SMEs make up the majority of companies worldwide, accounting for over 90% of the total. They provide over half of all employment and are a major economic driver. Given the overall size of the small business community, there is a huge opportunity to make a big impact on sustainability.
But what we don’t often hear about are the approaches small businesses are taking to reduce their carbon footprint. Still, there are plenty of stories, case studies, and resources for large companies implementing more sustainable practices. However, these strategies don’t really apply to the average small business.
In addition to lack of resources, several misconceptions may hinder SMEs from pursuing sustainability. But now, small business owners around the world are increasingly debunking these misconceptions and are finding creative ways around the challenge of incorporating sustainable practices into their small businesses.
Misconceptions about sustainability among SMEs
There are many reasons why SMEs are not pursuing sustainability initiatives as aggressively as larger companies. First of all, most companies don’t have the resources of large companies. They don’t have a dedicated team to strategize and develop sustainability solutions. Nor are there many strategic roadmaps to follow to address the realities of running a small business.
But resources aside, the bigger inhibitor is often misconceptions about sustainability and small businesses. Two of them tend to dominate. The belief that the average small business cannot make a big impact, and the belief that sustainability is a cost center in that it can cost a business and not add directly to its bottom line.
Given that SMEs make up the majority of businesses worldwide and account for more than half of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of developed countries, SMEs are a major contributor to environmental pollution. But this means they have a great opportunity to influence in another direction.
Sustainability need not be a cost center and can often save companies money by eliminating unnecessary waste and redundancies in operational processes. In some cases, it can even lead to new revenue streams.
The first step is to identify where your business has unnecessary waste and what contributes to environmental pollution. Consider starting with one process and then starting to peel off the layers.
That’s exactly what several Sustainable Earth recognized small businesses did when they started their journey towards sustainability.
small businesses make an impact
Sustainable Earth, an online sustainability resource created by Arizona State University, recently recognized the performance of 15 small businesses in the United States through the Sustainable Earth Small Business Awards (SESBA). These companies are working to make their business more sustainable and are happy to share their stories to inspire other small businesses.
Certified businesses fall into three categories:
- Sustainable First: What started with a sustainable mission
- Transition business: People taking steps to become more sustainable by reducing waste and giving back to the planet and their communities
- Individual Champion: Sole proprietors or individuals within a company who have a significant impact on the community
Wok This Way: Sustainable Fast Food Truck
Wok This Way, one of the “Sustainable First” businesses, bills itself as Arizona’s first “green” food truck. In addition to its 100% plant-based, Asian-inspired cuisine, the company also employs people with special needs. From its inception, its mission has been to teach sustainability practices and provide nutritious food using sustainable consumption and production methods to combat climate change.
“Modern food systems continue to have a negative impact on the environment, creating large amounts of waste and food waste,” said founder Christine Mills. “They are also major consumers of energy, fossil fuels and water.
Mills wants to be a leader among other food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants to develop a sustainable model of practice. With no model to follow, she sought support, first joining The Green Restaurant Association (GRA) and then Local First, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing communities and economies throughout Arizona. .
Mills has reduced waste in its operations through composting, the use of biodegradable packaging and utensils, and recycling. She is also working on integrating rooftop solar panels and rechargeable battery packs into the truck, which she estimates will reduce her energy consumption by 60%. Mills also estimates that recycling her 100% of the truck’s water use through graywater collection saves about 40 gallons of water for each event she attends. The truck also runs on biodiesel.
For other businesses pursuing sustainable initiatives, Mills recommends doing research, especially food businesses.
“As you learn more about the food industry and its impact, you’ll see simple ways to make a difference,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to decide how sustainability fits into our business.”
She also encouraged don’t be afraid to ask for help and cooperate. Most other small businesses are open to joining forces and sharing what they learn. Finally, Mills believes one of the easiest ways to support a more sustainable and equitable society is to create more inclusive employment practices.
MISGIF: Transitioning to Sustainable Photo Booth Options
Another example is MISGIF, a photo booth revitalization agency that has moved to more sustainable practices over the last few years. Today, 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:
- Abandoning printed photos and switching to an all-digital model
- Started encouraging reusable backgrounds instead of placing balloons
- Source props and rental supplies from local businesses in the same area as the event
- Photo booth with LED lights
- Equip your office with low-flow faucets and energy-efficient washing machines and lighting
These seemingly small steps collectively made a big impact and, as the MISGIF team put it, “helped make the way we do business better.”
HighWire: State-of-the-art cocktail venues go green
Finally, HighWire, a molecular mixology lounge and community space in Tucson, Arizona, wasn’t always run with sustainability in mind. But when owner Nick Wayne saw the meaning of the waste the company produced, he gave him a new mission.
He started by installing a 1,500-gallon rainwater harvesting system that will maintain the vegetation on the venue and water the trees and plants throughout the surrounding downtown area. He has also incorporated water-saving equipment that allows him to save 20% over federal standards. Additionally, he replaced all the lights with his LEDs, replaced the straws and cups with compostable options, and made disposable straws and cups available only on request. Throughout the year the team receives sustainability training from his Mrs. Green’s World. Now he’s working on using food waste for composting and working with the city on a more efficient recycling program.
“There’s definitely a cost to doing a green business,” Wayne said. “Switching to compostable straws and water cups cost these products an additional $5,000 a year. However, we now only offer straws and water upon request. Low-flow toilets and low-energy lighting were budget add-ons when it was offered, and we felt that this money would be well spent and eventually recouped.”
He wants greener products to become the norm and more readily available to everyone, but he doesn’t see sustainability as a sunk cost. It’s an investment in the community and the future.
“An unexpected result of ‘going green’ at HighWire was the excitement and enthusiasm of the staff,” says Wayne. “They genuinely enjoy training and seem to enjoy having a say in how we make an impact.”
Sustainable Earth Small Business Award Winner
About the author
Katelyn Armbruster is the Program Manager for Walton Sustainability Solutions Services under the Global Futures Lab at Arizona State University. In addition to her numerous sustainability initiatives and programs, Armbruster also oversees Sustainable Earth, her website for sharing knowledge, news and ideas about a clean planet.