Updated: Jul 15, 2020
By Shelby Matsumura
Everyone knows the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on our world, but have you noticed some of the surprising, positive effects resulting from the Coronavirus? In Venice, Italy, the canals have become so clear that a biologist, named Andrew Mangoni, was able to capture beautiful footage of a jellyfish wading through its waters. While city officials think this clarity has more to do with the lack of boats stirring up sediment in the canals, people all over the world are observing considerable changes in their surrounding natural environments during this pandemic.
One of the most recognizable environmental developments is the improved air quality resulting from stay-at-home orders. Fewer people are engaging in their daily commute from work to home and with many non-essential businesses closing (including industrial sites and factories), some of the largest contributing factors to air pollution have been severely reduced. Travel restrictions and the general decrease in air travel overall have also supplemented these positive shifts in our environment.
While we are inspired by these natural transformations, a global pandemic like the Coronavirus should not be seen as the best or primary approach to saving the environment. We must continue to remember and to respect those who have passed due to the Coronavirus and be careful not to diminish the suffering this pandemic has caused so many people. We should not have to trade global sustainability for human lives. If we want to see long-lasting, positive change in our environment, it starts and ends with the sustainable efforts our communities will practice and adopt in response to COVID-19.
Lately, we have seen an unfortunate decline in certain green initiatives, such as not being able to bring re-usable bags to the grocery store. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also temporarily relaxed pollution enforcement to allow companies to focus on their survival. Often, corporate sustainability can seem at odds with a business’ financial stability. However, that is not the case. With increased transparency between consumer and corporation compounded by a greater, more mainstream concern for the environment, today’s consumer wants to support sustainable products and businesses. According to Entrepreneur, in a 2015 global survey, Nielsen found that 66% of people are willing to pay more for a product that is sustainably produced, and that percentage jumped to 72% among young people. That is exciting market research for businesses who are passionate about environmental conservation.
Although corporate sustainability is often discussed in the context of large corporations, small businesses can also do their part by adopting green initiatives. There are many practices that big companies utilize that could easily transfer to the model of a small business. If you are a small business owner, inspired by the positive environmental changes during this pandemic, make corporate sustainability one of your business’ top priorities, if it isn’t one already. Environmentalism and the financial success of a company do not need to be viewed as competing goals when consumers have expressed their enthusiasm and willingness to support sustainable products and businesses.
As with any eco-friendly initiative, we have to start somewhere. Although large companies may have more resources than the average small business owner, examining the sustainable practices of these corporations that are the easiest and the most accessible can be a great place for small business owners to start. For inspiration, here are a few companies doing a great job promoting corporate sustainability:
· The Walt Disney Company utilizes a team-focused approach where every employee can do their part in supporting the environment. Employees are encouraged to conserve fuel, electricity, water, paper and other resources. The individual achievements of each employee are then recognized and celebrated during “Earth Month” in April, which also includes webinars and other opportunities to learn how to do more for the environment. Disney is not only supporting the concept of sustainability but also incentivizing and praising the specific actions taken by their employees.
· Allstate has worked to lower their emissions by consolidating office space and adopting energy-efficient equipment and systems to reduce waste. For example, they have installed water-filling stations at each Allstate location to decrease the use of disposable water bottles. Additionally, Allstate partners with third-party vendors to help them recycle paper and compost food waste.
· In 2018, Burt’s Bees shared their goal of sending zero waste to landfills through recycling, composting and waste-to-energy bins. They also emphasize conserving electricity and water through energy-efficient lighting, resource management software and sustainable equipment.
· Hewlett-Packard (HP) was one of the first companies that reported its greenhouse gas emissions. They then initiated their sustainability plan aimed at reducing emissions and toxic substances used in their manufacturing processes. HP also engages an aggressive recycling program to ensure that their waste does not end up in landfills. Lastly, HP has created a strong brand around green initiatives and environmental responsibility through its online and TV marketing.
· Patagonia, a company with strong ties to the outdoors, is one of the largest funders of environmental causes. 1% of all Patagonia sales is donated to ecological grants and organizations. They also have the Tin Shed Ventures, where small businesses can apply for funding by explaining how they’re working for a better environment.
