Two businesswomen package their products in sustainable packaging indicating they have a small business sustainability plan.

How to develop an impactful small business sustainability plan in 5 steps [free template]

What is a small business sustainability plan?

A sustainability plan is a roadmap for a business to improve social, environmental, and economical sustainability. An effective sustainability plan will include your goals, strategies, and track your progress.

Sustainability is more than just a trend—95% of small businesses say it’s important to the future of the economy. Whether you have a set budget or want to break new ground, you might wonder how to be part of the change. 

Having a small business sustainability plan is essential to get organized and start working toward a more green business

Sustainable businesses help decrease the impact on the environment by reducing carbon emissions, energy consumption, and waste. In turn, it reduces business costs, attracts investors, and builds a better image—helping to bring in new customers. 

Want to start taking action? In this guide, you’ll learn how to create a small business sustainability plan and keep yourself on track with a sustainability plan template.

An explanation of what is a small business sustainability plan

Step 1: Be in the know

The first step to creating a small business sustainability plan is learning about sustainability to understand how you can implement and improve your sustainability efforts. 

You can learn about sustainability by:

  • Researching sustainability topics
  • Learning about how businesses affect the environment
  • Finding out what other small businesses are doing to help
  • Understanding the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) framework
  • Grasping some sustainability business practices

You should also learn about the sustainability laws and regulations in your area and understand if you're within the standards.

Remember that sustainability is a broad topic and there are many ways you can make your business more sustainable. Understanding sustainability helps you change your perspective and find ways your business can change and future-proof itself.

Benefits of having a small business sustainability plan

Step 2: Identify what you're already doing well

Implementing a sustainability plan takes time and work, especially when it’s a new project on your plate. That's why analyzing your current sustainability efforts can help you focus on what needs to improve—and where to take things one step further.

Start by doing an energy audit to check your business's lighting and HVAC systems. Then, identify the internal and external actions you're already taking.

Consider asking yourself these questions:

  • Do you have a recycling program in place?
  • Are you sourcing materials from a sustainable supplier?
  • Do you have energy-efficient lighting?
  • Are you partnering with local suppliers?
  • Is your business fully digital?
  • Do you use recyclable packaging?

There are many areas of your business that impact the environment. Understand what you're doing well in your office and in the development of your products or services, customer service initiatives, and marketing.

Once you pinpoint what areas you're doing well, you can create a priority list of things you need to do. If you already have some sustainability projects in place, consider if there's still room for improvement.

Step 3: Find out what you have to improve

Now that you've assessed your sustainability efforts, you'll have a better idea of what areas you need to improve. Do this by:

  • Asking your employees if they have ideas of what to improve
  • Looking at your business's bills and finding what you can cut down
  • Sending a survey to your customers
  • Talking to friends or business owners in the same field

Note which areas you can improve and what needs the most attention. Then, look for areas where your business could contribute the most. Look at your energy audit to find out how you can cut down on energy consumption or see if your supplies could come from a more sustainable source.

An illustration of a bingo card with different sustainability efforts for a business to assess when creating a small business sustainability plan.

Step 4: Search for opportunities

After identifying the areas to improve, start searching for more opportunities for implementing your sustainability plan. Set a goal for your sustainability plan so you can focus on the area that you can improve the most. 

This is when your innovation and creativity come in. Try to find cheaper and better ways to help the environment and your business. Research new ways to manufacture your products or look for more sustainable shipping methods. Or get inspired by other small business owners starting sustainable movements

Then evaluate whether you are able to implement these changes. Consider how long it will take, how much it will cost, and if there are any changes you can implement today. 

Step 5: Create and implement a sustainability plan

Now your plan is coming to life. Write down all of the changes and improvements you want to make and divide them by the time and effort it will take to accomplish them. 

Consider what you and your business are passionate about. Do you want to reduce your carbon footprint? Do you want to learn how to reduce waste? Do you want to provide greener products? 

Choosing a main goal for your business sustainability plan can make implementing it easier. Once you pick the issues you want to focus on or areas you want to improve, you can start solving them. 

Figure out how you will improve your sustainability efforts and assign tasks to yourself and your team. Create a checklist you can follow—even if it means taking baby steps. If you’re changing certain processes, communicate how these changes will affect your team and what they should expect

Creating a small business sustainability plan is just the first step. You have to follow it through and track your progress to see the real change. You can use a sustainability plan template to keep track of your sustainability efforts and progress.

