How smart small businesses can make sustainability work for them

From energy-efficient technology to employee engagement, small steps can reap big rewards for small businesses.

By Garage Staff — May 6, 2019

Walk into Three Seat Espresso in Manhattan’s East Village, and one of the first things you might notice is a jar of biodegradable straws on the counter, along with metal cups for water.

“If you’ve seen these items before, they become indicators of what kind of business this is,” says owner Aaron Cook. “If you haven’t, they create a chance to have a conversation about why we make the sustainable choices we make.”

As climate change and environmental responsibility become increasingly important drivers for consumers, businesses of all sizes are taking notice. In a recent survey, 83 percent of millennial respondents said it’s important for companies to implement programs to improve the environment, and 75 percent said they’d change their purchasing habits to reduce their own impact.

“Many businesses have now accepted that they have a role to play in how we as a society can mitigate our negative environmental impacts, and they realize more consumers are demanding it,” says Carolina Miranda, owner of Cultivating Capital, a small business sustainability consultancy in the San Francisco Bay Area. “They also see the strong business case. For example, saving energy means spending less, which directly benefits your bottom line. Engaging employees in your sustainability initiatives increases productivity and retention, which saves your business money by reducing turnover.”

For business owners like Cook, the big question around sustainability isn’t why, it’s how. Sustainability influences his business decisions — from the coffee beans he sources to the printer he uses in his back office. He’s also considering donating his café’s coffee grounds to a local community garden or park for use as compost, but connecting all the dots can be difficult with limited time and resources.

“There are so many competing issues that come with operating a business, and sustainability adds another layer of complexity,” he says. “We implement what we can.”

Miranda says small business owners can make sustainability more manageable — and more effective — by following a few key best practices.

“There’s a lot they can do to get a solid foundation in place for a strong sustainability program,” she says.

Tequila 512 processes and ferments agave at a distillery in Tequila, Mexico, with business operations headquartered in Austin, Texas.

Courtesy of Tequila 512

Tequila 512 processes and ferments agave at a distillery in Tequila, Mexico, with business operations headquartered in Austin, Texas.

Focus on big wins

The first step is to take a look at your current business practices and identify where small changes can move the needle.

Eric Brody, owner of Shift Advantage, a sustainability consultancy in Portland, Oregon, suggests conducting what’s known as a materiality assessment.

“It might sound like a daunting task, but it’s basically figuring out what’s most important to your business, your employees and your customers,” he says. “Where are you spending the most in your operations? Where are you seeing a lot of waste? Answering those questions can help you focus your efforts.”

At Tequila 512 distillery, owner Scott Willis look at everything from how the agave plants are farmed and processed for his tequila to administrative operations at the company’s headquarters in Austin, Texas.  

At the office in Austin, Willis takes steps to conserve energy and resources, including unplugging electronic devices every night to avoid “phantom load,” the energy electronic devices use when they’re turned off but still plugged in. He also chooses technology that helps reduce energy use and paper waste.

“We print a lot,” Willis says. “Invoices, purchase orders, menus for events, items for displays. Our old printer was eating up so much paper, it was killing me. It would pull two sheets in instead of a single page, print part of a document on one page and part on another, and just waste a lot of paper. When you print as much as we do, that adds up.”

By switching to the HP OfficeJet Pro 9025, an ENERGY STAR® certified and EPEAT Silver registered printer, Willis was able to eliminate all that paper waste and reduce energy usage. It even helped him shrink his carbon footprint thanks to the printer’s mobile app, which lets him send documents to the printer from anywhere.

“We try to maintain a small footprint and a small budget, and if we reduce our use of power and paper, we can save thousands of dollars a year,” Willis says. “And, since I can print from anywhere, I don’t have to burn gas by driving in to my office every time I need to print something for my staff. For us, it hits on all the marks.”

Casson Hardware reduces its carbon footprint by operating entirely online, with occasional pop-up shops where customers can see products in person.

Couretsy of Casson Hardware

Casson Hardware reduces its carbon footprint by operating entirely online, with occasional pop-up shops where customers can see products in person.

Choose sustainability-minded partners

When large enterprises assess their environmental impact, they look at their entire supply chain, factoring in the energy used and waste created by all of their vendors and parts manufacturers.

To address the full picture of their environmental impact, Miranda says small businesses should do the same.

“The businesses you support impact the overall sustainability of your operations,” she says. “One of the most profound ways a small business can effect change is by making sure their suppliers and vendors are aligned with their values.”

For Megan Cassidy and Jane Son, owners of the online business Casson Hardware in Toronto, that means sourcing the cabinet hardware and home accessories they sell from small fabricators and designers who create products made to last.

“This is foundational to our ethos around sustainability,” says Son. “We want our products to age well and be passed down or reused again and again.”

Running an online business reduces the company’s overall footprint, but it also requires more printing and shipping than a traditional brick-and-mortar shop.

To minimize impact from printing invoices, packaging slips, labels and other documents, Casson subscribes to the HP Instant Ink program. Their printer sends ink level information directly to HP, which ships replacement cartridges when ink runs low, eliminating the need to go out and buy replacement cartridges (with their associated packaging).

More than 80 percent of HP ink cartridges are now manufactured with “closed loop” recycled plastic through the HP Planet Partners program, reducing Casson’s footprint even more.

“There’s very little waste, and we’re not scrambling to refill at the last minute, so it helps us work efficiently and be more sustainable,” Son says.

Donghee Eim (left), Aaron Cook (right)

At Three Seats Espresso in New York City, sustainability shows up in the cups and straws customers use and in day-to-day operations behind the counter.

Engage your team

Employees — even if there are only a few — are key to making any sustainability initiative effective. Finding out what’s important to them and including them in your sustainability efforts can not only improve your results, it can help you attract and retain talent. In a recent HP workplace sustainability study, 46 percent of respondents said they would only work for companies with sustainable business practices.

“People get really engaged and excited when they get to contribute to efforts around sustainability at work,” Brody says. “It’s the kind of thing they go home and tell their families about and can feel really proud of.”

At Casson Hardware, which has a staff of four, all employees help sort packaging materials that come in from suppliers for reuse in shipping products out to customers. The finishing touch: A sticker on each box that calls attention to the recycled packaging and spotlights the company’s commitment to sustainability.

Aaron Cook’s eight employees at Three Seat Espresso contribute by modeling sustainable practices in their own daily habits.

“We have a no-plastic policy for staff — they use glasses and dishes for their own drinks and meals throughout the day,” Cook says. “It may sound like a small thing, but it’s cumulative. If they used plastic cups day in and day out, that would add up to thousands of items a year. The ethos comes from me, but my employees drive it.”

“Ultimately, it all comes down to being smart with resources, which is a natural for small businesses because we’re watching every penny.”

— Scott Willis, owner, Tequila 512

Tap into the broader sustainability movement

For large corporations, sustainability can mean eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, diverting waste from landfills, and switching to renewable energy sources — with results measured in tons, millions, and massive reductions in overall carbon footprint.

For small businesses, the scale is — well, smaller. But together, every step they take toward more sustainable operations can add up to significant impact. The 30.2 million small businesses in the United States — 99.9 percent of all businesses in the country — employ 58.9 million people and spend $60 billion a year on energy.

Both Brody and Miranda say one easy starting point for small businesses is to look for established frameworks and resources to help create a roadmap for sustainability and guide the way. Here are a few places to start:

“Ultimately, it all comes down to being smart with resources, which is a natural for small businesses because we’re watching every penny,” says Willis at Tequila 512. “Being more efficient and more sustainable just goes hand in hand with running a small business.”