What Sustainability Means to Small Businesses

It is difficult, if not impossible, to talk business these days without hearing or using the word sustainability. With the rise of organic bakeries, eco-friendly dry cleaners, smart-car manufacturers, and the like, the importance of thinking beyond making money, protecting human and natural resources, and of working to clean up America’s old industrial act, is becoming increasingly apparent. Even skeptics have to admit: In many markets, conscientiousness creates competitive edge.

Of course, sustainability can mean many things to many people in the context of small business. Professionals typically associate the term with implementing greener operational practices (such as recycling, conserving energy, and telecommuting), but sustainability also connotes social and economic responsibility. In general, a sustainable small business strives to protect not only the environment, but also the people on whom it relies to function, as well as its fiscal well-being. Experts call this the “triple bottom line” and argue that truly sustainable businesses give the three P’s — people, the planet, and profits — equal priority.

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? But how does all that translate into everyday, actionable items for very small businesses and sole proprietors? In the coming weeks and months, you’ll find information in this space that demonstrates how your company can save and make money while doing good. Future posts will discuss issues such as: the latest energy-efficient measures being taken by home offices and renters; the U.S. communities that best foster entrepreneurial environments; which government entities give preference to sustainable contract bids; and various ways to maximize human capital (even if you are your only current investment). Everything will be geared toward businesses with fewer than a dozen employees.

As a small-business owner and the newest contributor to Intuit’s blog, I’m also interested in hearing from you. I want to know what entrepreneurs across the U.S. are doing to support their triple bottom lines, so that others might benefit from your stories, successful or otherwise. Please send your comments, case studies, and other considerations to me at  sustainableSB@gmail.com. Sustainability, after all, also means the capacity to endure, which small businesses can bolster by pooling our experiences and resulting wisdom. Whereas alone we may struggle, together we are strong.

About Rebecca Smith Hurd

Rebecca Smith Hurd is a veteran freelance writer and editor who, like you, runs her own small business. A savvy sole proprietor, Hurd is always on the lookout for new ways to make her operation smarter, greener, and more profitable.Follow Intuit’s sustainability efforts on Twitter (@intuitgreen)!
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3 comments
Reana Rossouw
Reana Rossouw

I own a small management consultancy in South Africa. One of our core products and services are assisting companies with developing Sustainability Strategies and Reports. As a business owner I also try and do my best to be more sustainable - and we have learnt an enormous amount with our clients on becoming more sustainable in our own business. In working in this industry I have noticed a number of things. 1. SME's (Small, medium enterprises) in general (in South Africa) are not very aware of sustainability issues. Especially in the current recessionary environment, they just want to survive. In South Africa especially where we have so many survivalist entrepreneurs as well as pressing socio economic and political issues, - it is even worse. We have found (generally) the only companies interested and aware of sustainability issues are 'mid size' companies with a turnover of more than $10 million US. 2. However, we are starting to see movement. SME's that are suppliers to big companies or corporates are now forced to consider sustainability - for instance as part of the annual vendor registration process - SME's have to complete various sustainability questionnaires - so I assume we will start seeing movement soon. In particular industries - i.e. food suppliers to retailers - we have seen extensive movement in the 'organic' produce environment. 3. Already we have a number of NGO/NPO's as well as SME's starting to produce sustainability reports, which assumes they have sustainability strategies, targets and programmes. Again in particular industries we are starting to see movement i.e. clothing, footwear and apparel manufacturers producing products for clothing retailers - are producing sustainability reports which incorporates extensive economical, environmental and social performance data. And these are very small manufacturers. 4. Lastly we are also seeing service based SME's starting to produce sustainability reports - mostly for marketing and branding purposes, but even so - I think every bit helps. In South Africa - integrated reporting becomes mandatory for listed companies from the 1st of March 2011 and I believe this will create more momentum in the SME space as well. I trust this insigt from South Africa and the small business context with regards to sustainbility helps. I would love to hear how this is progressing in other countries around the world as well.

Rebecca Smith Hurd
Rebecca Smith Hurd

That all sounds great, Ken. Thanks for sharing! Have you found that some social marketing tools work better than others in getting the word out?

Ken Chen
Ken Chen

I own a small marketing consulting/contracting firm and we try our best to be sustainable for the planet, but not printing paper as much, using b&w ink when we do, recycling, unplugging our computers at night, and try to use natural sunlight instead of electronic ones.But it doesn't seem to add up to much. So, recently, I've started talking to my clients about this idea of making their marketing sustainable. What this means is helping them figure out what they can do to get their business out in the market and hopefully let word of mouth sustain them. I'm not a big believer in a lot of advertising for small businesses and startups, and now with all the social marketing tools, small businesses can trade in time for media $.