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“Sustainability” has become a buzzword—a way for businesses to “show green.” It’s an easy word to throw around because relatively few people know what it means. It’s rare to see it used correctly. Following are a few misconceptions about sustainability in business with basic strategies to implement these practices in your own business.

What do we mean by “sustainability?”

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It’s not immediately clear how we might apply this practice to business. Sustainability demonstrates an understanding that resources are finite and their use (and how they are used) should always consider long-term priorities and consequences.

Sustainability means first reducing what we need by finding more efficient ways to use resources, then using no more than we need.

Focus on the intangibles

One challenge to implementing sustainable business practices is knowing how to measure return on investment. The direct effects of efficiency improvements—using less energy or fewer raw materials—are easy to measure. Yet many benefits of sustainable business are intangible, such as brand reputation, employee morale, and their effects on revenues. Kreiss, Nasr and Kashmanian, writing in Environmental Quality Management (Fall, 2016), outline several possible intangible benefits of running a sustainable business, along with measurable metrics that can help determine their value.

Show you mean business

It’s easy for management to talk about sustainability but harder to translate that talk into business programs. It is always beneficial to start by training employees on what sustainability means and giving serious consideration to their suggestions. Ideally, you’ll task someone in your organization with looking for these opportunities, and you’ll give that person the backing they need to make it happen. They may recommend revamping your supply chain, from sourcing parts to making your manufacturing line more efficient. More ideas can be found by reaching outside your organization, working with non-profit groups, government agencies, and other businesses to amplify your efforts and increase your community engagement.

Look at the entire product lifecycle

Evaluate every aspect of your product, not just the process of making or delivering it, but also how it affects people and the environment after it leaves your company. Can you improve durability so your product doesn’t need to be discarded and replaced as often? What happens when it is discarded? Are any components recyclable or biodegradable? 

Examine all your processes

Company-wide initiatives are essential, but sustainability must be a priority at every level. Every process can be made more sustainable, and the people closest to each process often have the best ideas. Encourage every employee to come forward with ideas to make their work more efficient and sustainable. 

Incentivize your employees

Make sustainable practices a measurable part of your employees’ performance evaluations. As we’ve mentioned, measuring the impact of sustainable practices is still challenging, but it is improving. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) is developing principles, standards and tools to make sustainability more measurable and thus rewardable.

Implementing sustainable business practices is a process of continuous incremental improvements. You must emphasize sustainability throughout your company as a responsibility of all employees. You need to engage all your stakeholders, including employees, investors, and your community. Make them aware of the real business value of sustainability, and build programs and processes to make it work for your company—and the environment.