September 25, 2017 | By

How to Overcome the Top 10 Challenges to Small Business Sustainability

Going Green: Overcoming Sustainability Challenges

Running a small business is challenging enough without adding one more thing to it, right? As a small business owner myself, I can attest to this!

Sustainability often brings its own set of challenges, and I hear some common ones from business professionals: not having the money to make the changes that you want, not having enough time to do it all, not having employees who are engaged with your sustainability efforts . . . the list goes on. Sound familiar?

The good news is that businesses just like yours are overcoming these challenges every day.

I’ve listed the 10 most common sustainability challenges that I’ve seen when working with businesses, along with strategies to help you surmount those obstacles. Note that these are not quick fixes—they will take work. But these solutions can help you move forward towards your sustainability goals.

Challenge #1: Financing

Not having the money to make the changes that you want to make.

Begin with good payback projects. For example, almost all projects related to energy efficient lighting will have a good payback since it will immediately decrease your energy bill. This frees up some money and demonstrates the case for sustainability initiatives, which can help you secure additional funding for future projects. Since many organizations and utilities are available to help small businesses, also look for rebates and other financial assistance to help your sustainability projects. If you’re in the East Bay, check out the Good Local Money Guide. It connects local businesses with local sources of funding.

Challenge #2: Time

Not having the time to make the changes that you want to make.

There are actually three strategies that you can use here.

  • First, focus on your top priorities. You won’t be able to do everything at once, so you’ll need to clearly establish your priorities and focus on those first. Identify and prioritize initiatives that are aligned with your overall business goals, have a significant impact, and have good payback.
  • Second, build a team. Having a green team will enable you to receive input and support from employees.
  • Third, look for ways to integrate sustainability into what people are already doing. Sustainability shouldn’t be a standalone project that is relegated to one department or one person. Ideally, it should be a way of thinking and doing that considers the social and environmental impact in all that you do. For example, HR is already working on on boarding new employees—how can sustainability be integrated into that? Marketing is already working on communications—how can telling your sustainability story be a part of that?

Challenge #3: Employee Engagement

Employees aren’t engaged.

To have employees who are engaged, you need to give them opportunities for engagement. This might seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how many times I talk to business owners who wish for employee engagement but yet haven’t created the proper channels. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink identified three elements that create true motivation in people: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

If you want employees to be engaged, you need to allow them to have some autonomy, some say in the initiatives that your business is working on, and that must contribute to their sense of purpose. This is also in line with what the experts recommend for engaging employees in sustainability. One of the best ways to do this is to form a green team.

Challenge #4: Where to Start

Not sure how to get started or identifying what sustainability initiatives make sense for your business.

Here, the strategy used by many businesses—and the one that I recommend—is to use existing frameworks such as Green Business Certification and B Corp Certification. If you’re just getting started, you can build on the proven best practices other businesses. Time and again, I hear business professionals say that they learned a lot by going through the process of certification. These two certifications will provide frameworks that you can use to ensure that you’re building a good sustainability foundation for your business. An added benefit is that you’ll also get some public recognition for your efforts.

Challenge #5: Lack of information

Lack of information about specific topics, and finding it hard to keep up with trends.

This is quite understandable. You’re busy, and you don’t have enough time (see #2). And sustainability is a quickly evolving field. Unless you work in this field (and even if you do!), it can be a challenge to stay on top of all of the changes. To complicate things further, when it comes to small business sustainability, there is no one place that you can go to to get the latest information. I’m working to change this—join the Cultivating Capital newsletter to stay up-to-date with developments. (As a bonus, you’ll also get regular access to someone who can help you!)

Challenge #6: Company Culture

Company culture doesn’t support sustainability.

This usually becomes evident when only a minority of individuals at a company are thinking about sustainability. Take a three-pronged approach to address this.

  • First, getting buy-in from management is key. It will allow rank-and-file employees to feel that they have support from above.
  • Second, so that it’s a company-wide endeavor, you’ll need to expand sustainability beyond just one department. This will also help with employee engagement (see #3).
  • Lastly, education is key. Providing sustainability training to employees can make a significant difference, and more companies that I work with are starting to do this.  Culture change is slow, but educating and engaging employees will move you in the right direction.

Challenge #7: Support from Vendors

Lack of support and limited options from vendors.

Two options exist for working with vendors.

  • First, look for those that share your values. For example, working with businesses that are already Certified Green Businesses or Certified B Corps will align your company with businesses being socially and environmentally responsible.
  • Second, begin the conversation around supply chain sustainability with your vendors. For example, you can develop a sustainable supply chain policy or a sustainability questionnaire for suppliers. You can also offer to work with your vendor in piloting a more sustainable option.

Challenge #8: Support from Management

Lack of support from upper management.

To make the case for sustainability to upper management, you’ll need clear numbers. What will the payback be for a given project? What are the metrics that you’re tracking? If you’re not already tracking metrics, three common areas to start with are waste reduction, energy usage, and water consumption. Get a baseline of your current service levels and monthly usage, and identify projects that will help you to reduce those levels. Finally, calculate the overall savings. Once you present this information, support will likely follow.

Challenge #9: Reports

Reporting on sustainability to employees and customers.

Sustainability reporting can range from producing a formal annual sustainability report, to using an existing framework such as GRI to simply providing regular updates through your website, social media, and email newsletters. If you’re just getting started, you’ll need to identify your focus areas and set some targets.

For example, if you would like to be more energy efficient, you might set a goal to reduce your energy usage by 10%. Once you’ve set some targets, you can share that information internally with employees (who of course should be allowed to provide input on those targets – see #3) and you can decide how much to share externally. Some businesses share their targets publicly, while others just share updates about changes they’ve been making. In either case, you’ll want to be authentic—for more on that, see #10.

Challenge #10: Education

Educating customers about the benefits of purchasing products/services from a sustainable business.

Marketing sustainability can be tricky and customers can be fickle. With rampant greenwashing, most consumers can also be jaded about the claimed environmental benefits. You can try two different strategies here.

  • First, focus on educating your customers about the benefits. For example, if your product is non-toxic, do your customers know that it is better for the health of their families?
  • Second, tell your sustainability story authentically. Be honest and transparent with your customers about what you’re doing and what you’re working on.

Next Steps

Review this list and see which one of these challenges is most pressing for your business. Pick one and try the recommended strategy. To get people on board, check out Jive’s ebook on pitching an idea to your boss!

15 Steps to Score That “Yes”: How to Pitch a Business idea to Your Boss

This article is by Carolina Miranda from

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