6 steps to make your business more sustainable in 2020

Is your business sustainable? We hear it often: “That’s not a sustainable business plan,” or “That’s not a sustainable business practice.” It is not an easy question to answer.

The buzz around sustainability continues to grow in the business world, so it’s undoubtedly on the radar for many of us. Notice how much the media focuses on larger, global corporations that undertake significant initiatives to improve their sustainability.

But it is the smaller — and I mean much smaller — companies that can also work to move the needle and do great things in our own area. Sustainable companies on a local and regional basis are starting to make their mark.

Let’s back up for a moment. Let’s talk sustainability. Isn’t “being green” the same as “sustainability”? No, not at all!

So, what is the difference? Being green is a focus mainly on the environment. It includes taking a product — or a service, but we’ll save that for another conversation — that we are finished with, accepting responsibly for this usage, and recycling the item after the fact. Sustainability on the other hand kicks things up a notch. Sustainable products are made from renewable resources and are items that can be renewed and repurposed. Here, there is action taken much earlier in the process — one might say before the fact. Sustainability includes both protecting the environment and working to improve the quality of life for people, both within and outside of the organization.

Of course, if a company is to remain viable, it has to make money. Profitability is also an important part of the sustainability equation.

Sustainability matters to businesses, but a growing amount of research suggests that consumers are paying attention to sustainability, as well. In fact, it is becoming a central predictor of buying behavior. As reported by Fortune, we learn that people are willing to pay more for sustainably produced products. However, I find that this stance extends beyond the products themselves — consumers want to do business with companies that have an eye on sustainability. It is the right thing to do.

At EZOP, we are on a journey to become more sustainable. Last year, I described EZOP’s adventure into the Green Masters Program of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council. I shared what we have learned about documenting our sustainability efforts and identifying ways to improve our current position on the sustainability spectrum. (Spoiler alert — there is A LOT to learn about the topic of sustainability.)

Going back to my earlier point, smaller companies as well as individuals can take steps to become more sustainable and make a real difference.

2020 is a great year to become a more sustainable business. The following are my suggestions for companies in our area to consider as they journey forward to become more sustainable. As I have learned, it can be the seemingly small steps that are important to take to help get a company started on this journey, and even the little things truly make a difference.

An example of wish-cycling an old stroller.

1. Recycle, but do it smartly and watch the products you use

Recycling is something we all know we should do. Most of us do it whenever we can. Take this a step further: Look for every opportunity to reduce — and eliminate, if you can — single-use plastics for obvious reasons.

It is also important to recognize that the opportunities to recycle materials have diminished in recent years. It is imperative not to fall into the trap of wish-cycling — the practice of tossing questionable items in a recycling bin, hoping they will be recycled or that someone else will break them down into pieces and parts that are recyclable. Just because something is placed in the recycling bin does not mean it gets recycled, and this can do more harm than good. You don’t want to contaminate a recycling batch with nonrecyclable materials. Case in point: cardboard pizza boxes cannot be recycled due to food contaminants. How many times have you thrown a pizza box in your recycling bin?

Other examples of wish-cycling happen all the time. Just the other day, I was walking and saw a stroller in a large recycling bin. This is a classic example of wish-cycling and a perfect example of what not to do. Think and ask questions before you recycle.

2. Invest in your workforce

Your business has an important asset — the talent already possessed among your workforce. When employees have a wide variety of backgrounds, skill sets, and even outlooks on life, your business benefits from their approach to challenges and opportunities. You’ll find ideas will abound and execution becomes easier to implement.

Investing in your workforce not only means paying them fairly and including needed benefits, but also providing them with intangible things to keep them happy. As an example, do your employees have support from the company if they wish to use various transportation methods to get to work? This effort could be as simple as providing easy access to bike storage during the workday. Do you allow — better yet, encourage — your employees to get involved with community events during the workday? Do you recognize various achievements among your team? Do you openly solicit input and ideas from your employees? These are just some things you can do to support your employees and to help build a more sustainable business.

3. Invest in the community

The community around us is so important. It is where our employees, customers, and extended stakeholders live and work. A sustainable business can become involved in the community and give back in a variety of ways. Whether cleaning up litter in a park or along the streets, mentoring students or other small businesses, accepting a seat on the board of an important-to-you nonprofit, or starting a Little Free Library in a location that needs one. Pick causes that are important to you and your business, and support them as much as you can.

For EZ Office Products, helping the environment is near and dear to our hearts. (If we run into one another around town, ask me about plastic usage and plastics in our ocean. I’d love to know your ideas on how to solve these problems.) I also have a personal connection with children and literacy. I want to do what I can to help ensure all children have access to a solid education as well as to books to read from an early age because I know this helps shape the leaders of our future.

4. Improve your processes and systems

Most of us go about doing our jobs the way we always have. It is easy, comfortable, predictable, and it works. But could it be better? Could you revise your processes in a way that is better for your company, employees, clients, and the environment? It is an important question to ask. All of us have processes in our companies, and it is our responsibility to see if they work the way they should.

In our world, we deliver many office supply orders to clients each day. We must deliver quickly, as our clients need their items sooner rather than later. Over the years, we have developed an excellent scheduling process so we can plan our delivery routes to maximize efficiency with our time and mileage driven, thereby reducing gas consumption and carbon output. As we strategically think through the best way to handle our deliveries, our clients benefit from the best and most efficient service possible — and they do receive their orders in a very timely way.

5. Rethink how you source your products

All of us incur expenses for supplies and services in our companies, but do business owners stop and think about whether they are purchasing the right items, or if Supplier X is the right choice?

Look to do business with companies that are local and help support your community. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: companies like Amazon are putting more and more small companies out of business. We all want quick and easy transactions, but all of us should look to our local communities to see how we can help keep small local businesses alive and thriving. For service providers, look for local, sustainable businesses that are aligned with your values and actively support the local community.

In terms of the products you purchase, think about what you can buy that is better for the environment, or look for creative alternatives. Are the supplies you buy truly sustainable? In your company kitchen, for instance, encourage the use of reusable dishes, cups, and utensils, or at the very least, look for environmentally friendly ones. Instead of bottled water, use a refillable water cooler or try a product like Boxed Water is Better when you need individual servings. Additionally, here’s a very easy thing to do: ask your employees for ideas to source better products and services from better places!

6. Assign a sustainability point person

Every company needs a person to monitor and oversee its sustainability efforts — think of them as the sustainability cheerleader. You might have a whole team in place that can help guide these efforts but advocating for sustainable business practices can start with a single person. 

This person will keep a handle on the organization’s goals, ideally by tracking and reporting a company’s sustainability progress. They can also help ensure that the rest of the company is engaged and actively joins in on sustainability efforts — and if some people are losing interest and steam, they can help reignite their enthusiasm. Without such a person in place, it’s all too easy for a company to put sustainability efforts on the back burner.

There are very manageable steps a business can take to improve its efforts to become more sustainable. So, I will go back to my original question at the top of this piece and revise it: What steps will you take to make your company more sustainable in 2020? 

Even the smallest steps matter. Don’t underestimate the impact of seemingly small tasks that move you in a positive direction. If for no other reason, do it because we have no Planet B.

Rose Molz is president of EZ Office Products.

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