Increasingly dire warnings about future climate pressures portend a future with less land due to sea-level rise, more extreme storm events, and assorted disruptions and repercussions for how we live and work. It’s easy to feel helpless in light of these large-scale trends, yet our individual actions have impact and are an empowering counterforce to potential feelings of doom and gloom.
You’ve probably made some personal lifestyle modifications to reduce your carbon footprint—whether it’s purchasing more energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, increasing your recycling, or taking public transit or bicycling to and from work. These same actions have an impact in the workplace, but there’s a deeper thinking and broader accounting to consider in order to achieve a sustainable business.
Sustainability goes much further than having a strong financial foundation that ensures your business isn’t crippled by debt and cash flow is maintained. The sustainability mindset is a long-term view that focuses on the triple bottom line of people, profit, and planet, where companies address environmental and social issues to improve our collective livability.
Large companies have begun reporting on their sustainability goals and metrics as much for the corporate good as for reducing their own liability should regulations put a price on carbon output or other environmental impacts. For example, Unilever states that, “future success depends upon us being able to decouple our growth from our environmental footprint while at the same time increasing our positive social impacts.” These kinds of goals are often part and parcel to the passion of many business owners as well, and scale doesn’t preclude you from thinking about your impacts.
The idea of natural capital accounting is quickly catching hold as it helps companies identify risks and quantify the impacts of products and business footprints upon our planet. Corporate Ecosystem Valuation (CEV) is a similar concept that encourages companies to place a negative value on processes that contribute to ecosystem degradation, and a positive value on the processes and decisions that lead to benefits for ecosystem services.
The big picture of valuing ecosystems puts more awareness on impacts specific to the locations where your business occurs and resides. The idea is to improve bottom-line performance while considering the relationship to social and environmental goals as well as your environmental contribution. For instance, the sources of building materials each have a carbon footprint, particularly if they are forest products, but also if they’re shipped across the world rather than sourced locally. Here, the source of materials and how renewable they are is critical as is the ecosystem services they consume or support, such as fresh water or natural hazard protection.
The rise in 3D printing is seen as a positive for sustainability as it encourages local designs, boosts local employment, and greatly reduces emissions. 3D printing is also an additive process where there isn’t a lot of waste in the production process, which can’t be said of buildings made of dimensional lumber or processes that involve stamping raw materials with templates.
The holy grail of production processes is a close-looped system where the scraps from one process feed the manufacture of another, and thus waste is recycled within the process of making the final product. This lack of waste also relates to a goal of becoming carbon neutral, where the carbon consumed in the process is given back in other phases of production for a net-zero carbon gain. In either scenario, there is a great amount of quantification and fine-tuning that go into planning and managing production with a keen eye on accumulation of waste or carbon, as well as reductions in waste or sinks of carbon.
Another approach is to recycle waste locally with a business that benefits from your waste, such as clean tech startup Fiberight that turns trash into biofuels. Again, it’s about keeping things local and reducing your impact by finding a use that bypasses the landfill.
By taking a sustainable business approach, there is often an improvement in a company’s profitability because more efficient processes mean less materials paid for, and streamlined supply chains mean less shipping costs.
With all of this in mind, take a deeper look to evaluate how you can have a more sustainable business. The benefits may be telling—both from an environmental and profit standpoint.