This article is part of ERA’s five part series, Sustainability: Going Beyond Compliance. Part three explains essential components of a successful sustainability plan.


    You’ve decided to take actions to make your business more sustainable. Congratulations!

    ... So what steps should you actually take to get there?

    Answering this question is one of the most difficult tasks you’ll ever have to tackle as part of your environmental management duties. Many businesses, big and small, have no idea how to transform the abstract idea of sustainability into a concrete reality.

    Now that you know the nine core principles of sustainability (check out part two in this series for a refresher), it’s time to make those ideals a reality.

    The Secret of Sustainable Businesses

    Those businesses that have managed to create a successful sustainability plan all have a few things in common:

    • Their plan is customized to their needs and goals
    • They measure and monitor everything
    • Their plans are realistic, not idealistic

    Many businesses trying to get sustainable are hoping for a sustainability solution that is prepackaged. Although there’s nothing wrong with basing your own sustainability plan on successful case studies, every business is different. A small business simply might not have the resources to support the efforts as a global manufacturer. That doesn’t mean you can’t get just as sustainable.

    Measuring and monitoring everything is essential. How else can you know if you’re actually making progress without monitoring your energy usage or waste output? Sustainability is difficult to measure since there’s no standard way to quantify it. We’ll get in to the best ways to measure and manage your business’ sustainability in the next part of this series.

    Sustainability looks different to each business. It’s up to you to decide what parameters you will measure based on your goals. Some of the most common - and useful - things to measure are energy usage, waste output, Greenhouse gases (GHG), and hazardous air emissions (HAPs).

    Finally, a plan has to be realistic. Huge businesses, like IKEA and Walmart, are moving to renewable energy sources as part of their sustainability plans, but they aren’t doing it all at once. These companies are converting certain locations to solar and wind power one by one. It simply doesn’t make sense to put a financial strain on your business to jump to 100% sustainability all at once.

    Another great example is Proctor & Gamble’s ambitious sustainability plan. The business plans on using 100% renewable energy and cutting product waste down to zero. However, these are long-term goals. For the year 2020, P&G plans on reducing packaging waste by 20%, converting plants to use 30% renewable energy.

    Your sustainability plan can be as ambitious as you want, just make sure you have achievable, quantifiable goals and a realistic timeline.

    Concrete Actions You can Take Today

    Figuring out what steps to include in your own sustainability plan can be tough. Here are some of the most useful actions you can take right now or include in your future timeline that will definitely help you get more sustainable.

    • Ask your suppliers what kind of sustainability efforts they have made. The steps they have taken will be highly relevant to your own business.
    • If your sell products to another manufacturer, ask them what their sustainability efforts and expectations are. This is a great way to make your business more appealing to them and increase your overall profitability.
    • Get rid of disposable cutlery and cups in the break room and make sure there are recycling boxes in every office. (Though this seems like a small step, international manufacturers have already embraced “no waste” policies for employees.)
    • Do a self EH&S audit or get a professional green audit. If you don’t know where to start, an outside environmental specialist can be a useful way to start identifying opportunities.
    • Create an employee education program or manual that states how every employee is responsible for helping get sustainable. This might include refresher courses on proper paint application or signs in the lunch room asking people to recycle.
    • Volunteer or partner with a green program. Getting the team together to clear debris off a beach or plant trees is a good way to get started. You could even make a donation to clean air initiative. We don’t need to tell you what great PR these things can be.
    • Schedule a tune-up for your equipment that produces the most waste. Make sure everything is working at maximum efficiency.
    • Get an environmental management system. It’s time to start treating your environmental impact like you do your finances. There are lots of ways to accomplish this, though most businesses these days are either implementing or programming environmental management software.
    • Green your purchasing policies. One of the simplest steps to take is to always take into account the environmental impact of your purchases, and not just how they’ll affect your bottom line. Sometimes this takes changing the way your finance department thinks about purchases.
    • Start measuring your waste, energy usage, and emissions. You need to develop a baseline for your plan as well as create benchmarks.

    Continue mastering sustainability by reading part 4 in ERA’s Going Beyond Compliance series: Your Sustainability Plan Metrics.

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    Alex Chamberlain
    Post by Alex Chamberlain
    February 28, 2013
    Alex Chamberlain is a writer for ERA Environmental Management Solutions.