7 min read

How Businesses Can Be More Sustainable

I’ve interviewed a lot of leaders in the space of sustainable business as a product of hosting The Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast. I’ve reached nearly 200 interviews! 

When discussing where the greatest opportunities are to adopt more sustainable models, here’s are the #7 most common prescriptions I hear:

#1 Measure the Carbon Footprint

We’ve seen plenty of “Net Zero” pledges as of late, whether that’s from the Amazons of the world or businesses of a much smaller size. 

The B Corp Climate Collective has Committed 1600+ Businesses to become “Net Zero”

The first step in achieving “Net Zero,” though, is to know what the current net is. 

And of course, I could just say that all businesses need to reduce emissions wherever possible (because they do), but the first step in reduction is measuring how much you are emitting. 

As we mentioned in a previous essay, there are organizations that are helping businesses do just that (Climate Neutral or We are Neutral). 

These organizations will also help businesses find where they should prioritize their reduction efforts. Step #3 for the Climate Neutral Certification process is to build your reduction plan after you’ve offset what you’re currently emitting. 

#2 Map the Supply Chain

For those that aren’t familiar with this, a supply chain is the sequence of activities that allows a company to deliver its products or services to the end consumer. 

Believe it or not, there are companies who can’t claim to know exactly where all their materials come from and exactly who touches them before they get to you. 

This is obviously a greater issue for companies that manufacture physical products. They might not know exactly where their manufacturers (typically abroad) get the materials to make their goods, or what their labor conditions are like. 

More ethical and responsible trade and labor practices begin with complete transparency. 

This, for example, is a major issue in the fashion industry. That’s why the nonprofit Fashion Revolution created the Fashion Transparency Index in 2014. 

The Fashion Transparency Index reviews and assesses how much information the world’s largest fashion brands disclose around their social and environmental efforts. 

They believe that the more information brands are required to share publicly, the more they’ll take action to clean up their supply chain (from both a labor and environmental standpoint). 

I think it’s valuable to hear a bit from my conversation with Orsola de Castro (one of the founders of Fashion Revolution) here, on how critical it is to create transparency in fashion, or really any industry. 

#3 Reallocate B2B Spending & Advertising

Businesses spend a TON of money just to run themselves. Of course, there are salaries, but then there are also their suppliers, their software tools, and their design, marketing, and recruiting agencies. 

The business-to-business (B2B) economy is actually larger than the business-to-consumer (B2C) economy. 

It's important to know not just what product a business delivers to the retail shelves, but also what they did (and who they spent money with) to get it there, right?

This is why the B Impact Assessment (addressed in the last post) has a question that asks businesses whether or not they “screen or evaluate Significant Suppliers for social and environmental impact.” 

If businesses take an analysis of every company they spend money with, they can see what other ethics, values, and practices they are supporting. Our company, Grow Ensemble, spends money with 20–30 different companies each month!

Let’s take a look at an example here. 

In 2020, Patagonia decided to pull all their advertising from Facebook. In a recent statement, CEO Ryan Gellert stated: 

“Patagonia stopped all paid advertising on Facebook platforms in June 2020 because they spread hate speech and misinformation about climate change and our democracy. We continue to stand by that boycott 16 months later.” 

Because they believe Facebook’s business model and practices are disruptive and corrosive, Patagonia has since gone on to call on other companies to do the same: divest advertising dollars from Facebook. 

Patagonia acknowledges the impact of where they spend their marketing dollars, not just on the number of sales, but for what it says about who their brand is supporting. 

#4 Pay Workers a Living Wage 

By definition, a business cannot be sustainable if its employees cannot live off the wages that they make.

If a business can’t afford to pay living wages, then they might need to change their business model. 

In the U.S., as a direct result of low wages, public assistance programs spend $152.8 billion dollars a year. 

Poverty is expensive. It’s expensive both for the individual experiencing it and for the community that they live in. 

We cannot expect to get people to care about things like climate change and living more sustainably if they can’t afford the necessities for themselves and their families (while also still working a job). 

As Paul Hawken, environmentalist and author of the book Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation says, 

The Climate Crisis is not a science problem. It is a human problem...If we are going to engage the bulk of humanity to end the climate crisis, the way to do it is counterintuitive: to reverse global warming, we need to address current human needs, not an imagined dystopian future.” 

And for every $1 per hour raise that those in the bottom 60% of earners receive, spending on government assistance programs decreases by roughly $5.2 billion. 

 Raise wages, make public spending more effective, and allow people to think about more than just meeting their needs. 

#5 Take Responsibility for the End-of-Life 

This should be the standard. Businesses manufacturing physical products should consider what happens to their product after its useful life is over. 

The majority of waste is created when we don’t reuse materials that we’ve taken the energy and resources to manufacture. 

This is why single-use plastic is so bad. Plastic is an extremely durable material and once created it can potentially have a long, useful life. Used once and disposed of, however, that plastic will most likely end up in landfill, the ocean, or in an inefficient recycling process. 

MUD Jeans, a circular denim company based in the Netherlands, created a “Lease a Jeans” model to state that they, the company, is responsible for the product when the consumer is done with them.

And our friends at Preserve have begun to create their products from plastics reclaimed from  waterways and ocean coastlines—taking accountability for other products’ “End-of-Life.”

The most sustainable businesses that I know of are extremely transparent and diligent in publicly documenting their social and environmental progress. 

If you dig through enough of these companies (I’ve spent time researching well over 1,000 of these brands), you start to see who stands out. 

A Good Company, a Swedish sustainable e-commerce company, has mapped out every single one of their factories on an interactive map and documented in extreme detail how they procure the materials used to manufacture their products. 

You can read more about the materials they use here.

This is all easily accessible for anyone and everyone on their website: AGood.com.

#7—Don’t Advertise. Advocate for Change

And lastly—a bit more intangible, but important in principle—businesses need to see this movement towards more sustainable practices as a critical and essential change for the good of the planet.

Not a marketing opportunity. 

This all connects to what we we’ve discussed before, here: it’s important that we define what a sustainable business is and what a sustainable business does, because there's a risk of the term being co-opted purely for the sake of selling more products. 

Businesses on the path to sustainability shouldn’t scream “Hey, look how sustainable we are!” They should instead use their marketing and communication strategies to do what we’ve described above: 

  1. Take responsibility 
  2. Measure, trace, improve, and report on what they can
  3. Be transparent and share their progress publicly

In turn, by being a true voice for change, not just another timely marketing campaign, I do believe that those businesses will be rewarded by the marketplace. 

Sustainable Business Becoming the Norm

Sustainable business will at some point just be “business.” 

It kinda has to be, for the sake of our planet…

While this may seem like a behemoth of a task, there are plenty of bright spots to look to. 

This—finding the bright spots—has been one of the greatest joys of doing the work that I’ve done with Grow Ensemble. 

And thankfully, I’m seeing more of these bright spots every day… 

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