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Sustainability in Business: A Guide for Employers

In today’s rapidly evolving world, it’s increasingly important to practice sustainability in business. Broadly referring to the impact on environmental, social and economic issues, sustainability is a crucial concept that emphasizes the value of ethical and renewable business practices.

In addition to maintaining your business’s social corporate responsibility, sustainability is key to attracting loyal consumers, employees and investors and establishing an edge in an ever-competitive market. Read more about what sustainability in business means and how to implement sustainable practices.

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What is sustainability in business?

Sustainability in business generally refers to an organization’s ability to maintain or support its operations over time while preventing the depletion of limited resources. It’s typically broken down into three categories:

  • People: Stakeholders such as employees, shareholders, customers, communities and other key people
  • Planet: An organization’s effects on the environment
  • Profit: Overall impact on local, national and global economies

These categories are often referred to as the triple bottom line, which is a more socially conscious approach to growing a business than previous conventional practices. Although it may seem counterintuitive that expending financial and human resources toward sustainable practices may hurt profitability, successful strategies often require that you intertwine social responsibility with operations to maximize growth.

Some sustainability issues that businesses can help address include:

  • Climate change
  • Social injustice
  • Income equality
  • Depletion of natural resources
  • Fair working conditions
  • Pollution and emissions
  • Education accessibility

Read more: Four Keys to a Sustainability Program That Works

Benefits of sustainability in a business

Many regulatory bodies impose environmental protection laws that require businesses to meet certain standards to legally operate, but additional sustainability efforts are also important for business ethics and growth. The benefits of implementing sustainable policies at your business include:

Creating brand value

Businesses can use their sustainable practices as a differentiator that sets them apart from competitors. Environmental sustainability is a serious issue for many consumers, influencing their buying habits and who they do business with. Consumers belonging to younger generations have the strongest buying power, and they’re increasingly concerned with the corporate responsibility and environmental friendliness of the businesses they buy from.

One study found that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable brands, showing how you can leverage sustainability as a competitive market edge. Committing to sustainable practices demonstrates to consumers that your brand shares their values toward environmental responsibility and sustainability in business and takes advantage of the growing market for socially responsible products and services.

Retaining and attracting employees

Similarly, modern professionals are increasingly attracted to employers who share their personal values over those who simply offer a paycheck. For Millennials and Gen Z, those values are largely concentrated in sustainability, and studies show that 60% would take a pay cut to work for a business with a strong environmental purpose.

By demonstrating responsibility to your commitment to the community and environment your business operates in, you can show employees that you’re aligned with their values and purpose. In addition to attracting and retaining employees, strong sustainability values can improve your workforce culture and drive motivation and productivity.

Related: Cultivating Positive Workplace Behavior

Driving meaningful change

Although individuals aren’t often able to make big changes on their own, organizations can cooperate together to influence and drive meaningful change. Together, organizations can address sustainability concerns and lead to positive impacts such as:

  • Sustainable sourcing
  • Policy change lobbying
  • Improved work conditions

Building community relationships

Implementing sustainable policies can be the first step to fostering a community that promotes sustainability. Organizations, communities and other parties that care about sustainability in business naturally gravitate toward one another due to their shared values. Local governments and activist organizations recognize the environmental impact of different businesses, helping to build a company’s reputation in the community.

Read more: Giving Back to the Community: Ways Your Business Can Help

Protecting your organization’s future

In addition to risking harm to communities, poor sustainability practices can damage your business’s reputation and divert resources from business operations to legal or public relations issues. Practicing sustainable policies now can protect your organization and its employees years down the line.

How to create and promote a more sustainable work environment (with examples)

Depending on your industry, there are different steps you can take to improve your organization’s sustainability. From small shifts to company-wide policy changes, businesses of various sizes and resources can improve their sustainability practices. Try these strategies to develop and maintain sustainable workplace practices within your business:

1. Assess your current impact

Before you start making changes, spend time researching your current company practices and assessing your impact on sustainability issues. For example, some businesses hire environmental consultants to measure resources used, identify the environmental policies of suppliers and assess how office practices influence overall sustainability. Measuring your company’s impact before planning sustainability initiatives allows you to target the greatest opportunities for improvement.