A mock-up of the sustainability plan template.

Actionable sustainability ideas

There are many ways to make an impact with your business sustainability plan. Here are some actionable ideas to consider:

The first sustainability tip is going paperless and moving everything to the cloud.
The first sustainability tip is going paperless and moving everything to the cloud.

Go paperless

Strive to become a paperless business. Here are some of the many benefits to going paperless: 

  • It helps the environment and reduces carbon footprint. 
  • It's more cost-effective by reducing operating costs. 
  • It can reduce clutter and protect important documents. 
  • It's more accessible and may increase productivity. 

So why not go digital? Switch your paycheck and bill management to digital, store important documents in the cloud, and keep all company materials online.

Start a sustainability committee

Many people are now passionate about sustainability, and you might even find them within your team. When creating a sustainability plan, you can start a sustainability committee to get your employees involved. 

As a bonus, they can take charge of sustainability efforts, support other employees, and come up with new ideas for growing a sustainable business

Build a recycling program

Recycling and sustainability go hand in hand, and creating a recycling program as part of your sustainability plan can make a big difference. 

Start by finding a recycling program for your business and providing separate bins for paper, plastic, metal, glass, and organic materials. Then, inform your employees about the new recycling program through a short training session or an online guide.

Encourage sustainable transportation

It's not breaking news that transportation has a big impact on the environment, so encourage your employees to adopt a cleaner commuting option or consider hybrid work. 

Show the impact and cost of commuting with their own vehicle versus carpooling or public transportation. 

To encourage employees to choose a sustainable transportation method, you can: 

  • Create a carpool rotation list for those who want to join.
  • Install bike racks to encourage a cleaner means of transportation.
  • Consider paying for public transportation. 
  • Adopt remote or hybrid work, if possible. 
Four statistics to show the impact on the environment when people work from home.

You also have to look beyond how your employees get to work. Consider how supplies and materials arrive at your company, too. For example, look for greener transportation companies that use electric or hybrid trucks. 

Host a sustainability training

Sustainability is a team effort, and as we've all heard, there's no "I" in “team.” You made the effort of learning about sustainability and how you can improve, so your team should have this knowledge as well. 

Teach your employees about sustainability so they can all help make a bigger impact. You can host monthly training sessions on sustainability or consider a self-paced online course

Decrease energy consumption

If your main goal is to reduce your carbon footprint, you should consider decreasing your energy consumption. 

After conducting an energy audit, you may reduce your energy consumption by: 

  • Investing in energy-efficient lighting, like LEDs
  • Installing programmable thermostats 
  • Upgrading to solar roofing
  • Considering HVAC retrofits 
  • Purchasing energy-efficient appliances and equipment 
  • Making energy-efficient upgrades to your storefront

These upgrades can have a higher cost upfront, will help your business become more sustainable, and reduce your energy bills. A greener business means more green in your pocket.

Consider green packaging

From recycled to-go boxes to reusable straws—green packaging is here to stay. 

Many businesses and customers value green packaging, so invest in sustainable packaging for your products. Some great options include:

  • Recycled cardboard and packing paper 
  • Biodegradable air pillows and packing peanuts
  • Corrugated bubble wrap
  • Cornstarch and seaweed packaging

Consider how your supply chain strategy affects the environment and develop greener products. For example, you can cut down on the amount of plastic in your products. 

You also want your employees to do their part. Encourage them to use reusable cups and containers, or provide recycled utensils for the office space. 

Join a carbon offset program

If you don't have a lot of time and resources to invest in a sustainable business plan, consider joining a carbon offset program.

Many businesses, no matter how small, require carbon emissions to run. A carbon offset is a way of balancing—or "canceling"—your emissions by investing in projects that help reduce carbon emissions.

Joining a carbon offset program helps you counteract your negative climate impact by purchasing carbon credits that help address climate change.

Small business, big impact

You don’t need a large budget to make a big impact. With a small business sustainability plan you can start making a change, even if one step at a time. Set up a recycling program, decrease your energy consumption, or go digital using advanced online accounting software—it doesn’t matter where you start, the planet will thank you.

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