15 min read

The 9 Sustainable Business Practices That Will Make Business Better


Building a sustainable business is about creating a system and culture that supports it. 

Author James Clear explains this well in his best-seller, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. He explains in effect, the value of focusing less on your goals and more on the systems you must establish to achieve them. 

And so, at a high-level sustainable business (or those on the sustainability journey), repeatedly implement the following step-by-step system: 

  1. Measure “Impact”
  2. Assess the greatest opportunity for improvement
  3. Improve
  4. Repeat

That’s the core practice of what makes a sustainable business well, sustainable. These businesses continually try to see their honest impact (positive or negative) and seek remedies. 

In this post, however, we’ll go beyond the high level and get granular. We’ll discuss what specific practices sustainable businesses choose to adopt and for what reason. 

Before doing that, let’s ensure we speak the same language with some definitions.

What are Sustainable Business Practices?

Before delving into the many examples of what to do, let’s explain what we should be aspiring to as business leaders by first understanding what a sustainable business practice is. 

To do that, let’s back up and first answer: 

What does it mean to be a “sustainable business?”

The definition that I’ve arrived at before (from many years of research) for a sustainable business is the following: 

A sustainable business is a business that continuously strives to leave all stakeholders better off.

This definition is simple in theory but vastly more complex in practice. 

For our purposes here (to share in the sustainable practices to follow), we should cover a meaningful change in our understanding of sustainability broadly as well in business.

The Intersection of Sustainability

First and foremost, sustainability isn’t strictly about environmental sustainability. It must encompass social sustainability as well. There truly is no separating the two. 

As we’ve come to understand, groups most historically socially oppressed, excluded, or impoverished have and will continue to experience the earliest and most dramatic effects of environmental degradation

While money doesn’t make it possible to completely escape the effects of climate change (unless your idea is to colonize another planet), it does help you navigate and avoid them to a great extent. For example, in peak summer temperatures in Texas, the central air conditioning in my family’s house went out. While not ideal and perhaps inconvenient, we can afford to stay in an Airbnb with a functioning central A.C. system while we await the repairs. 

Only some people are as fortunate. What’s inconvenient for us and our family might be dangerous and life-threatening for another. 

While on a small scale, we can use this example to connect the environmental and social. The carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases we’ve emitted has affected our climate.1 One result of our changing climate is hotter summers. Texas is about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average than in the 20th century. Greater heat due to how we’ve treated our natural environment means more heat-related illnesses and deaths. 

In July 2023, my town of San Antonio reported a record high for heat-related illnesses in a single week. 

What we do to the planet, we do to the people.

Businesses Make and Break Communities

Aside from the effects of climate change, we can’t help but acknowledge that businesses have an incredible social impact (negative and positive) on the communities in which they do business. Let’s take the historic example of Detroit. 

The city was designed and developed for the automotive industry (hence the nickname “Motor City”). However, a cascade of events led automakers to all but abandon the city for cheaper labor pastures. Environmental considerations aside, a business’ decisions about where they operate, how they operate, and for how long significantly affect the socioeconomic standing of the local community (employees and non-employees alike). In Detroit, many people who had since made the “Motor City” home lost their jobs, and as a result, the small businesses in the community that served that workforce saw their patrons’ incomes decimated. 


Only recently has it been discussed that Detroit is rising from the ashes of the ascent and later mass exodus of the automotive industry in the mid-20th century. 

Our communities’ sustainability intertwines with the local businesses that exist there. And so, a sustainable business must be a socially responsible business, as well as an environmentally friendly business

All in all, we must see these seemingly different definitions as the same thing. 

And so sustainable business practices are activities adopted by businesses that advance a business towards that never-ending goal—leaving all stakeholders (people and the planet) affected by their business better off.  

Altogether, these definitions make for a much larger discussion (which I’ve had in another article): What is Sustainability in Business?

📼 WATCH: Check out our multi-part series: Sustainable Business 101

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Why are Sustainable Business Practices Important?

So, why does it matter that businesses pursue sustainability? Well, we alluded to this in the section above. Quality of life, or life, really depends on it. 

