Sustainability as a Small Business
Be a sustainable leader in your business community
Sustainability is a big conversation as a small business, it’s a fairly vague term and when every business is so individual in their impacts and options it’s not something that can be laid out in black and white. This isn't a comprehensive to-do list to make your small business more sustainable (I googled forever and couldn't do anything for small businesses) but it’s a conversation about how you can be a sustainable leader as a business owner in your community.
What is Sustainability?
The definition of sustainability is to reduce the depletion of natural resources or the ability to maintain a certain level or rate of something. It’s about reducing the impact that we leave behind on this planet after we are gone, and as an influential business (no matter how small) you have the opportunity to be a leader in sustainability in your own communities that surround your business. Without taking on a huge role or responsibility you can positively influence your customers, your supporters, your competition, and anyone that is tuning in to your business.
Reduce, Reuse and then recycle.
I’ve personally had sustainability on my mind ever since I saw my first image of a duck with a plastic six-pack ring around its neck, I was convinced I would do everything I could to prevent that from happening. When I did my diploma for journalism I got a reputation for wanting to report on the environmental issues, and when I went to school for producing documentaries I made a short film about how the litter on the beach was negatively affecting our local ecosystems. But when I started a business (or two) I found that my priorities shifted into growing the business and I spent less time wondering what the impact would be.
On Instagram - Good news Tuesdays and educational graphics.
Why integrate sustainable values into your business?
The most obvious reason to lean into sustainability for your business is to reduce your impact on the planet through the elimination of waste, energy or resources. By making conscious choices at every step of the way in a business (from sourcing materials to packing and shipping) we can lighten the footprint that our business leaves behind. Choosing to be a more sustainable business doesn’t mean that you have to go full-green, you can start with small changes.
Another benefit is that when you share with your customers that you value sustainability and are taking actions and making conscious choices with your business operations, it can help to build the relationship. When your business values align with the values of your customers it creates a deeper bond and trust based on those shared values. Your customers might even pay more for your products than a competitor because they appreciate the efforts you take on behalf of the planet.
How to lean into sustainability
The first step is to assess your current impact. Consider every aspect of your business, in-person, online, and every step from product creation to marketing and delivery. Check out the list below for some ideas, but every business is unique in the ways that it can make a difference.
Remember to take it one step at a time, it’s not a race. Committing to be more sustainable can be overwhelming if you take on everything at once. Take it slow and make changes that make sense for your business, one at a time. If you check back in with your sustainability goals often and surround yourself with accounts on social media that inspire you or teach you new tricks it becomes easier to stay inspired and keep sustainability in the back of your mind.
Spread awareness but don’t be a hypocrite. If you make sustainability one of your business values, you better follow through with the promises you make to your audience. The only thing worse than a business that doesn’t care about the planet is a business that says they do and then don’t.
Ways to be more sustainable
Reduce Returns (and Buyers Remorse) - The option to return is a great customer service piece but every item shipped (there or back) leaves an invisible footprint behind of the gas and fuel used to transport. If you can provide all the necessary information for an order in a clear and concise way it can reduce the number of returns. For example, providing a clear sizing chart or expectation so customers know what they are buying and don’t have buyers remorse when their order is not what they expected or doesn’t fit etc.
Shipping Practices - if you ship your products you can source reused or recycled packing materials - while the unboxing experience is important most of it ends up in the trash so find a balance between cute and wasteful. Don’t over-package or take up unnecessary space.
Source Locally - Take the extra time to look locally for products, materials, stationary/shipping supplies and other business needs.
Individual Impact - adapting our own thought patterns and personal actions is the root of making a difference. Beat the addiction to convenience by becoming more conscious about the decision we make every single day. This conversation is a great first step to bringing the conversation to the front of your mind.
Packaging - source paper over plastic and consider if the packaging is functional or just for fashion. Choose reused/recycled packaging when possible, you can use a stamp of your logo to customize reused materials.
Energy Use - save energy in small ways by turning off electronics at the end of the day, or enable sleep mode on electronics. Choose LED bulbs for indoor spaces, and use natural light or work outside when possible.
Reusing/Recycling Materials - consider where you buy and dispose of stationery items and materials, office recycling. Buy second-hand office furniture when possible and properly recycling electronics.
Go Paperless / Digital - save some trees and switch to digital banking and invoicing. Offer receipts to be emailed or optional, most people throw them away anyway and it’s a cost to your business to buy that paper.
Talk About It - tell your community about your efforts and why it's important to you to make those choices. Encourage them to take small steps too, you have more influence than you know!
Give Back - you can donate a portion of your sales every month to a charity of your choice to offset the places that you aren’t able to be as eco-conscious as you would like to be.
Meet Ash from Dialed Bike Service in North Vancouver! Ash and her partner Adam recently opened the doors to their brand new mountain bike service shop, and are currently navigating the first few months of business and finding that work/life balance. You can follow Dialed Service on Instagram or Facebook, or check out their website for more information about their business.
What is success to you?
Adam and I started Dialed Bike Service for a few reasons: as two neurodiverse people (with different expressions of ADHD, autism, OCD, dyslexia and trauma) we were having trouble fitting into corporate systems.
We want to be able to make our own decisions so our own mental health can thrive: but we also want to help people in our community stay on their bikes. There is a shortage of skilled workers here to fix bikes, compounded by a shortage of parts and bikes, so we know the time to do this is now.