For example, you can use an emissions calculator to collect information on your business’s carbon footprint periodically. The changes in your company’s emissions over time can reflect the effectiveness of new policies. The size of your carbon footprint creates a benchmark that you can use as a comparison point when measuring your progress later on.

2. Set and measure goals

To create meaningful effects and develop a strong strategy, brainstorm for sustainability goals based on your current impact, or meet with a consultant to get professional guidance. Determine which goals are high-priority, what can be accomplished in the short term and what your long-term goals look like. For example, you could set sustainability goals to lower emissions by 10% over the next year and transition to 100% solar and wind power over the next 10 years.

Having clear goals allows you to develop strategic objectives that align with other business practices. Other areas you can measure include:

  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Employee satisfaction
  • Resource consumption
  • Fair and ethical marketing
  • Community involvement
  • Retention and turnover rates

Related: Building Organizational Values For Your Business: A Guide

3. Update company policies and initiatives

Implement sustainable policies that set a standard and motivate employees and other stakeholders to make sustainable choices. Meaningful policies can range from small changes such as offering emission-reducing public transportation perks to implementing employee resource groups for promoting diversity and inclusion.

Some businesses take their efforts to even larger scales, such as Salesforce’s 1-1-1 philanthropic model. This initiative means that the organization gives one 1% of product, equity and employee time to communities and the nonprofit sector and has resulted in more than 5 million volunteer hours and $406 million in grants.

4. Educate employees, consumers and other stakeholders

Educating your employees, customers, investors and other stakeholders is an important part of generating a positive influence on sustainability and awareness. In addition to strengthening your brand identity and aligning these groups with your organization’s values and mission, educating stakeholders empowers them to make sustainable choices.

Some ways to educate include:

  • Investing in sustainable education opportunities
  • Ethical marketing and advertising
  • Conducting or hosting lectures and webinars
  • Hosting lunch-and-learns

5. Research your suppliers

Don’t assume your material suppliers and business partners share your business’s environmentally and socially responsible values. Research the environmental policies and behaviors of the companies you do business with. Look for suppliers who ethically source their materials and practice fair and safe work environments that align with your company values and goals.

Starbucks, for example, aims to ethically source its coffee from local coffee farmers and organizations. The company bases its strategy on Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices, which assesses coffee farms and suppliers against social, environmental and economic standards.

Related: What Are the Benefits of a More Sustainable Supply Chain?

6. Implement green technology

Eco-friendly technology is constantly developing, giving you a range of technical solutions for your sustainability and business needs. Investing in and implementing sustainable technology can help you reduce energy waste at your company, limiting your overall impact on the environment, and contribute financial resources to organizations performing important work and producing innovative products.

For example, businesses can install low-flow water features and replace old lighting fixtures with automatic lights that turn off when no one is in the room to help save resources.

Other examples of sustainable technology you can start using at work are:

  • Solar charging stations
  • Rechargeable batteries
  • Smart power strips
  • Cloud computing
  • Digitized file storage

7. Make charitable contributions

In addition to optimizing sustainability within your business, make an outward impact by giving to sustainable organizations, nonprofits and charities. Supporting groups that already champion sustainability allows you to make a larger impact than your organization could on its own.

For example, you could organize a paid volunteer day where participating employees could use their time off to clean up trash and plant trees at a nearby park, reducing pollution and contributing to a healthy local ecosystem.

FAQs about sustainability

What are the major goals of sustainability?

The primary goals of sustainability are:

  • Eliminating poverty
  • Equality and equity
  • Access to healthcare
  • Access to food
  • Quality education
  • Affordable and clean energy

What are some examples of sustainable employee perks?

Sustainable perks can motivate employees and improve morale. These may include:

  • Locally sourced employee meals and snacks
  • Access to environmentally or socially responsible amenities
  • Electric vehicles as company cars
  • Relocation subsidies
  • Working from home
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