Businesses can exasperate the effects of climate change or choose to lead our transition to a low or no-carbon, more equitable economy. 

And similarly, businesses can be a source of security, stability, and resiliency in the communities in which they operate, or like the Big 3 Automakers in Detroit, act parasitically, feeding off a community until it no longer serves their business interests. 

Inadvertently or not, businesses make an impact environmentally and socially. Carbon emissions don’t go away if we don’t acknowledge them. Likewise, what a company chooses to pay its workers impacts the lives of those workers, whether a business wants it to or not. 

It’s not a decision whether a business will participate in “sustainable practices” or not. They do or they don’t, whether they decide it or not. 

Unfortunately, given the culture of conventional business (profit above all else) and the nature of our fuel sources (highly pollutive), the baseline for business might be a net-negative impact. 

And so, if a company chooses not to “pursue sustainability,” they are essentially saying we’re okay with negatively impacting people and the planet to produce our profits. 

The business of business isn’t just business. It’s much, much more than that. 

Likewise, this is a subject I found deserved a much grander stage, which I suggest you read here: Why is Sustainability Important for Business? 

However, let’s get to our examples of sustainable business practices to envision what exceptional social and environmental responsibility can look like in business.

Examples of Sustainable Business Practices

These “sustainable business practices” are organized into principles, with the idea that we can apply these principles most appropriately in business no matter what the world looks like (100 years in the past, today, or 100 years in the future). 

“Sustainability” has always existed whether or not we’ve been using the term. Business has always had some impact on the world, be it negative or positive. Sustainability has become a conversation in the modern world because we’ve long been draining the savings account that is our natural resources. You can only live above your means for so long. 

However, whether through the rise of the steam engine or artificial intelligence, the wisest and most community-minded business leaders can reason through the situation and make a decision that enables a better future using the principles I share below. 


Reject Conventions

Being a sustainable business means that, at times, we must be courageous and reject the status quo, do what’s unpopular, and swim in the opposite direction of our peers to continue redefining the standard for what’s “Good Business.” 

As mentioned, Milton Friedman’s declaration2 and our fossil fuel infrastructure mean our baseline might be underwater. 

And so, to be better, we first have to be different. 

Let’s take a look at an example, Yvonn Chouinard and Patagonia. 

Since its inception, Yvonn Choudinard charted a course with Patagonia to see if business can be done in a different, less destructive way. 

Again and again, the company rejected business conventions, even “necessities” as they were, for the sake of doing what might be better: 

  • They first looked at their materials, where they sourced them, whether they were organic, and what they could/couldn’t recycle. 
  • They started giving away 1% of their top-line revenue each year to grassroots environmental nonprofit organizations and were responsible for creating a community of businesses doing the same.
  • They became a Certified B Corporation and the first California Benefit Corporation when that corporate structure was permitted.  
  • They changed the company’s purpose, summed up in their purpose statement, “We’re in business to save our home planet.” 
  • They designed products to last to encourage customers to buy less often
  • They gave employees days off to surf when the waves were good and ski when there was fresh snow. 
  • They offered flexible parental leave and provided on-site childcare.

Is Patagonia perfect? No. But, again and again, Patagonia (and its leadership) have dared to challenge convention and do the unexpected for greater environmental protection or perceived social responsibility. 

Raising the bar for business for a more sustainable future might mean having the courage to swim in the opposite direction of where the rest of the business world is swimming. 

Specific Practices

Here are a number of practices (at least in modern business) that go against convention but can have an outsized impact, both environmentally or socially: 

Build a Local Supply Chain — While most businesses have offshored their supply chains, building a localized supply chain decreases emissions with less transportation, offers more significant economic benefits to the local community, and increases resilience in crises (e.g. COVID). 

For more, listen to my interview with Eric Henry, President of T.S. Designs in North Carolina—as Eric explained, the benefits of sourcing locally “go beyond the P.O. (Purchase Order).”


Employee Ownership — Employee Ownership, through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) or worker-owned cooperative business model, distributes wealth, decentralizes authority, and makes organizations more democratic. 

