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The Playbook for Becoming a Sustainable Business

If your company is working toward improving its sustainability performance, you need a strategy, plan and roadmap. There are ten steps we’ve defined at Green Business Bureau to gear your company’s purpose, culture, focus and actions towards sustainability. All 10 steps below were summarized in the first article, The Executive Guide for Becoming a Sustainable Business:

Step 1: Define your vision, mission and values
Step 2: Create a sustainability committee or green team
Step 3: Benchmark and assess your current sustainability performance
Step 4: Engage your employees
Step 5: Plan, set goals and prioritize based on over 400 GBB initiatives
Step 6: Implement the plan, establish and communicate new policies and practices
Step 7: Leverage the GBB Scorecard to track progress and measure results
Step 8: Analyze your results and compare to goals and benchmarks
Step 9: Celebrate and communicate your accomplishments
Step 10: If you’re ready, get Certified or continue making improvements

Today’s article will cover Step 5, a blueprint for a sustainability plan.

Step 5: Create a Sustainability Plan for Your Business

The fifth step in your green business journey is to create a sustainability plan. A holistic and well organized sustainability plan will include several key components:

Part 1: Sustainability Drivers – This section summarizes the aspects of your business that use scarce natural resources, contribute to climate change, cause environmental harm or produce useless waste. It’s essentially a summary of your sustainability opportunities and challenges.

Part 2: Goals and KPIs – This section documents your current baseline in terms of your eco profile which includes your energy usage, water usage, carbon emissions and overall eco score. The score can be based on several common certifications including Green Business Bureau and the B Corp Impact Assessment. It also includes your goals and target KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

Part 3: Action Plan – This section includes a list of planned green initiatives and a detailed description for each. The initiatives should be prioritized based on impact, effort, cost and feasibility. They should consider processes, materials, people, policies and projects related to energy, waste, buildings, products, packaging, supply chain, transportation, food, water, community and employee well being.

Part 4: Implementation Plan – This section includes the organization structure required to support your sustainability program as well as employee training, internal and external communication, policy requirements and certification plans.

Understand Your Sustainability Drivers

There is no one sustainable business blueprint that applies to every company. Every industry and every business uses resources and energy differently. However, there are a few common goals every business shares: to minimize their waste and reduce carbon emissions. Business factors that influence sustainability priorities include investors, customers, resource shortages, consumer preferences, the ROI of projects, regulations, employee morale, recruitment and retention, and brand equity. All of these need to be taken into account in your sustainability strategy, tactics and prioritization of initiatives.

Here are the main areas to consider and questions to ask yourself when understanding what changes your company needs to make to improve its sustainability performance:

  • Energy – How much energy do we use? Can we use less or adopt clean alternative energy sources?
  • Water – How much water do we use? How much do we waste? Can we conserve water with smart technology (e.g. motion sensor faucets)? Do we use plastic bottles for water?
  • FoodWhere do we source our food from? What food do we provide employees? Is it healthy and produced from sustainable sources? Can we minimize meat and offer more plant-based options? Are we composting food waste?
  • Waste – What waste do we produce and where does it come from? Is it hazardous? How can we reduce waste and prevent pollution? Can we find ways to recycle or upcycle waste materials (e.g. install recycling bins in the break room)?
  • Buildings – How eco-friendly are our buildings? Are there opportunities to improve energy efficiency and upgrade lighting, insulation, heating and cooling? Are we maximizing natural light or natural airflow whenever possible?
  • Products & Packaging – Do our products use sustainably sourced and eco-friendly materials? How does manufacturing our products impact the environment? Is our packaging also safe for people and the planet?
  • Supply Chain – Are we using vendors and suppliers who are environmentally and socially responsible? Are we sourcing products locally or from the closest source? Are there areas to improve supply chain efficiency in terms of lowering waste and carbon emissions?
  • Transportation – What vehicles do we use for distribution and operations? Can we reduce employee business travel? If not, how can we offset our carbon emissions?
  • Community – Do we support our local communities and local farms? Do we get involved in environmental causes, events and associations? Are we evangelizing green business?
  • Employees – Do we offer employee training in sustainability? Do we have a green team? Are we creating a green culture? What’s our level of employee engagement? Do we communicate policies company-wide?

Consider All Business Functions and Departments

For many industries, the process of manufacturing products causes the most harm to the planet. This is especially true in Industrial Manufacturing and Consumer Manufacturing where supply chain, materials and factory operations drive significant carbon emissions and waste. But every department and every employee has an impact on your eco footprint, not just manufacturing. Companies looking to become more sustainable need to look at all departments and all business functions:

  • Manufacturing including production, sourcing, fulfillment, distribution and logistics.
  • Facilities including buildings, cleaning and maintenance, bathrooms, food service, heating, air conditioning and landscaping.
  • Engineering including product design, materials and end-of-life management (e.g. the product’s reuse and recycling potential).
  • Finance and Accounting including applying carbon credits, minimizing paper billing and printing and remote working.
  • Customer Service including remote service and product repair that uses spare parts for replacements.
  • Human Resources including video conferencing interviews, hiring of employees that are purpose-driven and committed to sustainability.
  • Information Technology and Printing including your servers, data center and hosting providers.
  • Sales and Marketing including business travel, printing of marketing materials and sustainability evangelism.
  • Executive Team including establishing a company purpose, green mission statement, green culture and the right values.

