Small Businesses Taking Steps Towards Sustainability

Small businesses account for the majority of businesses worldwide, representing upwards of 90% of the total. They provide more than half of all employment and are major economic drivers. Given the sheer collective size of the small business community, it has a tremendous opportunity to make a significant impact on sustainability.

But we don’t often hear about the approaches small businesses are taking to reduce their carbon footprint. Yet, stories, case studies, and resources abound for large corporations that are implementing more sustainable practices. These strategies, however, are not often applicable to the average small business.

In addition to a lack of resources, several misconceptions can keep small businesses from pursuing sustainability. But now, with greater frequency, small business owners around the world are disproving those misconceptions — finding creative ways around the challenges of incorporating sustainable practices into a smaller business.

Misconceptions Concerning Sustainability in Small Business

There are many reasons small businesses aren’t pursuing sustainability initiatives as actively as their enterprise-level counterparts. For starters, most don’t have the resources large corporations do. They don’t have teams dedicated to strategizing and developing sustainability solutions. Nor are there as many strategic roadmaps to follow that address the realities of small business operations.

Resources aside, however, a bigger inhibitor is often the misconceptions concerning sustainability and small business. Two of which tend to prevail: the belief that the average small business won’t be able to make a significant impact, and that sustainability is a cost center in that it costs the business money and may not directly add to profits.

Given that small businesses represent the majority of businesses worldwide and more than half of the gross domestic product (GDP) in developed countries, they contribute a great deal to environmental pollution. But this means they have a tremendous opportunity to make an impact in the other direction.

Sustainability doesn’t have to be a cost center and in many cases, it can save businesses money by eliminating unnecessary waste or redundancies in operational processes. In some cases, it can even lead to new revenue streams.

The first step is to identify where there may be unnecessary waste in the business and what is contributing to environmental pollution. Consider starting with one process and then begin to peel back the layers.

That’s exactly what several of the small businesses that were recognized by Sustainable Earth did when they began their sustainability journeys.

Small Businesses Making an Impact

Sustainable Earth — an online sustainability resource created by Arizona State University — recently recognized the achievements of 15 small U.S. businesses through its Sustainable Earth Small Business Awards (SESBAs). These businesses are working to make their businesses more sustainable and were willing to share their stories to help inspire other small businesses.

The recognized businesses fell into three categories:

  • Sustainable first: those that started with a sustainable mission
  • Transitioning businesses: those taking steps to be more sustainable, whether through waste reduction or giving back to the planet and community
  • Individual champions: solopreneurs or individuals within a company who are making a big impact in their communities

Wok This Way: a Sustainable-First Food Truck

One of the “sustainable-first” businesses, Wok This Way, calls itself Arizona’s first “green” food truck with a cause. In addition to its 100% plant-based, Asian-inspired cuisine, the company also employs people with special needs. And from its inception, its mission has been to teach sustainability practices and deliver nutritious food, using sustainable consumption and production methods to combat climate change.

“Modern food systems continue to have a negative impact on the environment, contributing large amounts of waste and food waste,” said founder Kristine Mills. “They’re also major consumers of energy, fossil fuels, and water. When we learned this during the initial development of the truck, we knew Wok This Way needed to do better.”

Mills wants to be a leader for other food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants to develop sustainable models of practice. Without a model to follow, she sought out support, first joining the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), and subsequently Local First, a nonprofit organization committed to community and economic development throughout Arizona.

Through it all, Mills has cut the business’s waste through composting, using biodegradable packaging and utensils, and recycling. She is also working on integrating rooftop solar panels and a rechargeable battery pack on the truck, which she estimates will reduce energy consumption by 60%. Mills also estimates that the business will save approximately 40 gallons of water per event they attend by recycling 100% of the truck’s water usage through graywater collection. The truck also operates on biodiesel.

For other businesses, particularly food businesses, pursuing sustainable initiatives, Mills recommends doing your research.

“As you learn more about the food industry and its impact, you recognize simple ways to make change,” she said. “It gives you an opportunity to decide how sustainability fits into your business.”

She also recommended collaborating and not being afraid to ask for help. Most other small businesses are open to joining forces or sharing what they’ve learned. And finally, Mills believes one of the easiest ways to support a more sustainable and equitable society is to create more inclusive hiring practices.

MISGIF: Transitioning to Sustainable Photo Booth Options

Another example is MISGIF, a photo booth activation agency that has been transitioning to more sustainable practices over the past few years. Now the company’s mission is to provide sustainable photo booth options that have a positive impact on the environment and community. To make these changes, the team took the following steps:

  • Eliminated printed photos, switching to an all-digital model
  • Began encouraging reusable backdrops instead of balloon installations
  • Sourcing props and rental supplies from local businesses in the same region of the event
  • Equipping photo booths with LED lights
  • Outfitting their office with low-flow faucets and energy-efficient washers and lighting

The collective of these seemingly small steps has made a significant impact and as the MISGIF team put it, “helped transform the way we do business for the better.”

HighWire: Cutting-Edge Cocktail Venue Goes Green

Finally, HighWire, a molecular mixology lounge and community space in Tucson, Arizona, didn’t always operate with sustainability in mind. But when owner Nick Wayne learned about the implications of the waste produced by businesses, it kickstarted him on a new mission.

He started by installing a 1,500-gallon rainwater harvesting system that sustains the venue’s vegetation and provides water to trees and plants throughout the surrounding downtown area. He also incorporated low-water-use fixtures that saved 20% over the federal standard. In addition, he replaced all lighting with LEDs, swapped straws and cups for compostable options, and made disposable straws and cups available only by request. Throughout the year, the team receives sustainability training from Mrs. Green’s World. Now he’s working on using food waste for composting and collaborating with the city on a more efficient recycling program.

“There definitely is a cost of doing green business,” Wayne said. “By switching to compostable straws and water cups, we took on an additional $5,000 a year for those products. However, we now only offer straws and water on request. When HighWire was renovated, the low-water restroom fixtures and low-energy lighting were an upcharge in the budget. I felt this money was well spent and will be recouped in time.”

Though he hopes greener products become the standard and are more easily accessible to everyone, he doesn’t view sustainability as a sunk cost. It’s an investment in his team, the community, and the future.

“An unexpected outcome from ‘going green’ at HighWire has been the excitement and enthusiasm from the staff,” Wayne said. “They genuinely seem to enjoy the trainings and having a voice in ways we can make an impact.”

Sustainable Earth Small Business Awardees

Sustainable First

Transitioning Businesses

Individual Champions

About the Author

Katelyn ArmbrusterKatelyn Armbruster is a program manager for Arizona State University’s Walton Sustainability Solutions Services under the Global Futures Lab. In addition to numerous sustainability initiatives and programs, Armbruster also oversees Sustainable Earth, a website for sharing knowledge, news, and ideas for a clean earth.