Right now we’re in that early start-up cycle where we work too much and sleep too little. We aren’t finding time each day to care for ourselves and show love to one another, that’s been the biggest struggle. Achieving balance in our time management so that we can take a lunch hour together, go on vacation and stretch our poor bodies is success.
As two people in our early thirties who want to make expensive North Vancouver our home, we know we need to buckle down and get the nitty gritty done now, but we don’t want to work too long toward some ethereal idea of wealth or stability.
If we’re successful it means we’re riding bikes with our community, finding time to build trails and be active in our circles. Success means the people whose bikes we work on are happy and know that we stand behind our work and they can trust us.
We have goals: to change the way people value their bicycles and their mechanics as skilled labourers. We want to close the gap on living wage for mechanics in our city and push for trade association recognition. If we can always be pushing the needle on our industry while finding personal happiness, we will be successful.
What’s the first thing you think of when you wake up?
We make time for cuddles every morning, so the first thing either of us does is curl up as close to the other as possible and make sure we take that time, because once we step into our roles in the shop, my role as a storyteller outside the shop, or our duties within our daily lives, we know the relationship can’t always be the number one priority. Starting our day in each other’s arms is the best way we know how to reinforce our love and gratitude for one another. The second thing I think is usually “Am I making the coffee this morning, or am I receiving the coffee this morning?”
Who do you look up to in your industry or for business advice and why?
I still look to my old friends and founder of the late, great Bicycle Hub, Dave McInnes. Dave pioneered the model of service-only bike shop that we’re growing now. He’s one of my oldest and dearest friends and over the last 15 years he’s taught me to be brave, take risks and believe in myself. Thanks to his work as a trailblazer, we’ve had a much easier go acquiring suppliers and customers. Dave’s success wasn’t just about his vision and skill, it was a combination of the service he offered but also his bright and compassionate personality. He exemplifies treating customers with respect and has a mission of service we aspire to.
What are you watching/listening to recently? (netflix, podcasts etc)
I just quit my job in daily news after 7 years of reporting because it is truly too stressful right now and I couldn’t take care of myself or the shop. However, I’m going to take this chance to focus on the stories I believe are not being told, and so I’m plugging my upcoming podcast: “I AM MADELINE” which tells the story of a Vancouver woman nearing medically assisted dying. Madeline has myalgic encephalomyelitis: a post viral syndrome she has 30 years of experience with.
ME is now showing up in hundreds of thousands of long-haul COVID patients all over the world, but the disease has long been ignored and stigmatized and so there is little to no support in existence for people suffering on the extreme end of this disease. It is also fully treatable, but mainly in the field of naturopathy which remains too expensive for people on disability assistance to access regularly.
Other things I am listening to:
Since the pandemic began I’ve been making space for the weekly clinical updates provided by the scientists and writers behind “This Week In Virology” (a podcast about viruses, the kind that make you sick). I also can’t get enough of “Sandy and Nora” a critical examination of Canadian policy and current affairs. Sandy Hudson and Nora Loreto are in my opinion the best media critics we have in Canada and I aspire to be as brave and badass in demanding a better world as these two are every single day.
If you could deliver a time-travelling note, what would you tell yourself five years ago?
In 2016 I ended my long-term relationship and basically made a run for it. I was into my second year working for CBC and took a gig as co-host of CBC Radio’s Daybreak North in Prince Rupert, then went to be a reporter in Victoria and eventually landed as a news editor and presenter in Prince George for a short time. But I was severely unhappy.
If I could tell myself one thing: it would be that breaking someone’s heart is going to break you more. I would say the trauma and guilt wasn’t worth it. I wish I had faced the difficult decision more head on and been more compassionate. I wasn’t brave in those moments, I was hiding behind a facade of success to mask my pain. Compassion and bravery go hand in hand, because doing the cruel thing always comes easier.
What inspired you to take this journey in business?
I believe people with neurodivergent strengths like mine and Adam’s can thrive in society and we want to be a proudly disability owned company. We started this journey after Adam was laid off from Giant Bicycles Canada early in March 2020 under the guise of pandemic layoffs. It became clear that working for corporate companies wasn’t for us: we had ideas and values that weren’t being heard in our respective jobs.
Our upstairs landlord brought his bike down to Adam for some work and the bill came out around $600. It wasn’t long before we had our whole street of neighbours lining up outside our garden suite looking for help because the bike shops were overwhelmed by pandemic volume. It also didn’t take us long to decide we have what it takes to do this and become the service shop we want to see in North Vancouver.
What surprised you the most about running a small business? (good or bad)
So far it is as advertised: difficult, stressful, multi-disciplinary and demanding of all faculties. If there’s one thing that’s surprised me, it’s that it really isn’t a big deal to lose a receipt in terms of taxes/bookkeeping. I thought that it was the end of the world, but I have sure chilled out a bit on the paperwork.
How do you decompress when you are working too much or feeling overwhelmed?
We cuddle and we ride bikes and we eat good food. I also like to forage for wild food, especially mushrooms and spring greens, being in nature grounds us both and when the weather has us down, it’s palpable.
What are you focused on learning right now?
I guess I am focused on learning about my ADHD brain: once I can grasp a bit better how I work (I was just diagnosed a month ago with severe and mixed-type ADHD) I can learn how to learn better. I’m also just a few days out of a two-week mechanic intensive course in the West Kootenay region and launching my first podcast, so I don’t know, every day is filled with new knowledge.
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