Sustainability in Business

We frequently teach and meet with entrepreneurs who want to run sustainable and responsible businesses. For them, it’s not just about the bottom line but the triple bottom line – people, planet and profit. How do we care for our employees? What kind of impact are we having on the environment? Can we build a good business that is also profitable?

Financial sustainability is a must for any small business’ survival and long-term success. But socially and environmentally responsible business practices are also essential if we want our businesses and communities to thrive.

What does “sustainability” mean for a small business?

It could mean…
• Offering employees great working conditions, paying competitive wages, and/or providing educational options and opportunities for advancement.
• Creating and/or selling products produced in ways that minimize harm to the environment and preserve resources.
• Sourcing materials locally and supporting local industries.
• Operating transparently – sharing data and treating competitors as colleagues.
Giving back to the local community – donating profits to a charitable purpose, mentoring other small business owners, etc.

Sustainability has certainly become a buzzword in business. Yet when implemented in real ways, it not only benefits the wider community but can have positive benefits for your business directly – attracting new customers and committed employees and increasing efficiency and profit.

We asked some of our clients and colleagues about their sustainability practices. They shared their advice for other small business owners who want to incorporating sustainable practices into their businesses.

Rachel Lewin of RxOrganics

business sustainability

Sustainability is central to Rachel Lewin’s business RxOrganics, which locally manufactures “green” kitchen and medical garments. Rachel’s sustainable business practices give her a competitive edge by distinguishing her products in the uniform/professional wear marketplace.

For Rachel, sustainability is not just a marketing tool. She is always thinking about the environmental impact of every decision, from her supply chain to her end products. Tracking and measuring those practices is also central to her operation.

“It is integral to maintaining our “green” certification status with the city and various accrediting agencies to have all of our efforts clearly documented. We are constantly checking our systems to make sure that we can confidently sell our values to our customers and end users, and seeking additional certifications related to sustainable and socially responsible business practices. We are currently seeking a Higg Index score for our manufacturing practice.”

Rachel’s advice to other business owners: Be sustainable from the start and track what you do!

“It is much easier to scale responsibly if you build your foundation sustainably. Keep it simple and clear and document all your steps and actions — even the little unglamorous ones, like changing your toilets and water faucets to low flow. It all adds up! Ultimately the customers appreciate a mindful organization over a cheap one. You’ll see!”

Melissa Joy Manning of Melissa Joy Manning Jewelry

business sustainability

When jeweler Melissa Joy Manning started her business, Melissa Joy Manning Jewelry, in 1997 she wanted to create jobs for other artists: “I distinctly remember being told that I could never operate a business in such a competitive market with on-shore labor. Thankfully, I followed my heart and built a business around a local community. Now “American Made” is a driving marketing force in our industry and we lead the fashion industry in responsible practice.”

Sustainable practices are central to both jewelry production and packaging at Melissa Joy Manning. They use only 100% recycled metal sourced from a “green” certified US refiner, their precious stones follow the Kimberly Process, and they are buying more of their stones directly from mine owners to have true clarity on their gem chain of custody. Additionally all MJM packaging is recycled, jewelry pouches are made in the US from certified responsible felt, and MJM carbon offsets every box shipped to neutralize their carbon footprint.

For Melissa, though, the most important sustainable business practices relate to the reason why she went into business in the first place. All Melissa Joy Manning jewelry is hand made in her own studios in New York and Berkeley by artists earning a living working wage, with full benefits, competitive bonuses and retirement packages.

Melissa’s advice to other business owners: Start small!

“Make little changes that can be easily incorporated into your business practices. You can then add or change your practices to increase your sustainability. It can be incredibly intimidating to try and change everything at once. Starting small, however, leads to greater, more successful cumulative change that can be grown as the business can afford it. In the long run being responsible is not only more efficient and sustainable, it is cheaper and leads to greater profit and stronger ties to your market.”

Gwen Kaplan of Ace Mailing

business sustainability

Gwen Kaplan, CEO and founder of Ace Mailing, has been focused on sustainability since founding her direct mail business almost 40 years ago. When she was president of the Small Business Commission in the late 1980’s she started the Green Ribbon Panel which provided small businesses with sustainable or “green” solutions and recognized San Francisco green businesses. (This panel ultimately became the San Francisco Department of the Environment.) Ace Mailing was the first company in the US to sell recycled paper retail in bulk cartons for copy machines. Since 2007, Ace Mailing has been carbon neutral through TIST and the Institute for Environmental Innovation.

Gwen’s advice to other business owners: Evolve!

