It is now common practice for business planning to be synonymous with sustainability. Organisations focus entire teams and structure plans around sustainable practices. But what exactly is it? Sustainability is defined as “to maintain, to keep in existence”. An emerging sector, sustainability has gained momentum in the past few decades due to the increasing pressures placed on the earth due to the rising population and overuse of resources. People are becoming aware of the issues we face and want to do something about it, and rightfully so.
If you’re a small businesses owner and you haven’t thought about sustainability, chances are you will soon. If you don’t know where to start, start here with the guidelines for sustainable thinking in businesses. Now the reason why I haven’t named this article “the guidelines for sustainability” is because without sustainable thought or drive, environmentally friendly practices won’t be sustainable at all. Therefore, I’ve listed some sustainable starting points for business who wish to reduce their impact.
Reduce unnecessary waste
Reducing waste in the office is the first step to sustainable practice. Email when you can, print on recycled paper when you can’t. Use old paper as scrap paper, recycle it when you’re done. Reduce electricity usage by switching off computers at the end of the day, and setting screensavers to maximise energy savings. On average, Australians use about 230kg of paper per year, per person. A lot of individuals don’t see an issue with using paper as it can be recycled. However, paper comes from planting and growing trees, which requires land, water and fossil fuels (transport, deforestation, processing and packaging). Harvesting trees also releases carbon dioxide into the air – a prevalent greenhouse gas. If you’re wondering why excess C02 is bad, the ocean absorbs most of the C02 we create and it has an acidifying effect on the pH level in the water. Not a whole lot can live in acidic environments, especially coral – who bleach in the acidifying process.
Moving on. do you know who collects your waste? Do you know where it goes? Ask and find out. Make efforts to know that your waste is being recycled and not being sent to landfill. Look at what resources are used and what can be substituted. Do you use styrofoam cups or can you use glass or ceramic instead? Do you buy brand new paper sheets or is it sourced carbon neutrally? Do your suppliers offset if they impact? If you don’t know, do your research and ask questions. Try to minimise where you can and buy things with the intention to take care of it and reuse it for a long time. Follow the three ‘R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Some take it as far as ARRR (Avoid, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) and ARRRD (Avoid, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Dispose). Whichever acronym you best identify with, stick to it indefinitely.
Sort Your Waste
I once worked in a large retail store who put everything – now I mean everything – to landfill. Paper, cardboard, hard plastics, food waste. You name it – it went in. The reason why it was going there, is because it wasn’t being sorted. Nobody had asked the question, where is it going? I worked within a shopping centre, so I investigated where the waste went. I found that there was a paper and cardboard bin in one of the loading docks, so I added a paper and cardboard bin into my store. Once set in place, I found myself emptying this 30L bin 3-4 times a week. How good is that? I ended up communicating with the company that collected our waste, and asked what more can I do. By the end of the month, I had five bins. Yes, five. Organics, Commingled, Paper and Cardboard, Soft Plastics, and General. I had about 40 staff members at the time to encourage to use this, all mostly aged 15-25. It was a challenge, but I communicated at a level everyone would learn from. I used colour coding, pictures, held training nights, never lost the passion and most importantly, I made it fun. Soon, we were saving over 2000 litres from landfill every month. Ultimately, the most rewarding part was my staff coming to me and telling me not only were they recycling at work, but at home too. They were proud to see what they were doing and I was even prouder. Persuading the younger generation to give a shit was hard. But I stuck to it and the reward was greater than I could have ever imagined.
People need to understand why you are doing what you are doing. Chances are if they don’t understand, they probably won’t care. Adjust your delivery to the specific needs of the workplace. Take everyone outside to talk as a group, don’t sit them down in the office. Some people find humour the best way to learn, so make it fun. Others need specific planning and analytics, so show them in ways which they can understand. Don’t assume people will take everything on board straight away, be patient and consistent.
Induce Psychological Sustainability
Now I’m not talking about a crazy Zimbardo experiment. I’m talking about influencing people’s behaviour through positive actions. Unfortunately to some being environmentally proactive is a chore. Carrying an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is common and the hardest part about being an environmental advocate is making people care about things they physically cannot see. What I have learned with my experience with managing waste, is that if people do not want to recycle, they simply will not. Once ones waste goes into the bin, someone else picks it up and not long after it is lost into the back of their conscious. This is our precise relationship with waste. Out of sight, out of mind. If we can change their relationship with and perception of waste, perhaps we can change their behaviour.
Some companies choose to rule out having a bin at each desk. Why? Because creating waste is simply too easy. If we place the bin further away, one will associate the thought of having to get up and walk to discard their waste, with the creation of waste in the first place. People will reconsider creating waste and, hopefully, not create it at all. Use incentives to drive people to reach their goals if there is struggle with take-off. It will shortly become habitual to think sustainably and soon you can take a backseat. Getting started is the hardest part but once you’re rolling, the process becomes easier.
Be a Motivator
If sustainably is new to your business and employees, you need to drive it. Be a role model, be an advocate for the environment. Be positive about what can be achieved in the workplace. Avoid punishment and negativity as we want to change peoples mindsets so they truly believe in sustainability too. Positive reinforcement is always encouraged over punishment. Set goals, and when they are achieved – celebrate! When they are missed, do not punish failure. Re-structure and try again. Encourage as a team and don’t single anyone out. If someone feels discouraged I can guarantee you they will not try harder. Create an environment where sustainability is endorsed and lead by example.
Now this is not a necessity. There are many different environmental regulations and systems set in place which cost a fee in order to attain through assessment. In doing so, some provide you with guidelines to follow and how to improve. ISO14001 is an Environmental Management Systems Standard which provides a framework for you to follow. Green Star ratings for the built environment are also popular, but this is irrelevant unless you wish to work in the built environment. If you want to seek professional advice, there are a plethora of environmental and sustainability consultants who specialise in this.
Think Sustainably at Home
Sustainable practice shouldn’t just stay in the office. Take it home with you and practice it every day. When buying something non-perishable, ask yourself, “Can I reuse it?”, if not, “Do I really need it?”, if so, “Can I recycle it?”, if not, “Can it be substituted?”. Sustainability is contagious as people really do want to help the environment. Sure you will be faced with people who do not care, but it is up to you to continue to try in the face of doubt.
Depending on which industry you work in it can be harder for others to be sustainable. This is not a definitive answer for how to become instantly sustainable, but more of a push in the right direction. The hardest work will come from doing your own research and your own findings. If you have chosen to read this article then chances are you really do want to make a change. Starting small is enough to have a great impact, but you just need to start!