Here you will find answers to many of the common questions small businesses ask when first starting out in sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR).
If you have a question on the meaning of a term or acronym, check out the Glossary.
While these terms are often used interchangeably, they focus on different aspects. Sustainability is a large-scale state of equilibrium addressing environmental, social and economic aspects, beyond a single organisation, while CSR is an organisation’s contribution to achieving that goal. Learn more here.
It has sometimes been limited to that in recent focus on environmental issues, but sustainability is usually viewed in terms of the triple bottom line, or society, environment and economy (or people, planet and profit). This recognises that all three are interlinked; society cannot survive without the natural resources and services provided by the environment, and the economy is similarly dependent on the health of both. Similarly, CSR in a business generally encompasses a range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.
Sustainability is everyone's business. Just because you're small, doesn't mean you don't have impacts. All businesses are expected to act responsibly, and while the focus in the past has often been on big brands, the expectations that have arisen around CSR are increasingly applied to businesses at all levels. This includes both barriers to entry, with large businesses increasingly requiring their suppliers to meet certain CSR standards, and reward from consumers who prefer to purchase from businesses that have a purpose beyond profit.
A CSR program has real, tangible financial benefits in cost reduction, revenue growth and employee productivity. Customers are demanding responsibility and rewarding positive impact, resource efficiency is a clear money saver, there is huge business opportunity in coming up with sustainable solutions, and the best employees want to do work that aligns with their values and contributes to a purpose. And, importantly, because it's the right thing to do. Do you want to be known for making money, or for doing good for your community? Learn more here.
Ask your customers. If those are consumers, do some market research on what is popular among consumers or ask them directly. If your customers are businesses, check what frameworks they align with, if any, and consider whether the same would be relevant to you. Review queries you have received from customers on your sustainability approach for hints on what they're looking for. Look at your competitors or brands you look up to, to see what they're using.
Then, pick one. Don't try to do it all. Pick the one framework your customers most want to see and then stick to it until you master it.
A strategy = a strategic approach. Without a strategic approach, you're wasting time with ad hoc and scatter-gun initiatives that may not be the most effective choice. As a small business, you should be sure any activity is carefully selected for maximum return on effort. A strategy ensures you know the goal you're aiming for and the best way to get there. You don't have to make a pretty document, but if you have a strategy, why not write it down? It helps show that you do have one, giving confidence to your customers and employees.
As for policies, these are useful for two things. First, to articulate your expectations of staff members, because if your staff don't know your expectations, how can they meet them? Second, to demonstrate and communicate to stakeholders, especially customers, that you are taking responsible action. So if neither of those are important for your business, don't bother with a policy.
Check out the Sustainability Strategy DIY Guide for a guided process to develop both in one afternoon.
Unfortunately, CSR has gotten a bad name due to the superficial efforts of many businesses whose CSR program is usually limited to donations to local charities, putting up a sign encouraging recycling and turning the lights off for Earth Hour. But what started as an issue of corporate reputation has since evolved toward core strategy as brands saw the benefits of making change. Also consumers have gotten wise to hollow claims, and want to see evidence that a company is taking real steps to address their key impacts and ensure their business strategy is aligned with sustainability principles.
If you're looking for some simple ideas of how to be more sustainable, check out the Quick Start Sustainability Checklist.
If you're looking to understand how your current practices compare to customer expectations and best practice, take the CSR Check-up. This will give you an idea of what gaps you have.
To address sustainability in your business, you need to understand your key environmental and social impacts, both positive and negative, and your key areas of influence so you can focus your efforts where they will make the biggest difference (your sustainability superpower). The 6 steps to apply CSR article gives an overview of this process. Then you can progress to the Sustainability Strategy DIY Guide, which guides you through those 6 steps with a series of questions and exercises resulting in a CSR/Sustainability Strategy, Policy and action plan.
Have a question that hasn't been covered here? Send me an email!