“Ace Mailing is continually living, breathing and changing to meet the needs of our clients.”. Sustainability requires strategic evolution of your business. Focus on your target market and meet their needs to achieve long-term sustainability.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that…

There are many ways to create a sustainable and responsible business. The sustainable practices that you decide to employ will be unique to your type of business and your style of doing business.

Instituting new business practices may not be easy or quick to implement. Changing how you operate takes commitment, and often time and money to get new ways of operating established.

Creating a more sustainable business is a process. As Mark Dwight, founder of Rickshaw Bagworks in San Francisco says in this Inc Magazine article, “Sustainability is a journey, not a destination.”

The first step is to just take a step! As Melissa says, choose one small way to improve your practices. Implement that practice into your business and see the results. (This is what business action planning is all about.) You will learn from it and build on it!

How is YOUR business embracing sustainable practices?

Good Food Dot Com

When I owned a cheese store in San Francisco in the 1980’s I felt like we were in the middle of a food revolution—there was so much energy around “back to the land”, natural gourmet food, vegetarianism, food buying clubs and food cooperatives.  We are now in the midst of another food revolution. This time it’s a food and technology revolution. There is a resurgence of small food businesses that are focused on craft, sustainability and supporting their communities, and at the same time the internet is completely changing the way food is being distributed and sold.

cupcake from Black Jet Bakery

There are many new internet tools to support small businesses and many are being created specifically for food businesses.  This includes a search engine for food industry jobs (Good Food Jobs), educational organizations to help food entrepreneurs (Food Craft Institute), and portals to market and distribute food products directly to consumers (Good Eggs). It is an exciting time to be starting and running a food business!

soup from Mama Tong

Many of my students at Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center (graduates of the 12-week Business Planning Class) are taking advantage of these tools. Black Jet Bakery, Mama Tong, Ruby’s Oats, Peas of Mind, and Sow Juice, as well as two of my clients, Starter Bakery and Suite Foods, are all Good Eggs producers.

For new food businesses, this type of publicity and connection to potential customers is invaluable. Access to markets is key for any small or micro business. Setting up an online store or trying to get into a local retail outlet can be a daunting or competitive proposition.

juice from Sow Juice

But if you can prove there is a market, satisfy the marketplace with good services, and build a following through these new online platforms, you just might prove your business model, make it into the mainstream, and develop a sustainable business.

These new internet tools are making it easier for small food businesses to get support, find community and connect with the markets they need to be successful. May they take root and flourish!

A Boom for Micro Businesses: Can You Deliver?

Business is booming for some micro businesses.  Recent marketing studies and most small business articles say that it is small businesses that are sustaining and creating jobs.  It is the little engine that can.  But can it?

micro businesses

There are reports about local food-related and clothing-centric businesses that seem to suggest there are key trends to watch for – not only new and innovative products but how they are being distributed.  Gail Lillian, owner of Liba Falafel has leveraged her food truck serving falafels into a stand-alone restaurant business with her recent expansion plans for Oakland.  “The truck helped determine the market and build the right business skills – with key access points around the SF Bay Area.”

Micro entrepreneurs are reaching out to the markets – the specific, targeted niche markets that seem to respond to what is being offered and to clients and customers who are willing to pay for the quality or uniqueness of the service.  There are pop-up shops and consignment retailers; there are food trucks; food stalls and food kiosks at the corner of your street and in the farmer’s markets.  There are neighborhood street fairs for clothing lines and third world imports.

There are many, many “distribution channels”…and there are more and more businesses that are succeeding online with well-designed websites too.  Laurie Kanes runs 12 Small Things, an on-line business providing access for artisans from many developing countries.  Her focus and purpose is to “showcase and sell fashionable, fair trade products from artisans facing some of the most challenging conditions in the world”.  This socially relevant business is targeting a niche and to do it well, must also execute and provide impeccable service. Laurie notes, “My competitive edge is to develop key partnerships to access the right markets and support the right artisans”.

Are these trends helpful to you and your micro businesses?  We DO need to know who will buy our products and services; we DO have to be accessible, we DO have to tell our stories so people will be interested in what we have not just once, but over and over again.

However, the basic truth is we have to deliver – meet a promise and provide a benefit – and then build trust.  Do what you say you are going to do and take the action to make it work well…again and again.  Every new business requires an initial ignition but then after that first spark, we provide the consistent follow-through over and over again!

The business action plan that we use individually and with small groups is an excellent tool to make this happen for any small business.

Let’s see how well we can grow when we “deliver the goods”.