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Dispelling Two Sustainability Myths for Small Businesses

Posted by: Rod Kurtz on August 14, 2009

Sustainability has become the watchword of our age. And who can argue that seeking to meet our own needs without adversely affecting future generations isn’t a cause worth throwing our support behind? Yet, many small businesses still struggle to put sustainability into practice in a meaningful way.

If you fall back on either of the following two excuses, here’s reason to reconsider going green:

1. Environmental issues are for Big Business to solve. Sustainability has inspired a tidal wave of exciting green developments that range from recycling, renewable energy, and hybrid cars to the redesign of products, packaging, factories, and manufacturing processes. Intergovernmental efforts, public-private partnerships, and market incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are also an essential part of the equation.

In all of these efforts, businesses—large and small—play a vital, transformative role. It’s not size that matters, but identifying smarter ways to go green. Still not convinced? According to various industry research findings, companies with a proven commitment to the environment tend to outperform other companies.

2. I can’t afford to go green. Despite the incontrovertible importance of sustainability, many small businesses still struggle to justify an investment in green initiatives, because they perceive the efforts will generate added costs, not concrete business benefits. Green initiatives can make a quantifiable contribution to both the environment and your bottom line, that includes improvements in employee morale, customer loyalty, and brand image.

It’s a matter of scale and best practice. Individual industries have identified ways to benefit both the planet and the business. Consider the hotel industry’s approach to sustainability. Many large hotel chains and small independent boutiques have adopted the practice of asking guests to consider less frequent changing of sheets and towels. Reduced washing and drying saves energy and soap (good for the environment), decreases the cost of maintaining rooms (good for the hotel), and makes travelers feel they are making a valuable contribution (good for customers). Smart sustainability can be a win-win.

Patty Calkins
Vice-President for Environment, Health, and Safety
Rochester, N.Y.

Reader Comments

David Connor

August 16, 2009 11:07 PM

The question that most smaller businesses ask, regardless of moral position on sustainability is - "What's in it for me?

Unfortunately the majority of smaller organisations are too focused on mere survival at the moment to dedicate and time (if they are even aware at all) to anything they can't see a tangible short term return on invested time or finance.

Approximately 99% of businesses in developed countries are small or medium sized yet the focus of traditional business support mechanisms around sustainability very rarely talk to businesses in a language that entrepreneurs accept, understand or trust.

The disheartening truth for those of us with the knowledge of the true scale and imperative for environmental sustainability is that it will take a global catastrophe or increased legislation to change a cultural mindset of heads fimrly in the sand.

Lawrence Heim

August 18, 2009 12:15 PM

It can indeed be difficult for any company - regardless of size - to quantify the benefits of implementing a sustainability program. And today's "survival-based" economic climate compounds the concerns. But there are various ways to identify and quantify benefits AND RISKS of choosing a sustainability path.

One way to view this is to assess the business risks relative to both implementing and NOT implementing a program. For instance, Walmart suppliers may wish to consider both sides of the coin in meeting the retailer's new sustainability requirements. One risk of complying with Walmart's sustainability index could be the additional cost, effort and possibly staffing needed to complete the required activities. Of course, the risk of NOT participating in the sustainability index is losing Walmart as a customer. The decision may not be as clear cut as it first appears: some suppliers - already inundated with other requirements for being a Walmart supplier - may consider this to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. But an informed business decision can't be made unless the range of risks are identified, assessed and placed in the proper context.

Another perspective is to review current operations, activities, initiatives, etc and identify potential linkages to sustainability components. In other words, can you recast on-going efforts in a different light? Some may view this a greenwashing, but consider these:
- cost reduction efforts aimed at reducing energy consumption may be driven solely be cost controls, but there is a clear connection to sustainability.
- reductions in packaging reduce production and shipping costs while concurrently reducing waste for the end user as well as having transportation efficiency benefits.
- increasing recycling of process waste reduces operating costs and possibly long tail environmental liabilities, while also generating revenue. Many companies choose to donate this revenue to charities.

If viewed in an appropriate context, sustainability programs can be used in REAL business decisions, and may be far less of a burden than initially thought.

For more related thoughts, review our blog at

Cindy Findley

September 14, 2009 6:01 PM

Patty, great blog post.

I am going to post it at and give you credit.

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