Who's your favourite superhero?
How about your favourite superhero universe, DC or Marvel? Personally I've always preferred the Marvel universe because instead of single all-powerful heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, it more often features teams of heroes like the Fantastic Four, X-Men and Avengers.
In these teams, the heroes each have one trademark superpower and must work together and contribute their strengths to succeed.
Small businesses are similarly specialised, focused on doing what they do best. But while that may mean their role in sustainability is sometimes overlooked due to a relatively small influence, I believe they can have mighty impacts.
As I've written about before, small businesses are agile, innovative, driven and connected with the issues in their community and customers. I believe they can provide critical solutions to our pressing challenges. And this team of fantastic problem solvers could be the heroes our world needs to beat the supervillains of climate change, waste, poverty, pollution, and a range of other challenges.
The heroes we need
You may be thinking now of the classic cartoon, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, who came to the rescue when planet Earth faced pollution and environmental disasters back in the 90s.
But it's not just their costumes that are out of date. It is widely recognised now that we must go beyond simply avoiding catastrophe. Minimising the harm done to the environment will not revive it, and minimising the harm done to people will not improve their lives.
While it is important that all businesses responsibly reduce their impacts such as waste, pollution, injuries and illness (i.e. do less harm), that will not be enough to achieve sustainability. Truly sustainable businesses are looking at how they can actually contribute, providing solutions that regenerate the environment and empower people to thrive.
To achieve sustainability, we need to remove pollution from the environment. We need to regenerate our soils, forests and ecosystems. We need to lift people out of poverty. We need to reverse disaffection and division and actively counter racism and discrimination. We need new technologies that revolutionise how we make, consume and dispose of products.
Small business people are creative problem solvers and proactive doers. I truly believe they can have a major role in addressing these challenges and other Sustainable Development Goals. They just need to focus their limited resources in one area, their superpower.
Discovering your superpower
So how do you discover your sustainability superpower, your contribution to the environment or society? Look for what you can influence.
Get creative about what areas you can apply:
- Direct control, like within your operations, your product design or selecting what materials or suppliers to use.
- Influence, that is through positive relationships with suppliers, incentives or valuable knowledge and expertise.
- Leverage, like finding others to collaborate with or joining existing improvement initiatives.
Now focus these powers on your key areas of environmental or social impact or opportunity. Consider your value chain, or the key inputs, outputs and interactions of your business from raw material to manufacture, transport, packaging, business operations, product use, and end of life.
What are the impacts on the environment, workers, community, customers and any other stakeholder at each stage?
It often helps to map this out on a white board or a mind-mapping app. Then circle the areas with the biggest impacts in one colour and the areas with the greatest ability to influence in another colour. Any areas with both circles are potential superpowers.
For a little more direction, consider the following questions for opportunities to influence. This is far from a comprehensive list, but should get your mental cogs turning.
- Could your product or service be significantly more efficient, or renewable-powered? E.g. Logistics, factory, carbon neutral operations, new technologies
- Could you find a use for a waste product? E.g. Recycled plastic in hard products or textiles or fibre in your packaging
- Could you avoid waste by providing reusable, durable, upgradeable versions of products? E.g. Replacing disposable products, providing refills, part replacements, lifetime guarantees
- Could you sponsor the rehabilitation or conservation of a treasured local natural area or species? E.g. Local beach cleanups, planting native vegetation around local waterways, protecting a wildlife corridor etc., involving staff in volunteering and facilitating the local community to participate
- Could you share your skills to address a social issue? E.g. mentoring disadvantaged kids or providing pro bono services to charities and individuals in crisis
- Could you provide training and employment opportunities to people in need? E.g. apprenticeships and entry-level roles for refugees, homeless and young people
- Could you provide extra benefits to your staff that enable better work-life balance? E.g. a 9-day fortnight, provide on-site child care or broaden your parental leave
- Could you change the practices of your suppliers by working with and educating them? E.g. to eliminate certain chemicals, minimise their waste and packaging or pay a living wage.
For even more ideas, check out the Sustainable Development Goals. The goals represent 17 areas of global focus on the most important environmental and social challenges. Each has a selection of specific targets supporting it, so click on the ones that attract your attention to see further detail and brainstorm where you might be able to help.
Focusing your power
If you're in the lucky position to have more than one area where you feel you could make a real difference, I encourage you to focus on just one. Go all in so you can shift the dial as much as possible.
Once you've started seeing success, then you can take advantage of that momentum and also apply the lessons you've learned along the way to your second initiative.
So how do you pick? I've found there's a formula:
Sustainability superpower = (impact + influence) x passion
Impact and influence we covered in the section above. But passion is the other key variable.
If you have the ability to influence something, but you and your team aren't really passionate about it, you probably aren't going to put in the effort and creativity required. But if you're really passionate about an opportunity even if it's relatively small, it's still your superpower because you'll throw your energy and innovation into it to drive change.
What will you fight for?
Just because your business doesn't have the supernatural strength of Unilever or Patagonia doesn't mean you don't have a valuable contribution to make. And it's your laser vision focus on making a difference in the areas you do have influence that will create change and inspire and attract customers and top employees to your cause.
And you don't need to wear tights and a cape to do it!
Need more support?
Download the free Sustainability Strategy DIY Guide which dives deeper into each of the parts of the sustainability superpower equation above.
Small Mighty CSR can also be your Professor X and work with your team to discover your key contribution, create a clear vision and develop a roadmap to your sustainability goals.
This article is part of a series. If you enjoyed it, check out the other two in the series:
- Why sustainability is even more important for every business in 2021
- Small business: a secret weapon for sustainable development
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