Sustainability as a business decision

A review of some sustainability terms that you’ve heard before, but don’t (yet) know how to apply to your small business.

For the small business owner, cutting costs is paramount. Additionally, no matter what the business model, small business owners aren’t in the business of hurting the planet. Sustainability techniques go a long way to making both financial cents and environmental sense. Below, a review of a few of the most commonly floated terms in sustainability, with a focus on how the small business owner can implement the terms in his/her business.

Fair Trade

In the vernacular, fair trade refers to fair business practices for any business model that do not negatively impact the people – and to a lesser extent, the places and environments – that are associated with the business model. Fair trade is not to be confused with free trade, which isn’t necessarily opposed to fair trade, but most often neglects practices considered to be “fair” ( Fair trade is most commonly applied in a discussion regarding inexpensive labor in developing countries. Think of it as the anti-sweatshop business model.

The small business owner can go a long way to supporting fair trade practices, from purchasing fair trade professional clothing ( to buying fair trade coffee from your local supermarket. People are often shocked at the fact that fair trade items – clothing in particular – are often less expensive than department store brands. Make sure to look for the fair trade logo on all products/websites (

Recycle, reduce, reuse

When people think of recycling, newspapers and cardboard come to mind. But today’s day and age is no longer Captain Planet’s. Today, in addition to paper, cardboard, and aluminum, most municipalities recycle almost every sort of plastic that you can think of, including plastic peanuts used for packaging. Styrofoam is not particularly well-recycled as of yet, so the small business owner is advised not to purchase Styrofoam cups. You’ll save money and the environment by purchasing a well-made (free trade) mug and reusing it for coffee. Think too about using recycled products, such as recycled paper. Recycled carpet is a great way to save a bundle and spruce up the office (

In regards to reducing consumption, there are many ways by which the small business owner can cut down. Most things that are considered disposable (like the coffee cup example above) needn’t be purchased at all. Save the money! Instead of purchasing wooden pencils, purchase mechanical pencils and re-fill the lead. Re-fillable pens and printer ink cartridges should be at the top of the small business owner’s list. Ink cartridges are a costly part of every small business, and re-fillable cartridges save upwards of 70% of the cost of a new unit. Printing double-sided goes a long way to reducing paper consumption.

In regards to reuse, a sustainability consultant would consider the small business office as a reusable treasure trove, ranging from refillable liquid soap containers in the restroom, to old computer casings ready to be fitted with new components, to the refillable coffee mugs and ink cartridges mentioned above. Remember too that even if you want to replace everything in your office, there are other small business owners out there who might think that your trash is their treasure, so make sure to think of others before you throw away anything deemed as useless or old. Furniture is particularly reusable without much effort.

Carbon neutral

Here, things get a bit tricky, as there is a greenhouse gas component in almost every man-made product, inside and outside the office. The task for the small business owner is to know how to best reduce his/her carbon footprint in the most efficient ways possible. When carbon neutral becomes a bit too daunting, just remember energy and space.

Everything that requires energy is most likely not carbon neutral. Appliances like refrigerators and computers have become more efficient users of energy over the past decade, but even if they used only 1% of their current energy requirement to do the same job in a hypothetical scenario, they would still use energy and emit harmful greenhouse gases. Remember that today, our energy supply is largely based on fossil fuels, with the global average at about 80%. Industrialized and developing nations alike are guilty parties, though already industrialized nations (e.g. Western Europe, US, Canada, Australia, Japan) have a much higher per capita energy use than developing nations, mostly due to a lifestyle that includes refrigerators, televisions, computers, and the like. For the small business owner, remembering to buy energy efficient products, unplug them when leaving for the day, and limit their use, will go a long way to reducing their financial impact and the business’ carbon footprint.

Spatial requirements and reducing the carbon footprint is a simple concept: the smaller the space, the lower the carbon footprint. Think of it this way. If the small business owner has 1,000 sq ft to work with, he/she will fill it with more stuff than if he/she had 500 sq ft. All of that “stuff” generates greenhouse gas emissions, even if it doesn’t actively use energy; the production processes to produce things like desks and office chairs are very energy intensive. Moreover, larger spaces take more energy to heat and cool. Smaller spaces are more efficiently designed and allocate furniture, etc efficiently. Here, size does matter… go small.

JR Rodama is a sustainability expert at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is a successful entrepreneur, and has worked with US government (EPA, Congress) on various sustainability programs. Rodama believes that healthy organizations beget a healthy environment; he focuses on practices that help small businesses succeed in today’s “green business world.”

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