While "green" and "eco-friendly" labels seem to be plastered on every product in the store, truly sustainable companies are about more than clever marketing. If you're starting a business of your own, or looking to make an existing company more sustainable, consider these basic essentials of sustainability in the business world.
1. Follow the life cycle of your products
For companies that produce a finished product, or components of a finished product, consider how you source your raw materials. Whenever possible, opt for renewable and sustainably produced materials with minimal environmental impact. It's equally important to consider what will happen when a product reaches the end of its usefulness. Can it be repaired? Recycled? Even products that are generally considered more sustainable alternatives, such as compact fluorescent lightbulbs, can have negative environmental effects if they're improperly disposed of. By building sustainability into your products, the impact of your business will extend far beyond its offices and manufacturing facilities.
2. Consider your energy sources
Even if the materials used to create your products are sustainable, it's likely that the energy used is not. The fossil fuels burned to create electricity are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Consider investing in renewable energy sources, such as on-site solar panels, and opting for energy efficient equipment and building design. The US Green Building Council's LEED standards are an excellent place to start.
3. Don't forget the human element
A major factor in building a sustainable company is in recruiting and retaining your workforce. Employees in training are less productive and therefore more expensive than happy, engaged, innovative staff members. The key to happy workers isn't only in their paycheck, however. Helping your staff feel valued as members of your company will also lead to greater productivity and a more efficient workforce.
4. Remember the triple bottom line
While it is important to consider the impact your business will have on both the natural environment and the people it serves and employs, the economics of running a business mean that these can't be the only priorities. The financial profitability of company is—obviously—crucial to its ongoing success. For this reason, it's important to carefully consider business models and to balance the needs of people, planet, and profit—the three components of the triple bottom line developed by business sustainability consultant John Elkington. By actively seeking compromises between these three (sometimes conflicting) areas of interest, businesses can achieve lasting sustainability that will provide social, environmental, and financial benefits as well.
Sustainability is a complex process with no fixed end point, a fact that leads many business owners to balk at the very mention of it. However, since there is no singular destination, there are also a multitude of ways to begin the process, allowing each business to adopt the practices that best suit its needs. With careful consideration and deliberate action, any business can lessen its environmental impact and become more sustainable.