionable tips you can test for your business. That you have found some eco friendly initiatives to implement to start making a difference.

As a small business owner, you might think your environmental impact is of little consequence. But if it helps, your customers might not see it that way. Here are some results from a recent survey:

  • Sustainability is an important issue for consumers of all age groups, with at least 75 percent saying it is moderately to extremely important to them.
  • 57 percent of responders said climate change had somewhat or fully caused them to reassess their purchasing habits.
  • 71 percent of responders said they had set goals to purchase more sustainable products in 2020.

This isn’t just the right thing to do, it might just be good business too.

Before you go...

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The little optimisations, the high-impact tweaks and the 1% gains you can make to your business to make it a little better, a little more profitable and even a little bit more pleasant to run.

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