“There is a very small percentage of people and companies that hold enough wealth and power to make impactful, immediate change,” says Sam Romero, co-founder of ethical apparel brand Selva Negra. Yet, the planet’s fate is often delegated to the individual, downloaded onto the consumer.
Sustainability entered mainstream purview long ago, and the average person is reasonably aware of the effects of irresponsible consumption. But impact is intangible on an individual level—and the result is a disconnect between intention and follow-through.
Sustainable brands succeed when they can tell their story in a meaningful way for their customers.
It is the responsibility of brands, says author Toby Usnik, “to meet that individual where they are.” Businesses—even the small ones—are looked to as leaders in the communities they serve. How do you, as a brand, use your influence to affect change while also meeting your business goals?
Ahead, industry experts weigh in to help investigate the incongruity between intention and action. You can also learn ways in which brands can act as role models with sustainable business practices—and turn good-intentioned browsers into buyers.
What are sustainable business practices?
Sustainable business practices are decisions and actions related to a brand’s daily operations, manufacturing processes, and interactions with the world that are made with care for people, wildlife, and the environment. These practices generally are put into place with a specific goal, such as reducing a company’s carbon footprint or paying fair wages to factory employees.
A good sustainability goal is one that can be measured. Consumers increasingly see through “greenwashing” (the practice of businesses making unfounded sustainability claims). Transparent and measurable efforts to make an impact are, therefore, more effective.
Examples of sustainable practices
Your brand can do business in more ethical and environmentally responsible ways by:
- Switching office or production facilities to renewable energy
- Developing new products using recycled or renewable materials
- Opting for sustainable packaging
- Implementing a composting program
- Engaging in ethical sourcing
- Giving back to organizations that do sustainability work
- Growing or sourcing ingredients locally
Sustainability: The intention-action gap
Implementing some of the sustainable business practices above may mean asking your customers to pay more or wait longer for their orders. In theory, consumers are demanding this, but in practice, does it work?
While 49% of US buyers surveyed by Shopify said they would be willing to pay for sustainable shipping, that group was more likely to choose same-day or next-day shipping options. And overwhelmingly, they named cost as the largest factor in making their decision. Another study has uncovered the same cognitive dissonance—65% of those surveyed said they want to buy from sustainable brands, yet only 26% reported actually doing so.
In short, your customers care about sustainability and ethical consumption, but once price or shipping times factor into buying decisions, those good intentions start to crumble.
In order to both stay true to your brand values and meet customer expectations, sustainability issues should be approached from both perspectives.
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7 ways to implement sustainable business practices today
Ultimately, what compels your customer to act depends on their own values, needs, and motivations. Sustainable brands succeed when they can tell their story in a meaningful way for their customers.
These ideas are packed with real-world examples to feed your own sustainable business strategy—and in turn inspire future generations of entrepreneurs to do the same.
1. Be authentic—and consistent
You need to model responsible behavior in all aspects of your business if you expect your customers to walk the talk. First, educate yourself so you can confidently educate your customers. “I’d challenge anyone to get curious about what sustainability means and how much of your pre-existing definition is limited or based on old-school thinking,” says Josh Bowden, co-founder of sustainable packaging brand, noissue.
Shobha Philips, founder of ethical intimates brand Proclaim, is taking an extra step toward accountability. “We’ve worked with third parties to do a formal audit of the factory to help keep us in line with the values that we’re trying to promote,” she says. Whether you do your own investigation or hire an external auditor, examine your claims of sustainable business practices and partnerships to be sure you’re walking the talk.
For Sam and Selva Negra co-founder Kristen Gonzalez, who built a brand with ethical production at its center, it was important that other aspects of the business aligned with their overall values. “Our packaging is 100% compostable,” says Sam. “We have come a long way from using recycled plastic to completely removing plastic from our shipping equation.”
Shobha built her brand with sustainability and ethical values at the forefront of her messaging. Her Instagram account launched six months ahead of any actual product, which gave her time to build a community around her cause. Her customers buy from her because of these values, and she says she’s only had to explain her pricing a handful of times.
We have to have very open, vulnerable, and educational discussions with our audience about why these things matter beyond our business.
Sam Romero, Selva Negra
Education should be built into marketing, product pages, and other customer touchpoints, especially if your product costs more than comparable items. “Sustainability is not the most accessible or inclusive conversation,” says Sam. “We have to have very open, vulnerable, and educational discussions with our audience about why these things matter beyond our business.”
A dedicated page that speaks to your brand’s commitment to sustainability can educate customers on your process and materials. Noissue uses a blog to communicate the sustainable aspects of its products and its commitment to “championing our community of small businesses who’ve made the switch to sustainable packaging,” says Josh.
Sustainable brand spotlight: Proclaim
Shobha Philips built her inclusive lingerie line on basics that represent a spectrum of nude shades. She knew that addressing inequality, however, would take more than a color palette. “The system of fashion puts us in this position where we’re underrepresented in this field,” she says. “A lot of these products are made by exploiting women of color.” Proclaim bras and underwear are produced ethically in LA, paying workers fair hourly wages.
3. Find your customer’s “why”
Your sustainability messaging may fall flat if it’s not landing with your specific audience. If you’re selling vegan meal kits or solar lighting, you’re already speaking to customers that are tuned in to the benefits of paying more for a sustainable product.
Consider other industries, though, where green aspects might not be the top selling point. If you sell luxury footwear, your target customer may be more concerned with quality and cachet. Don’t alienate them by prioritizing your sustainability messaging in your marketing. The sustainably-minded shopper may be a secondary audience that you reach with targeted messaging.