4-Day Work Week — Companies all over the world are experimenting with a 4-Day Work Week. The experiments, like the largest recently completed in the U.K., reduced employee working hours to 32 hours per week without reducing pay. While the benefits for employee well-being were tremendous (with no notable drops in productivity), the reduction in working hours correlated with a decrease in carbon emissions.

Be Transparent

Sustainable brands are transparent brands. A business (pursuing sustainability) should seek to be more transparent with what they do, how they do it, where they do it, and who is doing it. 

Transparency must be the standard to empower consumers, so they’ll demand transparency be table stakes of doing business and protect those hidden within a company’s globalized supply chain. 

For example, T.S. Designs (receiving another mention), a large screen printing company, launched the WhereYourClothing.com initiative. 

Attached to every T.S. Designs made t-shirt is a Q.R. code. Every customer can scan that Q.R. code and see precisely where that t-shirt was made, who touched it along the way, and even what farm the cotton was grown on to make it. 

That’s why T.S. Designs President Eric Henry proudly says they’ve built a “Dirt to Shirt Supply Chain.” 

If your business withholds information from public view, you should ask yourself, why? Is it because you don’t have it available? Or do the optics seem less than favorable to your business?

Both suggest the same thing—find out and share more. 

For more on transparency in business, consider reading: What Real Transparency in Business Looks Like

Specific Practices 

Document & Share Everything — Companies like Veja or A Good Company have committed to sharing everything. Veja, a sneaker brand, and A Good Company, an everyday essentials company, have documented at length their use and sourcing of materials, their product development, and much more. 

Source: VEJA

Consider making “radical transparency” part of your company’s strategy. Start with one material, process, or policy—share your journey to more sustainable business practices. 

Map Your Supply Chain — Your business should be able to map out its supply chain from start to finish and have detailed information about every step. As the T.S. Designs example shared above, it’s not unreasonable for you or customers to be able to know who is touching the products along their manufacturing journey and in what conditions they are working in. 

Supply chain opacity has enabled egregious human rights violations. What we don’t see doesn’t hurt us (or our purchasing habits, rather). That’s what many multinationals with less-than-stellar labor track records count on. 

Create an Annual Impact Report — An obligation for U.S. companies designated as Public Benefit Corporations or companies that have obtained the Certified B Corporation status; an Impact Report is typically an annually published document that shares in all a company’s social and environmental initiatives. 

Companies will share in the latest progress of their sustainability initiatives the positive impact they made with social programs, energy usage, and much more. 

Here are a few examples of Impact Reports from companies you might know: 

For help generating your own Impact Report, check out Unit of Impact.

Be Accountable

There’s no truly sustainable company. Even Patagonia, heralded as a crown jewel of the sustainable business movement, is a “long, long ways away,” as their CEO recently explained to The Guardian

And so, there’s no perfect company. There are still many problems to encounter and solve, and many necessary innovations have yet to be discovered. 

However, what’s important is that along this sustainability journey, a company must adopt the practice of complete accountability. Own up to your company’s imperfections, mistakes, and missteps and accept responsibility to solve them. 

Unfortunately, I have to share a bad example from Ben & Jerry’s, a company claiming to have “a progressive, nonpartisan social mission that seeks to meet human needs and eliminate injustices.” 

In February 2023, The New York Times reported that Ben & Jerry’s supply chain, along with many other U.S. companies’ supply chains, employs migrant child labor. “Alone and Exploited…” begins the title of the piece. 

Knowing Ben & Jerry’s is and has been a Certified B Corporation for years (committed to using their business as a “force for good”) and has built their brand image around social activism and progressive values, I contacted the company for comment. 

They declined to answer my questions and referred me to a statement instead. 

This statement, which they’ve since removed from their publicly available blog feed (see previous point on transparency), says a whole lot of nothing.


Look at the statement closely (above) and notice that Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t even acknowledge that there was migrant child labor within their supply chain. They only recognize and confirm that they were mentioned in The New York Times article. That was it.

Let’s outline this statement with what they were really saying: 

  • We were mentioned in an article about child migrant labor in U.S. supply chains. 
  • We’re against child labor. 
  • Everyone knows the dairy industry has challenges. 
  • Here are good things we’ve done in/for the dairy industry. 
  • Don’t get it wrong: we take the claims (*not verifying they are true) by the NYT seriously. 
  • If we ever hear of child labor in our supply chain, we will take action (*what action?). 
  • The dairy industry has challenges. 
  • We urge other companies to take action (like we have).

