3 Ways to Make a Commitment to Sustainability Your Customers Want to See Sustainability is no longer a distant cousin of business. Consumers want it from their favorite brands. So, get started.

By Lee Rhodes

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


When big oil companies start threading sustainability into their business plans, you know it's time for you to get serious about this issue, too. According to a report by the research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the largest oil companies in the world -- ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Total -- slashed their greenhouse gas emissions by a combined 56.7 million tons in the past five years.

And that's certainly good news. But these oil empires still face the tall task of cleaning up their reputations as companies that are unconcerned with environmental issues (remember the BP oil spill?). And that's easier said than done.

Green business practices can't just be flipped on like a light switch. Sustainability is something a company must feel, believe in and practice from the start. And that's not just something you do -- it's something you are.

So, if your company wants to join that august group of those carrying the mantle of sustainability, how, exactly, do you proceed?

Related: How Companies and Consumers Can Support Sustainability

Set the foundation.

My glass-votives company has never known a day that our policies weren't sustainable. This wasn't an add-on or bandwagon initiative we jumped on; it's always been a part of our bottom line.

That's not to say this goal has always been easy. In an entrepreneurial landscape that prioritizes rapid growth for new businesses, sustainability can be expensive. Yet, nurturing a sustainable company from idea to execution can be just as rewarding. Here's how to get there:

1. Know what's driving your approach.

Buying habits reflect the many reasons people care about sustainability. Sixty-one percent of respondents to an Ask Your Target Market online survey said they preferred buying products from companies using natural materials because they're kinder to customers' skin and overall health. The same study found that 40 percent of consumers polled like it when companies raise awareness of environmental issues and spread their impact to their larger communities.

On this note, Verizon saw a way to save money, make money and cut down on waste removal when it made some sustainable shifts in business practices, including a move to begin reselling used products instead of disposing of them. This allowed the company to make $27 million in revenue and save $1 million in waste removal.

The telecom also pledged in 2009 to cut in half its "carbon intensity" -- meaning its carbon emissions per terabyte of data it transports -- by 2020, a goal it surpassed four years early. Verizon says it's proud to help its customers save energy and improve their own carbon footprints.

Want to join this impressive effort? Figure out the "why" of your company's commitment to sustainability. Make sure everyone in your company understands it and that your staffers express that "why" as a united team to your customers. If sustainability is really part of your mission, people will be more likely to follow you and spread the message.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Sustainability and Social Issues Attract Customers

2. Include sustainability in your business plan.

The Rwandan startup EarthEnable recently won the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, thanks to the sustainable business model it presented to create alternatives to cold and unhealthy cement and dirt floors in poverty-stricken parts of Rwanda. The contest annually awards a prize to promising sustainable startups. And EarthEnable is one of them: Its floors use local, natural materials sealed in plant-based oils and are less expensive and produce fewer emissions, two factors built into the core of the company's model.

Like EarthEnable, our company has totally assimilated sustainability into our culture, so this goal touches every facet of our personal and professional modus operandi and enhances our appeal.

If your company treats sustainability as some nagging idea of "have to," it'll never catch on. Instead, bake it into your business plan from the beginning. Plan for sustainability at every level, from the way you produce your packaging to the way you hire employees.

Related: 6 ways to build a sustainable business

3. Break the plan down into do-able actions.

Sustainability is a big word and a huge movement. Yes, you've written it into your business plan and you know why you care, but it can be difficult to know what to do next. So, break down your goals into smaller steps. For instance, because my company is now used to buying handmade American materials, and recycling, we've found that we can move forward with sustainability and explore other green initiatives at a reasonable pace.

For example, a sustainability report we administered inspired us to incorporate solar energy into our production. Because furnaces power much of our production, we saw that solar energy could be a huge asset to us, so we got a bank loan and installed solar panels in our Berkeley, Calif., space.

Later this year, we'll be able to break down how successful this move was, but experience taught us that we couldn't just jump all the way in; we had to research banks, determine which one was best to work with and figure out a whole list of logistics beforehand.

So, if sustainability is in your plan . . .

You've already determined the "why" and the "how." Put together a list of what sustainable tasks you can put into action to start seeing results. Find three things you think you can do well, and give yourself a four- to six-month deadline to complete them. Once those actions are done, pick three more and start again.

Make sure your team's efforts are thorough; and even try bringing in an outsider as a sustainability consultant to assess your work. That's what we did, and we were astonished at the number of small, easy actions we could do to further our impact.

Sustainability is no longer a distant cousin of business. Consumers want it from their favorite brands, so make sure it's a well-oiled part of your business model from day one. Let today be the start of your sustainability journey. Do it your way, but definitely do it.

Lee Rhodes

Founder, Glassybaby

Lee Rhodes founded Seattle-based Glassybaby, which donates to cancer charities 10 percent of its revenue from the sale of its handmade glass votives. Rhodes said her inspiration came "after a tealight and hand-blown glass vessel met during [my] cancer stint."

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