4. Leverage social influence
Peer influence has a positive effect on sustainable shopping behaviors, according to several studies. In one example, community organizers who installed solar panels recruited 63% more neighbors to follow suit versus those who themselves did not install panels.
Leverage your most passionate brand advocates to grow your audience through referral incentives, explicitly asking for reviews to post on your site, and social proof (sharing user-generated content that features your products).
5. Support good habit building
As humans, we largely resist change. And, if the countless self-help resources on the topic tell us anything, it’s that both breaking old habits and making new ones are, for most, extremely challenging.
How do you convince a customer to switch from conventional toilet paper, shipped same-day from Amazon, to your renewable bamboo toilet paper that’s more expensive and takes longer to arrive? Reel made it easy for customers to develop good habits by selling its toilet paper on a subscription model. It arrives regularly and conveniently at customers’ doorsteps, removing one major barrier to change.
6. Incentivize and reward
Humans are more willing to take risks, try something new, pay more, or put in extra effort if it’s offset by reward. Here, we’re talking about two types of rewards: tangible and emotional.
Swedish Stockings produces its socks and tights from post-consumer recycled nylon, and it depends on its customers to generate some of that raw material. While few may, out of the goodness of their hearts, make the effort to ship their old socks to the company, many more will do so if incentivized. Swedish Stockings offers a 10% discount on new products in exchange for recycled socks.
Emotional rewards can be achieved by creating a warm feeling in your customers when they perceive they have made a positive impact on the Earth, other people, or the safety and health of their family.
Selva Negra uses brand storytelling to highlight its sewing staff on its website. Its customers can connect with the humans behind production whose lives have been positively impacted by their purchases.
7. Listen, adapt, and collaborate
“Brands are now realizing more than ever that rather than educating customers, they need to let customers educate them,” says Toby. “To actually see and hear them, and to reflect them.” Create opportunities for your audience to deliver feedback and join the conversation about sustainability.
Selva Negra’s founders admit they are continually making improvements based on research, feedback, and conversations with other brands. For noissue, prioritization remains a challenge, says Josh. “We try to get as much guidance from our customers as possible.”
Sustainable brand spotlight: Selva Negra
Descended from immigrants themselves, Kristen Gonzalez and Sam Romero were acutely aware of the fashion industry’s exploitation of immigrant garment workers—even in the US. “There is a misconception that if something is ‘Made in America,’ that it is automatically ethical,” says Sam. When building their apparel line, Selva Negra, fair and respectful treatment of their staff was at the heart of the values they instilled in the company.
Barriers to going green
In a 2019 study, Shopify interviewed 15 founders of sustainable brands who reported that the following were the greatest challenges when it comes to running their businesses:
- Manufacturing and sourcing: finding suppliers, vetting manufacturers, and the high costs of production and materials
- Educating customers on the value and impact of the product or brand
- Shipping and packaging, including finding sustainable shipping partnerships
For Shobha, the limited selection of manufacturing partners and materials is a good problem. She knows what she’s working with from the get-go. But for those looking to shift to more sustainable business practices, the challenge may be much greater. “Reverse engineering sustainability is definitely harder,” she says. “You set your business model and your margins to unsustainable practices that you’re going to have to slowly phase out or find compromise.”
The challenges ultimately trickle down to the customer either through cost, production and shipping delays, or availability. There are many aspects beyond the control of sustainable brands, but those who communicate their story and mission effectively—and create value for their customer—can win in this growing space.
Small steps for sustainability
Although the gap between customer intention and action is real, it hasn’t stopped businesses from moving in the right direction. In a survey of business owners who use Shopify, 63% reported they employ at least one sustainable practice in their businesses.
More businesses taking a stand increases collective awareness—making sustainable business practices the rule rather than the exception. “Our industry has to shift in unison to make sustainability accessible to everyone,” says Sam. “We have a long way to go.”
But these first steps are showing progress: one study found that among all new consumer packaged goods (CPG), the percentage of sustainable new products introduced has increased every year since 2017, making up 48% of all new CPGs in 2021.
Acting for the long term
We all have the responsibility to minimize our impact through our choices. Collectively, businesses can move the needle on slowing climate change and impacting consumer action. The playbook is already written, says Toby, and brands can look to those before them who have already made the commitment. “I encourage business leaders to simply put a stake in the ground,” he says.
As you build your business, bake in sustainably minded choices from the get-go. This sets customer expectations and enables you to be nimble and adapt to changes in the market and the world at large.
Feature illustration by Borja Bonaque
Sustainable business practices FAQ
Why are sustainable business practices important?
Sustainable business practices are not only important to help build a better future for the next generation—they are also important to your bottom line. Increasing awareness from consumers is driving a trend toward brands that are socially responsible, have a clear sustainability initiative, and are developing eco-friendly products
What are the pillars of sustainability in business?
The three pillars of sustainability in business are:
- Environmental sustainability
- Social sustainability
- Economic sustainability
How do you create a sustainable business practice?
The best sustainable businesses are those that focus on their core values. When considering your own sustainability efforts, start with the things that matter most to you and your customers. Then look at areas where your business can most improve. You can also look to large companies to get inspiration on how they monitor environmental impact. However you decide to make an impact, communicate it to your customers.
What are examples of sustainable practices in business?
Some example of sustainable business practices are:
- Sustainable development of green products
- Switching to renewable energy (like solar power)
- Monitoring and offsetting carbon emissions
- Reducing waste in shipping materials (like eliminating paper use or switching to recycled paper)
- Implementing a customer recycling program
- Donating profits to environmental causes via a local charity