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The sustainability imperative for small business owners

Sustainability is more than a job for Kate Ross. She holds an MBA from Griffith University in Sustainable Business and Responsible Leadership and works with businesses of all sizes to implement sustainable transformation. She shares her knowledge on sustainability for small business owners who are committed to making a difference.

Sustainability is redundant. Or at the least the type of sustainability that is just focussed on sustaining the way we currently operate.

It’s widely accepted that we can’t continue to operate the way we do. The mandate now isn’t simply to talk about sustainability. It is to take action. To give back more than we take.

This is an imperative for all businesses. Change is hard, but for small business owners, you might be surprised at the speed at which it can happen. You’re agile to make decisions and changes quickly. There isn’t the same bureaucracy and hierarchy in your way to making change. And you can benefit from the close connections you have with your value chain partners.

Don’t underestimate the impact your small business can actually have. Nor should you underestimate the importance of this subject for those who work for you and buy from you. It’s not uncommon for customer and even employee engagement to improve as you start to implement positive, sustainable change.

If you’re serious about making impactful change in your small business, here are three actions that will help you on your journey.

First, take a step back

The various elements of sustainability are so interconnected that a narrow approach won’t deliver the impact you’re hoping to achieve. It’s when you take a step back and look at what’s going on more broadly that all the pieces start to fall into place.

Rather than just looking within your own operations or premises, you can look right across your value chain, from your suppliers through to the end of life of your products. You can assess the influence and impact you can have at every stage of this chain.

In going through this process you might actually uncover a lot of good already going on in your business that hasn’t yet been realised to its full potential.

Holistic thinking is what we need more of in sustainability. Piecemeal approaches tend to be limited and can actually cause more harm than good.

Look beyond the table stakes

Carbon, waste, water quality and energy are examples of table stakes of sustainability. Consumers expect that businesses are taking action to address these aspects in their business.

But the genuine sustainability conversation runs so much deeper than this.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is a good place for you to start with a broader analysis. You can take each of the 17 goals and prioritise where your business has the greatest ability to impact. Think about what matters to your stakeholders and create a plan for change.

Don’t be afraid to think big. Look at how your business is uniquely positioned to address global industry issues such as fair working conditions and wages or farming practices for ingredients. You can set the standard right across your value chain, which may have a ripple effect well beyond your sphere of control.

Be transparent, always

Sustainability isn’t always pretty. And that’s ok. Leadership never is.

As you progress along the journey, you may uncover things that you aren’t proud of. Mistakes that have been made in the past that you now need to rectify. Or simple oversights that have now been brought to your attention.

Leadership requires you to make hard decisions. Sustainability leadership is no different. In many cases you might be doing things that haven’t been done before in your industry. The key is transparency and being authentic in what you’re doing. Or risk losing credibility and doing serious damage to your brand.

Even if things aren’t perfect, talk about them. Talk about the changes you’re making and the direction you’re heading.

The beauty of transparency is that it can pave the way for collaboration and new solutions. While you may be stuck on solving a particular problem, starting a conversation may help you to see the way forward.

Don’t be afraid to lead the way. Real change happens when leaders step up to do things differently.


Kate Ross MIML, is passionate about working with organisations to take practical steps toward the sustainable transformation of their business.

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