August 13

The 4 keys to sustainability

Sustainability and CSR can be overwhelming for a small business. With conflicting advice and a laundry list of ‘should do’s it’s easy to get lost in the details. As a small business, you need to simplify and get crystal clear on the most important aspects.

So many times I have seen a well-meaning business set up a ‘green team’ or CSR committee that enthusiastically brainstorms a list of actions. But then when it comes to implementing, they run out of steam before the first ones are crossed off because the list is not only overwhelming, but not strategically aligned with the business. And even if they do the hard work, they might not see much return on that investment or even be accused of ‘greenwashing’ because they have been focusing on the wrong actions.

From my experience, there are four critical components to any business’ sustainability approach.

  • Know why
  • Do less harm 
  • Do more good 
  • Talk about it 

Let’s dig deeper into each of the parts of this framework.

Know why

Or as Simon Sinek famously says, “Start with why.” To be blunt, why bother? If you’re just doing sustainability because you vaguely feel you should, you’re never going to get very far, and your stakeholders will see right through any wishy-washy commitment statements. So first take a moment to get clear on the purpose of your sustainability program.

  • Why is sustainability important more broadly? What sustainability issues are most relevant to your industry and community?

This might mean brushing up on your sustainability literacy. There are many paid courses available to learn about the various issues, or a good brief breakdown
 is provided here.
Small Mighty CSR is developing a simple primer on sustainability issues - 
register your interest to find out when it’s available.

  • Why is it relevant to your business? What impacts does your business have on sustainability issues? What do your stakeholders expect of your business in addressing these issues?
  • Why should you act? What are your key drivers for investing the time and effort required? Is it the cost savings? Questions coming from customers? Taking advantage of market opportunities? Improving employee engagement? Acting in line with the business’ or your own personal values? There are many reasons to address sustainability in your business, just be clear on what they are for you so you can measure your success in achieving them.

Now you will want to distil that clarity from the above questions into a purpose or vision statement. A good vision statement inspires your employees and customers and keeps you focused on the goal.

Do less harm

Every business has an impact on the environment and on people. No matter how small you are, no matter if you only provide office-based services. You use electricity to keep the lights, heating, cooling, computers, internet etc on. You purchase electronics and paper products that have impacts in their manufacture. You affect the mental and physical health of yourself and any employees. And the service you provide to clients is likely either helping them to be better for people and the environment or not.

No matter what kind of business you have, if you think ‘this isn’t relevant to me’, you’re wrong. You must acknowledge that you do have impacts, even if they are relatively small, and accept that as a good citizen you have responsibility to minimise them.

Too many businesses jump straight to philanthropy without recognising and addressing the negative impacts they have on people and the environment. This is why CSR has gotten a bad name for putting a pretty face on an otherwise dirty company.

This is not optional just because you’re a small business. You don’t throw your rubbish on the ground, and you turn your lights off when you don’t need them. Take an honest look at your business to consider where you have the potential to negatively impact your employees, customers, community or the environment, and identify how to change your operations to do less harm.

Sustainability starts with responsibility. Do not pass go, do not get distracted by a shiny feel-good charity initiative until you’ve minimised your own negative impacts.

Do more good

Now for the fun part. This is your opportunity to set your business apart, show your stakeholders how you’re making a real difference.

Build upon your foundation of responsibility as established in the previous section and identify one or two areas where you have a unique ability to affect greater change. Looking beyond your direct impacts, this might include improving the quality of life of people in your community, improving the condition of the environment or influencing others to change their behaviour.

For example, could you:

  • improve access to employment for disadvantaged people in the community or financial counselling to help them get out of hardship
  • help young people develop skills relevant to your industry, such as coding, science, entrepreneurship, or teamwork through sport
  • use your distribution networks to distribute medicine or other necessities to remote communities
  • utilise a material in your product that would otherwise end up in landfill or polluting the environment
  • plant native trees to regenerate a local natural area or clean up a polluted waterway
  • educate, inspire or incentivise your staff, customers, suppliers or even peers to reduce their own impacts or contribute to a local cause.

Ideally, your impact should take advantage of a skill, activity, technology or ability to influence that is particular to your business. This is your unique positioning, or sustainability superpower.

Talk about it 

When I say talk, I don’t mean tell others how great you are. There’s space for that, yes, but you also have to listen. And you also have to be honest and accountable for where you aren’t so great, yet.

No one is perfect when it comes to sustainability. And if you say you are, your stakeholders will lose their trust in you because they know it isn’t truthful.

Being open and transparent about the process you are going through is one of the most important parts of sustainability. It builds a relationship with those stakeholders who are invested in environmental and social issues and encourages others who are overwhelmed by the process ahead of them to take their first steps. Be honest where you haven’t met your goals and what you’ve learned and improved as a result.

There is no shame in not being perfect, as long as you are genuinely trying to be better. Think about it like fitness. Are you more interested in watching a ripped dude who is constantly flexing and admiring himself in the gym mirror, or a story of transformation, how they got there from overweight couch potato?

And don’t forget the other side of the conversation – listening. Make sure to seek input and feedback on your sustainability initiatives from employees and customers. Find out what’s most important to them and what they think you could be doing better. Bring them in to the team and invested in your success.

Putting it together

Ok great. You have the framework, now how do you go about putting it in place for your business?

Just like any journey (apologies for the cliché), you decide where you want to be, consider where you are now, and plan a route to get there.

  1. Visioning. Before you start, know where you want to go. Look at the questions in the ‘know why’ section above and use them to establish your objectives for sustainability.
  2. Impacts and opportunities. Take an honest look at your business’ operations and interactions to identify where you need to do less harm and where you could do more good.
  3. Action plan and targets. Decide how you are going to address those impacts and opportunities, including a specific plan of attack and SMART goals to let you know if you’ve succeeded.
  4. Implementation. Put your plan into action. Communicate it to staff and customers, track your progress, celebrate achievements, and keep learning and adjusting your approach.

About the author 


I believe in the power of small business to have mighty impact. After 15 years driving sustainability in corporates and government, I am bringing my expertise to support small businesses - those with the passion, innovation and agility to tackle the world's greatest challenges.


checklist, do less harm, do more good, know why, strategy, talk about it

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Get clear on your sustainability strategy