In no single word or phrase does this statement acknowledge the specific instance of identified child migrant labor that The New York Times reports refer to. 

It’s as if this statement came out of the mouth of a politician’s press secretary. 

Obvious questions that you’d follow with: 

  • Where along your supply chain were child migrants employed? 
  • Do we know anything about them (How old, how many, where they were from, etc.)? 
  • What action have you taken with your supplier? 
  • Why do you think this was allowed to happen (even with your commitments to the Milk with Dignity Council)? 
  • How will you ensure this won’t happen again? 

No transparency. No accountably. Not a term I love to use, but this is a perfect example of woke-washing. Ben & Jerry’s has built their brand around “activism,” but simultaneously is associated with violating fundamental, nearly 100-year-old labor laws. 

When confronted with these reports, Ben & Jerry’s actions reveal their priority is to protect their brand, not the affected people (or, in this case, children). 

Even more cringe, the U.K. arm of Ben & Jerry’s soon after released a special edition ice cream flavor, “Sunny Honey Home,” that they made in collaboration with entrepreneurs with refugee backgrounds. 

Ben & Jerry’s has built their brand around activism and social justice, not business. Get your supply chain right, fully transparent, and up to standard with the latest labor law before trying to “change the world” with ice cream. 

But, perhaps I misunderstood. Maybe the migrant children working along Ben & Jerry’s supply chain in the U.S. are part of a unique “Entrepreneur-in-Training” program?

Specific Practices  

Measure Your Emissions — To take your business’s environmental impact seriously, you must assess what that impact is. Many organizations now exist to help companies along their journey of measuring (and ultimately reducing) their emissions. 

Consider working with nonprofit organizations Climate Neutral or We Are Neutral

Assess Your Suppliers — Practicing accountability means accepting accountability for any and all you do business with. You choose who your suppliers are, and so, you should hold yourself accountable for how they do business. 

Ethical sourcing is accountable, responsible sourcing. 

Ensure fair wages are paid all along your supply chain, adopt shared sustainability goals between you and your suppliers, and source sustainable raw materials whenever/wherever possible. 

And unlike the example of Ben & Jerry’s, before any clever or cheeky marketing schemes, ensure children aren’t getting your products to shelves. 

Don’t advertise or brand change, make it. 

Offer End-of-Life Solutions — Built into a sustainable product is the end-of-life plan. You and your business are accountable for the products you make and sell. 

Whether that’s a recycling program or something more extensive, sustainable businesses plan for what happens to their products at the end of their useful life. 

European denim brand, Mud Jeans, will have you ship your jeans back to them for use in a new pair, Vivo Barefoot asks you to send your shoes back to them, and Pela’s compostable phone cases, made with biodegradable materials will break down in your backyard. 

Building a sustainable business means offering a sustainable strategy for the end-of-life of your products.

More Resources

While the journey to complete sustainably in business might be a long one, we should be grateful that more and more individuals and organizations alike are taking this challenge seriously. 

Refreshingly different from the conventional competitive business landscape, businesses “walking the talk” of sustainability put collaboration first. 

For very tactical guides and resources to take your understanding further and learn from other very insightful members of the sustainable business movement, I recommend the following: 

Rise Up: How to Build a Socially Conscious Business(Russ Stoddard)

The B Corp Handbook, Second Edition: How You Can Use Business as a Force for Good(Ryan Honeyman and Dr. Tiffany Jana)

The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes(Carol Sanford)


1 If you’d like to debate that, I don’t. Please pull your head out of the sand and go elsewhere. Most importantly, go elsewhere. 

2 Milton Friedman published his essay “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” on September 13th, 1970 in The New York Times.


Thanks for reading. You can take your sustainability journey further with our weekly newsletter. Each week, I share 1 meditation on the art of living & working sustainably. Over 7,000 people subscribe. Enter your email below to join in.

Cory Ames

Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble

I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.

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