Small companies may feel a social obligation or desire to implement sustainability programs, but they can be expensive. Very large companies can often justify the expense based on the PR value. They’re in the public spotlight and perceive benefit from being seen as a good corporate citizen.

Leaders of small companies can be more reticent. Lacking the resources of their larger counterparts and not being as much in the public spotlight, they may have to be more pragmatic. If there isn’t a good return on investment, they often decide not to act. This can leave the leaders of small companies feeling like they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

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On the one hand, they want to be socially responsible. On the other hand, they struggle to pay the bills and can’t afford to spend money on things that aren’t an absolute necessity for the business. They believe that sustainability programs equate to more expense and that their businesses can’t afford them.

In the same way, there used to be a generally accepted principle that getting quality cost more. Higher quality meant higher cost. Then in 1979, Phil Crosby taught us that, “Quality is Free.” That is, if quality is defined as conformance to requirements, doing things right the first time was less expensive than doing it wrong and having to deal with the consequences. Actually, quality is better than free -- it’s profitable.

We view sustainability in the same light as quality. Sustainability, if properly implemented, cannot only be free, it can be profitable. This makes sustainability accessible to small businesses. Consider the following examples:

1. A financial services company used teleconferencing rather than traveling to meet face-to-face whenever possible. This has the environmental benefit of reducing hydrocarbon emissions, but it also significantly lowers travel costs and the associated employee “dead time” spent in a car.

This sustainable practice is a win-win. It’s socially responsible and creates shareholder value. To be sure, face-to-face meetings are sometimes necessary, but when they aren’t, there is a way to benefit the environment and save money.

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2. A paper producer was able to negotiate a significant price concession from its suppliers when it began to recycle the plastic barrels used to deliver chemicals rather than sending them to the landfill, as had previously been the practice. Again, the practice was environmentally friendly and profitable.

3. A property-management company switched to more energy-efficient lighting in its loading docks and service areas. The result was that the company consumed less energy and the areas were better lit at a lower cost.

4. A new-media marketing firm chose to allow most of its employees to telecommute. The environment benefited from fewer cars on the road. The company reduced its need for expensive office space and was able to attract quality employees who enjoy the convenience of working from home.

Sustainability programs don’t have to be costly. In fact, they can be profitable. Being trendy is nice. Paying the bills is an imperative. As these examples illustrate, a bit of creativity and an intelligently designed sustainability program can allow small businesses to accomplish both.

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