Building the Sustainability Plan

There are several key steps required before a company actually starts creating and documenting its sustainability plan and program. These are discussed in detail in previous articles in the Green Business Bureau Executive Guide Steps 1 to 4. The company leadership team must define the sustainability vision, mission and values for the company.  A sustainability committee or green team must be in place to begin the research, strategy and planning phase. The team will need to benchmark and assess the current sustainability performance and engage employees to gather ideas and understand the current state of sustainability. Once these foundational steps are taken, it’s time to begin creating the plan. The following sections review all the major areas that should be considered in your plan.

Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

If your building hasn’t undergone an energy audit, now is the time. Energy audits help you truly understand your energy use and offer recommendations for better efficiency and lower utility bills. You will likely uncover opportunities for alternative clean energy (non-fossil fuel energy sources and processes). Examples include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, wave power, nuclear and hydropower. There are dozens of initiatives in this area and Green Business Bureau provides an in-depth library of them. Here are some of the tactics and initiatives to consider in your plan:

  • Start upgrading your building by installing programmable thermostats and low-flow faucet aerators, and replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs.
  • Consider bigger projects like HVAC retrofits or renewable energy installations like solar roofing. While these projects have expensive upfront costs, they yield significant net savings in the long-term.
  • Buy certified energy efficient appliances and equipment like those from ENERGY STAR.
  • Switch your utilities providers to ones that offer renewable energy options.
  • Research clean energy tax credits and incentives available in your area.

Waste Reduction – Reuse & Recycling

Reducing waste is a win-win for businesses because it’s friendly to both the environment and the bottom line. The ultimate waste reduction goal is to get to zero waste, where no waste makes it to the landfill. If zero waste is too ambitious of a goal, you can start with a goal of waste reduction or waste minimization. Here are some examples of waste initiatives to consider:

  • Improve your manufacturing processes to produce less waste.
  • Comply with strict environmental standards in terms of production materials and the use of raw materials.
  • Uncover all recycling opportunities and turn your waste into something another stakeholder can use.
  • Improve inventory and store food and materials more efficiently to minimize spoilage and over stocking.
  • Aim to be as paperless as possible. Don’t send printed direct mail and stop the flow of junk mail by opting out of direct mailing lists.
  • Use sustainable marketing swag and promotional items that are useful and reusable like totes and reusable water bottles.
  • Teach customers to do repairs rather than dispose of products.

Water Usage Best Practices

The past decade has been one of the driest on record in several parts of the world. Several countries have enacted stringent water rationing for businesses and households. Drought ranks second among U.S. weather-related economic events with annual losses nearing $9 billion. Whether your business is located in a drought-stricken area or not, reducing water usage is an effective way to save money and help conserve valuable environmental resources. Your plan should include water conservation initiatives such as:

  • Fix plumbing that leaks and eliminate dripping taps
  • Install low-flow faucets and water efficient toilets
  • Opt for a drought-tolerant landscape design with drip irrigation and rain sensors.
  • Reduce landscape water use.
  • Engage employees to be more conscientious of their water consumption habits.

Pollution Prevention & Water Stewardship

Companies all pollute at some level, whether it is pollution in the air, water or soil. Pollution prevention begins with reducing or eliminating waste at the source. Here are some of the tactics and initiatives to consider in your plan related to pollution:

  • Modify your production processes to emit less waste or hazardous emissions.
  • Use non-toxic or less toxic materials and substances in your products and processes.
  • Implement conservation techniques by using less energy, water and raw materials.
  • Reuse materials such as production scraps and byproducts to reduce your waste stream.
  • Reduce packaging that is non-biodegradable.
  • Use electric or hybrid fleet vehicles or other lower emissions vehicles.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate discharge pollutants and get to something often referred to as zero discharge – the stats of having no pollutants from a point source (e.g. processing plant) to local waterways. Part of zero discharge includes being a good water steward. 

  • Recycle industrial wastewater by treating any reusable water or other material from wastewater and transferring any potential pollutants to a solid phase (sludge).
  • Reduce the amount of water needed during production.

