Headline article image Small business sustainability: 22 sustainability tips

Small business sustainability: 22 sustainability tips

Taking care of business increasingly means taking care of the planet.

At a glance:

  • Tips for small businesses

  • Tips for headquarters

  • Tips for retailers 

  • Tips for salons 

  • Tips for manufacturers 

Today, 6 in 10 consumers factor environmental sustainability into their purchasing decisions, and more than two-thirds of Millennials have purchased a product with an environmental benefit in the past year.

As a result, more and more small businesses are looking at ways to improve their environmental footprint. 

If that’s you, there’s one important thing to remember, warns Alison Taylor, the executive director of Ethical Systems, and an adjunct professor at the New York University Stern School of Business.

"Don't claim to be saving the world when all you do is make it a tiny bit less bad.”

- Alison Taylor, ED of Ethical Systems

“Customers can tell when you’re greenwashing," she says. "Companies need to be careful that they are not claiming that these things will save the world when all they do is make it a tiny bit less bad.”

Luckily, introducing authentic, impactful environmental and sustainable practices doesn’t need to be difficult. “Small businesses can start small,” says Rebecca Lake, a sustainability and communications consultant who has advised the United Nations. “There’s no point getting overwhelmed by everything that you could or should be doing - that can be paralyzing!”

We’ve compiled 22 easy-to-implement environmental ideas – for your office, store or salon, for warehousing and for production facilities. 

In store

1. Reusable bags

Offering customers reusable environmental bags is a great environmental way to reduce waste while promoting your small business. Companies such as BRINGiT manufacture 100-percent compostable, environmental, eco-friendly bags, and USImprints makes canvas tote bags with your company’s name on them.

2. Green transport

“Consider providing incentives for staff who ride bikes or take public transport to work,” says Lake. You might begin by moving their start times to later in the day to avoid peak hour.

3. Give customers a chance to give back

This is a simple and empowering way to connect to customers, whether it’s contributing to the business’ favorite eco charity or scoring a discount for bringing in their own bag. There are even platforms such as i=change, which will facilitate the donation and allow customers to select the charity of their choice.

4. Offer product refills

If you sell food, cleaning supplies or other refillable products, consider creating an in-store refilling station. This is an environmental idea that can work for salons too. “I love this one and don’t know why more salons aren’t doing it,” says Lake. “It’s a great way to increase traffic in the salon. If I’m getting a refill, I may as well also treat myself to a blow dry, too!”  

In the salon

5. Recycling

Hairdressing salons generate very specific types of waste, from hair to metal (from foils) and chemical waste. Speak to your local public works and learn exactly how and where you can recycle these products. If in doubt, reach out to an industry body such as SalonCycle , which recycles a range of salon-specific waste, such as excess dye and hair clippings.

6. Towel washing/biodegradable linens

“Many people aren’t aware of the impact textile fibers can have on waterways,” says Lake. However, there are numerous businesses that specialize in compostable linen or washing towels in an eco-friendly manner. 

In production/ manufacturing

7. Blockchain

Blockchain is loosely defined as a database that can store transaction records and other encrypted information, making it difficult to hack or corrupt. This setup allows for greater transparency. For example, Foodtrax is a blockchain app that allows users to track food from "farm to fork". Provenance is another blockchain app that makes supply chains more transparent.

“Blockchain will change the game of supply‑chain transparency and traceability.”

- Rebecca Lake, sustainability consultant

The technology isn’t quite ready yet, but this is definitely a space to watch,” says Lake. “Blockchain will change the game in terms of supply‑chain transparency and traceability.” But she cautions entrepreneurs to be mindful about relying on sustainability standards and various certifications. “Do your homework on this; it’s easy to tick a box with a certified seal, but the reality with global supply chains is they are complex, so be sure to ask your suppliers lots of questions. 

8. Source low-impact material

From the materials used to create your product to the packaging that encases it, it’s important to choose low-impact options, opting for cotton over polyester and recycled packaging over single-use bags, for example. For a guide on which textiles are low impact, go to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which has a clearly defined set of criteria.

9. Repurposing off cuts

Repurposing unused or scrap material instead of dumping it is an important way to minimize textile waste. It doesn’t have to be complex, either. Eco-friendly clothing brand Milo + Nicki have a "zero waste" section on their site, selling earrings, bags and hair accessories that have been made out of their off cuts. It’s also possible to buy off cuts – or "dead stock" – from other brands.

10. Shipping not flying

Switching from airfreight to shipping is a major way to reduce emissions. One study found that two tonnes of freight carried for 5,000km by a small container ship creates 150kg of carbon dioxide (CO2e) – compared to 6,605kg of CO2e if the freight is carried by plane for the same distance. 

Lake believes it will take some serious strategizing because not all ships use the same oil. It also requires greater organization and wait time, due to the lengthier shipping times. If you are in the fashion industry, switching to shipping may mean offering two seasons per year instead of four. Visit The Sustainable Shipping Initiative for more information.