In evaluating these companies or any company featured on a “most sustainable businesses” list, it is important not to hold them as the definite, gold standard for corporate sustainability. As explained by Tom Lyon, a business and sustainability professor the University of Michigan, “I believe all rankings of this sort must be taken with a large grain of salt. There is no perfect yardstick for measuring corporate sustainability, and existing ratings vary enormously amongst themselves.” You can read more of Professor Lyon’s perspective on corporate sustainability, here.
Sustainability efforts are going to look differently across various industries. Green initiatives for a fashion brand are not going to be the same as those for a business that does not create physical products, such as a bank. Because of these different approaches, some companies’ environmental efforts may be more obvious or visible than others, but that does not mean that only those companies are helping. Anything a business can contribute, even with smaller initiatives like recycling, will promote and normalize corporate sustainability and protect the environment.
Creating an environmentally responsible company is a great goal for any small business owner. However, how can business owners ensure that their company and their team take the appropriate actions to actually realize and reach their desired sustainability goals? In a 2016 study conducted by Boston Consultant Groups and MIT, 90% of executives found sustainability to be important, but only 60% of companies actually integrated sustainability in their strategy and a mere 25% had sustainability incorporated into their business model. Although these statistics have probably increased since 2014, this gap between wanting to promote sustainability and actually implementing sustainable policies can be a challenging obstacle. For more information on the “knowing – doing gap,” read this article from the Institute for Management Development (IMD).
As small business owners begin to consider opening a green business or implementing more eco-friendly initiatives into their current business models, one of the best ways to combat the “knowing-doing gap” is to start with a few green initiatives, master those, and then expand. Here are a few ways small business owners can begin to prioritize corporate sustainability:
· Find vendors with shared goals and values: If your business requires collaborating with vendors or other third-parties, select partners who are also interested in promoting eco-friendly products or initiatives.
· Invest in eco-friendly supplies and equipment: Buy recycled printer paper for the office. Get a water fountain and eliminate plastic waste from bottled water. Provide recycling and/or compost bins to employees and customers. If you are unsure how to get involved with composting, there are usually local organizations or individuals who provide composting services to their community. These groups can usually be found online via social media. There is a huge array of tools and supplies small business owners can choose from to promote casual sustainability in the workplace.
· Engage your employees: Similar to Disney’s model, encourage employees to implement sustainable practices in their day-to-day lives. See if there’s a way you, as a business owner, can incentivize and celebrate your employee’s efforts. For more ideas on getting employees excited about sustainability, check out this article from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
· Engage your community: If your business can afford to donate to local environmental organizations, then that is a great way to demonstrate commitment to corporate sustainability. Similar to Patagonia, even reserving a small percentage of sales for environmental efforts will make a positive impact on the community. If your business is unable to make these types of donations, reach out to local organizations and see how you can collaborate and partner in any future fundraisers or green initiatives.
· Educate yourself and get certified: The fact of the matter is, you’re not expected to know everything when it comes to corporate sustainability. It’s okay to admit you are not an expert, yet. There are many opportunities and resources for small business owners to grow their company, learn about eco-friendly frameworks, and become certified as a sustainable business. The Green Business Program provides certification to California businesses while B Corps can certify any business nationally.
· Accept that you have to start somewhere: As explained in the previous point, your first attempt at promoting corporate sustainability as a small business owner will (most likely) not be as powerful or fully realized as you may have wanted. However, promoting environmentalism in your business is an important and pressing goal that shouldn’t be disregarded just because it seems too difficult. You have to start somewhere, and that’s okay if the first attempt isn’t perfect. Small business owners can start with more casually sustainable practices and learn from those experiences to better improve the green initiatives their business utilizes in the future.
The Coronavirus has negatively impacted our world in so many ways. However, if there is one silver lining, it’s the glimpse at how our environment could thrive if we changed certain practices and tried to promote sustainability. With the decrease in work commutes and air travel globally, in addition to the closing of certain factories that weren’t deemed essential, air quality has severely improved since the beginning of this pandemic. It is exciting to think that if, starting now, businesses and communities prioritize environmentalism, then we can sustain these positive effects and make a long-lasting ecological impact for the better.
If you are a small business owner who is inspired by the environmental good this pandemic has revealed, there are many ways to implement eco-friendly policies and frameworks into your business model. Sustainability and financial achievement should not be seen as contrasting goals, but rather, intertwined strategies for finding success regardless of the size of your business. For more information and helpful resources, check out “The Small Business Guide to Sustainable Practices” from Cultivating Capital.
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