Recently, I was asked what ‘sustainability’ means, by a small business owner. Even though this term is used frequently, and is relatively commonplace with larger organizations, smaller businesses are still getting on board with the concept. Hard as it may be to believe, many are still not familiar with the term and what it means.
That being said, sustainability means many different things, and it can refer to being a good corporate citizen, enhanced environmental performance, strong community stewardship or a combination of the three, with financial profitability as a requisite.
Big companies have deep pockets and are able to more easily invest in sustainability-related projects, while the perception among smaller businesses is that sustainability is either too complex or costly or a combination of the two.
Smaller businesses, however, are well positioned for sustainability for a few reasons, which fall into three categories:
Nimbleness: Smaller businesses tend to be more nimble and are able to make decisions faster, without as much red tape. This means, for example, that they can hire additional staff quickly if needed or engage in a one-off project which may otherwise be seen as risky or off-brand by larger companies.
Connection: Smaller businesses are typically more engaged with their customers. Because of this, they are better positioned to obtain quick feedback and to observe a change in behavior or preference. In addition, if you are a small business owner/operator and you have a personal relationship with your customers and they like your products or services, they are more likely to actively support and refer your business.
Speed: A small business can bring a product to market more quickly, or decide to implement certain policies faster than a larger organization, which may require multiple layers of approvals in order to even consider such a change. It can also react more quickly to feedback or potential issues.
Since it’s always easier to see examples of how this is done than to just read about it in theory, here are some companies that have used their smaller size – along with their business acumen – to capitalize on sustainability:
Nimbleness: Innocent Drinks (UK)
Innocent Drinks started in 1999 making smoothies, and has expanded its product line to juices, coconut water and other drinks. In 2010, the company found out that one of its strawberries suppliers was contributing to unsustainable water practices in the south of Spain. Over the course of four years, Innocent Drinks worked with its supplier and Unilever to determine its water footprint. Then, together with the University of Cordoba, it determined the most efficient irrigation system for strawberries.
They created an app called Irri-Fresa that calculates optimal irrigation times. In 2015, farmers using the app reduced water use about 40% and saved 1.7 billion litres (about 450 million gallons). Because it is a smaller organization, it was able to do this, which is considered outside of its product offering but in alignment with its mission. Innocent Drinks has since spoken to other companies about using the app to save water. NB: In 2013, Coca-Cola bought Innocent Drinks but Innocent states that it is still able to operate independently.
Connection: East End Market (US)
East End Market is an Orlando, Florida mixed-use urban market development that was founded in 2012 and is run by a team of four. The space hosts a dozen merchants, a restaurant, retail shops, an incubator kitchen, event spaces and offices. Part of their mission is to: “cultivate an appreciation for our true sustenance, a better understanding of our food system, and a dynamic local economy.” While sustainability (as in the Triple Bottom Line) is not a stated part of East End Market’s mission, it is something that they have incorporated because they see it as important, and it is something that their customers care about. As the founder and owner, John Rife shared with University of Central Florida: “I think our customers see that we aren’t solely profit driven. We would gladly give up some profit for the sake of people and planet.”
East End Market’s focus on good food and sustainability attracts urbanites and foodies that are health and sustainability conscious – such as millennials and those of the LOHAS demographic. This is something that Rife seems to be aware of: “Don’t get me wrong, I am always looking at the numbers and the project is very successful. But I think our focus on the human and sustainability element of what we do, rather than profit, is part of our allure.” In this case, being connected with their customers and knowing what they value
Speed: Artopex (Canada):
Artopex provides high quality office furniture and has been in business for over 30 years. The company has four plants with over 500,000 square feet of production capacity and 400+ employees. In 2008, in response to customer feedback, and as awareness about the importance of sustainability was only just starting to ramp up globally, Artopex decided to prioritize sustainability. In a CIMA report, Jean Barbeau, a product specialist at Artopex, stated that the pressure from their customers to go the sustainability route was driven by architects and designers, who influenced the decisions their customers made.
Artopex started with identifying ways to reduce their carbon footprint. They integrated sustainability into sales presentations and training materials. They began conversations with their customers as well as their suppliers. This led to new product design and the identification of alternative materials in order to reduce emissions and improve efficiency. They also invested $7 million over a three year period in more efficient production equipment to be more competitive as well as sustainable. In this case, being a smaller organization enabled Artopex to quickly respond to their customers’ demands by implementing sustainability throughout their organization. This speedy response also enabled it to maintain a competitive advantage over other office furniture manufacturers, who were slower to adapt sustainability practices.
If you are part of a small business, think about how you might be able to leverage your size and the related nimbleness, connectedness and speed to implement sustainability and as a result, strengthen your brand and grow your customer base.
If you're considering implementing sustainability at your organization, be sure to download our free sustainability checklist that can help you determine what you are already doing and some additional actions you can take.