15 expert tips to make your business more sustainable in 2021

Sara Redmond-Neal, Small Mighty CSR

Smiling young woman standing behind a counter in her stylish boutique working on a laptop and talking on a cellphone

Last month Sara Redmond-Neal of Small Mighty CSR held the Growth with Purpose Summit. Key was to tease out the speakers’ top tip or “number one piece of advice for small businesses looking to be more sustainable in 2021”.

Recognise that the world is changing

The first theme that came up many times was that we are operating in a changing environment. Expectations of businesses have grown, our customers’ personal preferences have shifted, the business world has matured.

Sustainability is no longer a trend, but a ticket to ride. The business environment is not static, and we need to be on board with the direction it is moving.

Corinne Schoch, Global compact Network of Australia

“It’s about how resilient you want your business to be in a world that is changing. What do you want your community to look like in the next few decades? And how do you want your business to fit into that so that you are a part of that change, as opposed to being a barrier to the changes that are coming?”

Greg Griffith, Family Business Australia and New Zealand

“Most businesses, regardless of what they do, should be having a look at the environment they’re in today, what potentially they might see as the changes coming, and how do they adapt and start preparing for that. It’s really scenario planning – you can’t predict the future, but you can prepare for ways it might play out.”

Mat Card, Rethink Recycling Co-op

“Honestly, just embrace it. You know, sustainability, in all its forms, is the buzz thing at the moment. You want to be seen to be current, you know, to be involved contributing to broader change. That’s what the government wants to see. It’s what the councils want to see, and it’s what consumers want to see.”

Focus on what matters

The next key thing that came up many times throughout the summit was the concept of materiality, or focusing on the areas of sustainability that are most relevant to your business. This means both where you have the greatest impacts and opportunities and what matters most to your stakeholders, i.e. customers, employees, community, investors, etc.

We all know as a business owner, especially of a small business, time is a precious resource. So, it is critical to make sure that any changes or initiatives you invest your time and effort in are the most important, and those that will have the biggest return for your business.

Gordon Renouf, Good On You

“It’s about identifying your biggest impact. Not just the things you personally care about, but you also need to be addressing the most material things to your business. What are the impacts that your business has? Understand your supply chain, understand how the materials are made, where they’re made, who they’re made by, how they are turned into clothes, what happens when consumers use them, and what happens to them when consumers are finished with them.

“Think about the whole supply chain, and where the most material things are within that.”

Mark Daniels, Social Traders

“Be clear about what you do, and where the opportunities are. So, for example, if most of what we do is sourcing and procurement, if we change the way that we buy stuff, that’s going to be really impactful.

“If we’re a big employer, then maybe that’s where we can deliver the greatest impact, in employment and training of disadvantaged cohorts. If we make a lot of money, but don’t employ anyone, what are we doing with our money to have the greatest impact that we could have?

“If we’re an investor, what should I be investing in that can have the greatest impact? So, I think it’s about being clear about who you are and what you do, and where you can have the greatest leverage as a result of that.”

Start somewhere, and start now

While it is important to focus on what matters, it’s even more important to just get started! Many speakers pushed the urgency of getting on board with sustainability to avoid missing out on the current opportunity.

The speakers also noted that doing something, even if it isn’t your most material impact, is better than doing nothing. Starting somewhere can build momentum in your business, getting your employees and management engaged, getting some quick wins and demonstrating the benefits.

Robyn Leeson, Global Reporting Initiative

“Don’t be too concerned about how to start, where to start. Do something – it may not be the right thing, or the most important thing to start with. But, you’ll learn a lot from it. And you can build your confidence, your staff, your team’s confidence from doing that.”

Robyn quoted the great Ray Anderson, who was an inspiration to many people in the corporate sustainability field as the Founder of Interface. When people asked him, “Gosh, how did you become this darling of the sustainability area?” His response was that he just thought, “Well, we’ll just do something. And then we’ll do something else.”

Nick Balgue, Sustainability Victoria

Nick suggested starting on resource efficiency for the quick wins. “Rather than looking at the product you sell, there might be some great opportunities there just in your operational costs, particularly if you’re a manufacturer or someone with some larger energy overheads and material costs. There’s really great savings that can be found in just reducing your operational footprint.”

Jimmy Bayssari, Project Everest Ventures

Jimmy also focused on the benefit of starting early on embedding sustainability into business governance and documentation.

“Start early. A lot of start-ups think, ‘we don’t need a policy or document yet, we just do it anyway.’ But the reality is, when you get bigger, it becomes harder and harder to implement, especially as you bring in independent governance and layers of management. So, do it now so you grow up with it.”

Continuous improvement

The process of continually reviewing your performance and identifying where to improve is critical to any business. But it’s also important to keep in mind in starting something new, to reduce overwhelm. You’re not going to be perfect from the start – so start somewhere and add to that over time.

Think about it – was your business fully formed when it started? Or have you learned tons of lessons over the years, had a few stumbles, grown and improved? The same goes for your sustainability initiatives.

Pete Yao, Thankyou

Continuous improvement is always better than delayed perfection. It has to start somewhere – like, we started with the energy in our HQ, then looked at our products, and now we’re a carbon neutral certified organisation. So it’s taken a lot of small steps to get to this one big outcome.”

Or, as Nick Balgue said, “Sustainability is a big journey; there’s multiple projects you can do. So just keep on with the continuous improvement. Starting with, how am I going to do the same business or sell the same products and services, but just use less and reduce my footprint? And then once that’s on the right path, look external, look how to grow by increasing and communicating your contribution.”

Making space for a long-term view

Finally, a number of the speakers reminded us that we need to take a break from the day-to-day operation of our businesses to consider where the business is going.

Getting too wrapped up in the long list of urgent tasks can be disastrous for a business. It’s like going for a walk and being so focused on watching your feet with each step that you forget to look up and eventually realise you’re in totally the wrong place.

John Purcell, Certified Practicing Accountants Australia

“Appreciation of the external environment allows one to look beyond the short term, narrow perspective of financial viability and anticipate both threat and opportunity. What your competitors are doing, what your customers are doing and where your competitive threats and opportunities are going to come from.

“And increasingly, these are going to be driven by environmental and social factors.

“The agility of and small to medium business (SMEs) is a plus to be able to respond to these shifts, which are taking place quite profoundly in the Australian economy. So, take time out from the short-term imperatives of survival, and look at the bigger picture, the bigger picture of the environment, and what that offers in terms of both opportunity and threat.”

Fiona Killackey, My Daily Business Coach

“Do some soul searching and look at your values. Look at the values that you want to live your life by, the type of brand you want to be. Because all the money in the world is not going to do anything at the end of your life if you feel like you haven’t lived true to your values.”

And lastly, as Pete Yao said, “We all have the opportunity to make decisions which really contribute to the betterment of a world that we will all want to see and live in. And the challenge for small business owners is, how do we make some time within our busy diaries to look at something that may not be operationally urgent but is really crucial?

“And to think, what is the goal that our organisation can actually play a bigger role in? And how do we actually take steps to enshrine some of these goals into our overall business strategy?”

Located in Melbourne, Australia, Sara Redmond-Neal, owner of Small Mighty CSR offers business consultancy, training and environmental consulting. She helps small businesses “find their sustainability superpowers”