"Educate your customers and they will support you."

- Rebecca Lake, sustainability consultant

On the plus side, if you market your small business in this way, the customers you want will follow. “Educate your consumers on why you are doing this, and they will support you," says Lake. "Keeping up with ‘trends’ is a fast-fashion game, which isn’t sustainable. It encourages overconsumption and waste.” 

11. Offset delivery

Carbon offsetting is an emerging opportunity for businesses to compensate for their emissions. Consider using a delivery partner like Sendle, which sends every parcel 100 per cent carbon neutral at no extra cost. Sendle offsets the carbon emissions caused by parcel delivery by investing in positive environmental initiatives, like forest protection around the world.

12. Produce locally

There are numerous environmental benefits to producing locally – not only does it reduce carbon emissions but having direct oversight over production facilities can ensure that workers are treated fairly.

Lake believes that sustainable fashion is a new and exciting pathway forward for designers, small businesses and consumers alike, with the potential to take us back to the way things used to be made – from globalized, mass-produced fast fashion businesses, to local, artisanal pieces that can be treasured for a lifetime.

13. Made to order

One way to reduce waste is to switch to a made-to-order model for all products or even just selected items. Once seen as the preserve of haute couture, the made-to-order model has been adopted by a new generation of fashion designers. Today, environmental designers like Prabal Gurung attribute 20 to 25 percent of their business model to made-to-order garments.

14. Natural dyes and textiles

“Worldwide, river systems are being polluted, running fluorescent pink and yellow with chemical run-off from nearby garment manufacturers. The same is true for processes like leather tanning, which is poisoning workers in India,” says Lake. “This cannot continue. More investment in R&D for ‘nature’ dyes and plant-based materials is needed, although these products are increasingly becoming available and more affordable for B2B consumers.” U.S.-based alternatives include the Green Matters Natural Dye Company, Organic Dyes and Pigments and Botanical Colors.

In your office 

15. Go paperless

It’s easier than it sounds, says Lake. “There are tons of awesome apps like Box, Evernote, Expensify and Docusign that can help get small businesses organized. While this won’t require a massive financial investment, it can be time consuming, so set aside some regular periods in your calendar to set up a digital paperless system.” The good news? Sustainable solutions often end up offering cost-savings, too.

16. Remote working

While remote working might not be feasible for every job or industry, it can significantly curb emissions. Research from the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that if everybody able to work from home worldwide did so for just one day a week, it would save approximately 1 percent of global oil consumption for road passenger transport per year.

17. Reusable kitchenware – and gift your staff reusables 

Reduce plastic waste by stocking your small business' kitchen with reusable plates, cups and cutlery. You could even go one step further and gift your business' employees with reusable kitchenware. “This not only encourages behavior change among your employees, [but] creates ripple effects beyond your small business, among [employees] families and local communities, too,” says Lake.

18. Review your energy use

“A first step is to simply start monitoring your energy use – you might be surprised which appliances are absorbing the most amount of power,” says Lake. Start by typing in the brand, model type and number of hours you use it into an energy rating website like Energy Saver.

"Switch to energy-efficient appliances."

- Rebecca Lake, sustainability consultant

“This way you can work to become more efficient with your energy consumption, like switching off fridges and computers when they aren’t in use; switch to energy-efficient appliances, and open windows and doors instead of using air conditioning. All of this adds up and makes an impact. It also reduces your energy bill – so it’s a win-win!”

You can also use cut-out switches to cut standby power usage, change to LED lights (which use 75 percent less energy) and sign up to a green energy provider.

19. Leave the air conditioner alone

“Lowering the temperature of the air conditioner by just one degree on a hot day can increase energy costs by 10 percent,” says O’ Mara. Instead, make T-shirts and casual, lightweight clothes acceptable on Casual Fridays or during heatwaves.

20. Recycling and composting

Create clear signs about what can and cannot go in different trash cans, and provide training to staff to encourage their compliance.

Ensure that recycling stations are set up in places where staff will use them, and consider looking beyond everyday waste and encouraging staff to recycle clothes and books. “Ask staff to bring in books, clothes and so on at a ‘swap day’ held in an office library or lunchroom,” says O’Mara.

21. Cloud computing

The other half of going paperless is that it reduces server needs and cuts power costs, too. Put simply, cloud computing means “renting” data space online or through apps, so it is in the shareable “cloud” as opposed to buying software, hardware, storage and servers. Google Docs is an example of this, where multiple team members can work on one document.

22. Refill where possible

Get printer cartridges refilled, not replaced, and opt for refillable products, such as hand soap in bathrooms and dishwashing detergent in kitchens, wherever possible.

All references to any registered trademarks are the property of their respective owners. Afterpay does not endorse or recommend any one particular supplier and the information provided is for educational purposes only.


Back to access