How to Make Sustainability More Than a Buzzword

We only have one planet, and your business has only one bottom line. Here's how to make the two fast friends.

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How to Make Sustainability More Than a Buzzword
Image credit: David P. Hall | Getty Images
VIP Contributor
Co-founder of Hostt
5 min read
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These days, sustainability is much more than a buzzword, and wise business leaders have realized that you don’t have to choose between what’s good for business and what’s good for the planet. Business and environmental objectives can -- and should -- work together.

Sustainable products are a growing industry, and Nielsen predicts customers will spend as much as $150 billion by 2021 on sustainable, fast-moving consumer goods. That includes products like packaged foods, toiletries and other consumables that are sold quickly at a low cost. While the term “sustainable” can mean different things to different audiences, research indicates that environmentally friendly products are currently resonating strongly with consumers.

But wooing customers comes down to more than the environmental impact of your physical product -- it’s about showing consumers that your business approaches sustainability holistically. Just look at Patagonia, which is known both for developing new materials that help the planet and pledging a percentage of profits to environmental groups. Or consider Interface Inc., whose founder, Ray Anderson, earned the nickname World’s Greenest CEO for his efforts to erase the company’s negative environmental impacts. Besides the obvious good these companies are doing for the planet, their sustainability efforts benefit their brands's images as well. And that image is key to finding success with customers.

To tap into the sustainability movement and unlock a win-win for the planet and your profits, take these three steps.

1. Teach your team to make a real difference, not a wishful one.

When it comes to sustainability, education is everything. Consider an ardent recycler who couldn’t bear to send a used pizza box to the landfill. Cardboard is recyclable, right? Unfortunately, just a few items covered with food oils can contaminate an entire load of material. Perry Moss, co-founder of recycling-solutions provider Rubicon Global, calls this tendency of well-meaning people to put trash into the recycling bin “aspirational recycling.”

He points out that this wishful thinking has led to an increase in contamination. Because recycling profit margins are slim to begin with, even small amounts of contamination can make processing a load economically unviable. The lesson? Know what to recycle, but also know what to throw away. Share proper recycling practices with your teammates, and encourage them to use the knowledge at home to amplify the impact. You could even make resources available for any employee who wants to lead a workshop on sustainability at his or her child’s school or at an industry conference. In this way, your team members can become brand advocates for your company’s green values.

Related: 10 Ways to Make Your Business More Socially Conscious

2. Reform wasteful production processes.

There’s always a better way to produce your products, whether it means developing cutting-edge materials or innovative new production processes that are better for the planet. Manufacturing company Carbon recently demonstrated the former when it unveiled its new RPU 130 resin made from almost 30 percent plant-based material. To make your own production processes more sustainable, start by establishing a green team whose job is to identify the most promising initiatives. These might include pursuing renewable-energy adoption or conducting regular energy audits to improve efficiency.

You can also take basic steps to expand your recycling program or look at ways to reduce water waste. These individual initiatives might not have a groundbreaking impact on their own, but they can create significant change when implemented together. When your brand starts walking the walk, your marketing team can start talking the talk. Showcase your sustainable production processes via on-site content. IKEA, for example, uses its online content to encourage customers to be more environmentally conscious while highlighting how the company practices what it preaches.

Related: Investing in Sustainability Is More Profitable Than You’d Think

3. Develop metrics to track success.

The business benefit of sustainability is only going to grow as consumers become more environmentally conscious. The difficult part is quantifying that benefit or proving to customers that your efforts make a difference. Whereas marketing teams can often estimate that a certain campaign will yield an approximate financial return, guessing the impact of sustainability initiatives is often just that -- a guess.

To measure the results of your efforts more precisely, you’ll need to define certain important success metrics. Ben & Jerry’s, for example, created “Social Metrics” to track the performance of its social mission. Since then, that effort has evolved, and the company is working to adopt an entirely new accounting system to weigh its economic, environmental and social impacts. Even if such a broad approach isn’t yet realistic for your organization, start by setting specific goals and measuring your results. For example, you could weigh clean recyclables leaving your building at various times each year to measure the impact of your team's education initiatives. Be sure to publicize any increase in your success metrics so your efforts elevate your brand in consumers's eyes.

Related: Defining Success: 4 Key Measurements That Go Beyond Revenue

Sustainability is driving tremendous business value, but whatever you do, don’t try to fake it. Customers are adept at spotting inauthenticity, and a misleading effort to market your company as sustainable will do more harm than good. To truly put this principle into practice, start reducing your impact.

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