Corporate America has made significant strides toward sustainability in recent years, with the rise of certified B Corps and the growing interest in “zero waste.” And that should come as no surprise when you consider the shifting consumer mindset. According to the BBMG Conscious Consumer Report, 87% of consumers are more likely to buy from companies that commit to environmentally-friendly practices.
Big business is taking note and making changes accordingly. A booming infrastructure of sustainability consultants and vendors has emerged to meet this growing marketplace. In many ways, “green” is the new gold rush.
Yet there’s a huge segment of the business world that is getting overlooked by sustainability leaders – the small business community.
Small Business, Huge Environmental Impact
According to the EPA, businesses and industry create as much as 35-45% of the nation’s waste stream. With 48% of the private workforce employed by small businesses, that adds up to a lot of trash.
America practically runs on small business, which is why it’s incredibly important that owners — and prospective sustainability partners — recognize their potential and the impact they have on the environment.
There’s a common perception that you need a dedicated sustainability team, hundreds of locations, and resources devoted to training and education to run a waste reduction program. On their own, small businesses lack the economies of scale that make them an attractive partner for a recycler or hauler. Similarly to a consortium program, a group of small business owners can amass significant “purchasing power” that can equal that of large enterprise.
The Cost of Unsustainable Practices
For many small business owners who are focused on managing budgets and cutting costs, a recycling program is, at first glance, simply not worth the expense. You spend more on haulers to pick up materials, you devote extra time to training employees, you tally the cost and real estate of an additional dumpster — the list goes on.
Even so, the choice to run an unsustainable business may cost more in the long term. Every owner, no matter the industry, is impacted by consumer demand. The numbers continue to tell the same story:
- 82% of US consumers consider corporate social responsibility activities, like recycling and other eco-conscious actions, when making shopping and buying decisions.(Source: 2013 Study by Cone Communications and Echo Research)
- 66% of global respondents in the 2015 Nielsen Sustainability Report say they are willing to pay more for sustainable goods.
- The top 100 sustainable businesses have experienced significantly higher mean sales growth, profit before taxation, and cash flows from operations. Even during the 2008 recession, these companies achieved above average performance in the financial markets.
Small businesses should begin to view sustainability as an investment rather than an expense. By optimizing waste processes, even small businesses can adopt recycling programs that are easy to implement and cost effective.
Optimize with Data and Analytics
Many commonly tossed materials, like scrap metals, old pallets and cardboard, are actually commodities that can open up new revenue streams. By monitoring various market indicator tools, as well as domestic and global commodity markets, business can anticipate fluctuations and trends affecting commodity movement and pricing. Owners can offset recycling costs by selling their recyclable materials to the right facility at the right time.
Most states also offer programs to incentivize recycling. This can range from income and property tax credits to rebates for buying equipment. When armed with data that quantifies carbon emissions and diversion rates, owners can more easily secure these tax credits and rebates. Sustainability metrics also help small businesses to market tangible benchmarks to existing and prospective customers.
Data enhances brand image, increases the ability to qualify for rebate and tax programs, and ultimately helps monitor waste streams and outputs to become more cost effective.
Embrace a Small Business Circular Economy
There’s an interrelated challenge between small businesses and sustainability partners. Independently, small businesses lack the scale to incentivize local haulers and recycling facilities. Because of this, recycling programs are often too expensive for business owners to take on themselves.
Yet the opportunity exists for the small business community to launch its own sustainability movement. There’s strength in numbers. Businesses that come together with other owners can combine recycling efforts. The right waste partner can assist with analytics and reporting, hauler-route optimization, and offer strategies to help with both upstream and downstream waste reduction.
Evidence shows that sustainability is increasingly important to the success of any business — large or small. At the micro level, small businesses can contribute to improving the environment, appealing to customers, and boosting their bottom line. And while most attention to date has been paid to large corporations, the potential impact and collective strength of the small business community can no longer be ignored.
By David Rachelson, VP of sustainability for Rubicon, a waste management and recycling solutions company.
Photo credit: Simon Greig, Flickr Creative Commons