Sustainable Building Best Practices

Your buildings can certainly be more efficient and eco-friendly. When moving, building or expanding, look for buildings that have a high-efficiency architecture. These buildings typically have net-zero and passive construction methods that employ super-insulated shells equipped with solar and geothermal systems to reduce energy usage. Here are some areas to consider:

  • Consider solar roofing or solar panels.
  • Upgrade insulation, HVAC and appliances to more energy efficient models.
  • Organize workspaces that use natural light to cut down on energy usage.
  • Use energy efficient light bulbs such as LEDs.
  • Install programmable thermostats to optimally control indoor temperatures.
  • Bring in live plants to improve indoor air quality.
  • Consider water conservation solutions like motion sensor faucets.
  • Install automatic light shut off systems and motion detectors.
  • Switch to data center providers that use clean energy.

This short list are just a few examples. The Green Business Bureau lists dozens of initiatives related to green buildings. You should also investigate rebate and incentive programs that may be offered for many of these upgrades or overhauls.

Sustainable Product Best Practices

Sustainable products start with sustainable design. Be sure product designs include resources that are renewable and not energy or water-intensive. Make products that are recyclable, renewable and/or biodegradable, and do not contain toxic or ozone-depleting substances. Look for fairtrade partners to ensure your materials are manufactured by ethical suppliers that pay their employees fair and livable wages. Examples of the most sustainable materials include:

  • Cardboard and paper
  • Recycled plastic
  • Bamboo, straw, cork, wool, wheatboard and strawboard
  • Reclaimed or recycled wood and metal
  • Cornstarch and hemp
  • Carbon capture blocks instead of concrete

Sustainable Packaging Best Practices

According to the EPA, packaging alone contributes to over 23% of the material reaching landfills in the United States. You can significantly reduce your carbon footprint and waste output by changing the way you package and ship your products. Here are some areas to consider for your plan:

  • Go with eco-friendly boxes and packaging for storage and shipping.
  • Swap out single-use containers for materials that break down quickly and effectively, like corn starch, mycelium, wood pulp and seaweed.
  • Don’t use undesired “hybrid” combinations of packaging material. Packaging made from two different types of polymers, for example, can render it non-recyclable.
  • Use water activated paper tape instead of plastic tape.
  • Minimize/reduce the packaging materials.

Sustainable Procurement Best Practices

One of the best ways to make your business more environmentally-friendly is to practice green procurement. Your procurement department needs to purchase products that are sustainable and that are delivered to you with minimal impact on the environment. Whenever possible, make sure you source your goods and services from local suppliers to support communities and cut down on transportation costs. Here are some areas to consider for sustainable procurement initiatives:

  • Change your purchasing habits for office supplies, kitchen supplies and cleaning products to be more eco-friendly.
  • Consider a shift to reusable tableware in your cafeterias and break rooms.
  • From raw materials to tools and equipment, always source sustainably.
  • Choose products made from recyclable and biodegradable materials and avoid those containing toxic or ozone-depleting substances.
  • Use products that are durable and designed to be repaired and not thrown away.

Sustainable Travel Best Practices

Your employees’ commute is one of the greatest offenders of carbon emissions. That includes business travel as well as supply chain transportation. Air travel accounts for as much as 10 to 25% of the carbon footprint of international companies. Here are some areas to consider:

  • Reduce commute emissions by enabling and supporting employees to work from home.
  • Have all your departments including your sales, marketing and executive teams reduce the need to travel by hosting video conference calls.
  • Organize a carpooling or ride sharing program.
  • Encourage employees to walk, bike or use public transit if possible.
  • For those who must fly, choose airlines with their carbon offset programs such as Delta Air Lines.
  • Encourage employees to buy their flights and hotels on websites such as GoodWings which offsets CO2 emissions
  • Offset your CO2 emissions by investing in carbon offset projects.

Community Involvement Best Practices

Protecting the environment includes working with your local communities, green associations and driving other businesses and people you interact with to be more mindful and sustainable. Here are a few ideas:

  • Become an annual sponsor of an event promoting sustainability in your area.
  • Place an employee on the organizing committee for the same or another event to achieve maximum involvement and exposure.
  • Become an active member of an organization that continually works to improve the environment nationally or in your area.
  • Offer a green promotion such as planting a tree for every 10 products sold.
  • Donate a percentage of your profit to local environmental and community programs.
  • Set up a fundraiser in your community to promote eco-conscious initiatives.

Summary: Having a Sustainability Plan is Necessary for Success

As we’ve discussed, creating a sustainability plan and program is a major undertaking. It can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Identify the sustainability drivers for your company.
  • Understand all the potential green initiatives possible at your company.
  • Prioritize the top practical sustainability initiatives that make the most sense and are aligned with your strategic vision and purpose.
  • Establish goals and timelines that are specific and measurable.
  • Schedule your sustainability initiatives and use formal program management to track progress and results.

Developing a sustainability plan sets the foundation for your actionable sustainability program including its organizational structure, accountability, project management, tracking and measurement. Improving your company’s sustainability performance is a complex and ambitious undertaking, thus you need a reliable and accurate plan to help you navigate.

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