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Running a business

Sustainable design: What it is, why it matters, and how your small business can get started

When it comes to your business, what makes a customer buy? There’s the cost, of course. They probably also give some weight to your reputation and your reviews. But, there’s another reason that’s top of mind for today’s consumers: environmental impact.

Many consumers think it’s important to buy from companies that are socially or environmentally responsible.

This means that being more eco-friendly has also become a point of emphasis for small business owners. They can win over customers, while simultaneously reducing their negative environmental impact by practicing sustainable design.

What is sustainable design?

Sustainable design refers to the process of thoughtfully designing physical objects—whether that’s products, buildings, or something else tangible—to reduce negative impacts on the environment.

You’ll also hear sustainable design referred to as environmental design and environmentally conscious design.

Sustainable design is a little different than simply “going green.” It’s less about making small tweaks to existing processes or products and more about completely re-evaluating and revising them to make them more eco-friendly from the outset (hence the “design” portion of the word).

As you might expect, sustainable design is a key focus in architecture for increasing the efficiency and reducing the negative environmental impact of buildings themselves (by making use of sustainable building materials, alternative sources of energy, and more).

But beyond your physical space, what can you as a business owner do to incorporate more sustainable design into your business? Here are three areas you can evaluate.

Sustainability in your products

If you produce physical goods, the first place to start is by looking at your products themselves. What could be done to make those more sustainable?

That might relate to your current production process. Maybe the manufacturing of your products could be done more efficiently. Perhaps you could obtain your materials from renewable resources. Or maybe you should seek out more environmentally-conscious vendors or even local suppliers to reduce shipping distances.

It’s also important to consider your entire product lifecycle.

When your products are no longer used by a consumer, what can they do with them—besides tossing them to the landfill? Many companies—both large and small—have instituted recycling programs to reclaim their old products.

Clothing company, Madewell, allows customers to drop off their old jeans (any brand!) so that they can be turned into housing insulation for organisations like Habitat for Humanity.

Finally, ensuring the overall quality and durability of your products not only keeps your customers satisfied, but it also means that they won’t be discarded or replaced as soon or as frequently.

Sustainability in your marketing materials

Today, a lot of your business marketing is automatically more eco-friendly because it’s done online.

But, it seems like there’s no way to escape paper completely. Whether it’s your business cards, brochures, or sales one-sheets, you probably still have plenty of physical marketing materials.

These present a real opportunity to practice sustainable design by pursuing more environmentally-friendly options like:

  • Purchasing recycled paper for printing any materials yourself
  • Ordering brochures, letterhead, and other mailing products from companies that practice sustainability and offer recycled or eco-friendly options.
  • Selecting business cards that are lower-impact (popular printing company, Moo, offers the options to design cotton business cards made from old t-shirts, and some vendors even offer cards that are actually plantable seeds)

And, of course, when it comes to printed marketing materials, only order or produce what you need—the last thing you want is to have to toss out a ton of unused paper products.

Sustainability in your packaging

Packaging is another important consideration to make, particularly when you consider how much waste is involved with products. How you package your products might have even more environmental impact than the product itself.

For starters, look at using compostable, recyclable, or biodegradable product packaging, such as:

  • Cardboard
  • Paperboard
  • Biodegradable Plastic

You should also keep your packaging as lean and streamlined as possible—as you’d likely guess, packaging a small item in a large box isn’t particularly eco-friendly.

Even when you’re using more environmentally-conscious materials like the above, it’s also worth evaluating how you could reuse or repurpose your product packaging for maximum efficiency.

Cosmetics retailer, MAC, does this with the Back to Mac program. Shoppers can return primary packages to be recycled and reused. MAC even encourages this effort by offering customers a free lipstick of their choosing when they return six packages.

The financial side of sustainable design

Understandably, there’s one more question about sustainable design that business owners have: How much is it going to cost?

You’ve probably noticed that products that are kinder to the environment come with a higher price tag, so your concern about cost is justified.

It’s true—a switch to sustainable design will require some investment. For example, the cost of pulp (the raw material necessary for paper and corrugated boxes) has been on a steady rise, meaning more environmentally-friendly packaging will be slightly more costly than plastic.

However, there are also some sustainability practices that make a major impact, yet cost you almost nothing—such as instituting a recycling program for your used products or packaging.

While an upfront cost is unavoidable, it’s worth it in the long run. It not only means positive things for the environment, but also for the bottom line of your business. Much of this is because shoppers are increasingly making environmentally-motivated choices.

Sustainable design is 100% attainable

Making the shift to sustainable design is definitely a process. Unlike changing out your lightbulbs, it’s not something that will happen overnight.

Truly sustainable design requires that you reevaluate your current products and processes, and then re-engineer them to be more eco-friendly from the beginning.

However, making this commitment is well worth it. After all, this emphasis on sustainability can mean big things for your reputation, your customer perception, your bottom line, and—most importantly—our planet.

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