At every point in the life cycle of a product, humans have a choice. Each choice can contribute to the massive effort to conserve resources, protect the environment, and slow down the impact of consumerism. Or, it can lead the product on a one-way trip to the island of plastic.
Small businesses, seen as leaders in their communities, are in a position to effect positive change. The decisions you make as you build your brand can impact generations to come. But how do you make the right choices? How do you implement sustainable business practices at every step?
Ahead, learn from sustainable businesses at the front of the movement and explore eco-friendly measures you can take today.
Why is it important to build a sustainable business?
The most obvious reason to invest in a sustainable business strategy is to protect the planet for future generations. But the almighty bottom line often prevents businesses from making what can be expensive changes to business practices. The good news is that sustainability efforts often reap other rewards.
Having an environmental strategy for your business can actually save you money in energy costs and potentially qualify you for tax breaks, government funding, and incentive programs.
As consumer trends change, the actions you take—or don’t take—to tackle climate change and give back can also impact your sales. Today, Gen Z and Gen Alpha consumers are wise to the effects of global warming and fast fashion. These generations actively seek out brands with strong social responsibility and transparent sustainability commitments. In fact, 40% of people across all demographics surveyed in one study said that sustainability factors contribute to purchase decisions.
15 examples of sustainable businesses
A sustainable business strategy for your brand is good for the earth—and your bottom line.
Which brands are striking the balance? Get inspired by these 15 sustainable companies leading the charge on environmental responsibility by reducing waste, minimizing footprint, and giving back.
- Yoloha Yoga
- 100% Pure
- Helm Boots
- Recycled Firefighter
- Dick Moby
- Nice Laundry
- Common Good
- Rebel Nell
- Ethnotek Bags
1. Yoloha Yoga
Where they shine: Sustainable materials
Yoloha Yoga mats are made from cork: a natural, renewable, and recyclable material obtained through sustainable harvesting. The trees are stripped by hand every nine years, rather than cut down.
2. 100% Pure
Category: Product, social responsibility
Where they shine: Organic ingredients, giving back
Even 100% Pure’s brand name speaks to its commitment to offer pure, natural ingredients derived from plants. The company is transparent about its ingredient mix and commitment to cruelty-free practices. 100% Pure also gives back through a one-for-one meal donation program.
Where they shine: Vegan materials
Bloom is a French brand of footwear made from animal-free materials. Leather is a product of the animal agriculture industry, responsible for suffering, high greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution from the tanning process. Bloom’s founder sought to build a fashionable shoe brand using cruelty-free alternatives to leather.
4. Helm Boots
Category: Manufacturing and sourcing
Where they shine: Locally produced
Helm Boots are made proudly in the US, and as a bonus, Helm will resole your boots, keeping them out of landfill for life. Creating durable goods that never need replacing is a sustainable trend catching on as the effects of fast (disposable) fashion become more widely known.
5. Recycled Firefighter
Category: Product, social responsibility
Where they shine: Recycled materials, charitable donations
Jake Starr is a former firefighter and founder of Recycled Firefighter. His company repurposes retired fire hoses into durable accessories, and donates a portion of proceeds to support burn victims.
🌿 Read more: How One Firefighter Turned Recycled Gear into a 6-Figure Business Using Instagram
6. Dick Moby
Category: Product, manufacturing
Where they shine: Recycled materials, sustainable production
Dick Moby sunnies are produced using recycled acetate and microfibre cleaning cloths from recycled PET bottles. The brand’s manufacturing process was also created with the planet in mind, using less water and electricity and producing less carbon than conventional eyewear manufacturing.
Garments for Good 🩱 Get inspired by these brands that take a mindful approach to business to protect humans and the planet. 👉 READ: 40+ Sustainable Clothing Brands
7. Nice Laundry
Where they shine: Recycling program
Buy some Nice Laundry socks and send back your old ones. The company works with 2ReWear Inc. to repurpose socks as textiles or insulation—and keep them out of landfill. The brand has recycled over 550,000 items as of April 2023.
8. Common Good
Where they shine: Refillable containers
Natural cleaning and beauty product company Common Good is cutting back on plastics by offering a refill program at several locations across Canada and the US.
Where they shine: Reusable product
Abeego was the first reusable beeswax wrap to hit the market, solving one of the biggest landfill culprits: disposable plastic wrap. The company is also a B Corp certified brand.
10. Rebel Nell
Category: Social responsibility
Where they shine: Job creation
Rebel Nell was created with the purpose of employing, educating, and empowering disadvantaged and unhoused women in Detroit’s shelters, helping them move from a life of dependence to one of self-reliance.
🌿 Read more about Rebel Nell: Refurbishing the Rust Belt: Founder Stories from Detroit
Category: Social responsibility, product
Where they shine: Job creation, ethically made and eco products
Avenue employs talented artisans with disabilities, providing vocational and skill development opportunities. The store also stocks ethically-made products from other select brands.
Category: Product, operations
Where they shine: Reusable materials, recycling program
Anew makes bottled water with a twist: the plant-based bottle is built to be used over and over again. When it hits the end of its life, Anew recycles it into another bottle.
Category: Manufacturing and sourcing
Where they shine: Ethical production
Bag manufacturer Ethnotek sustains employment in hand printing, weaving, and embroidery through partnerships with artisan villages in Ghana.
Category: Operations, manufacturing
Where they shine: B Corp certification, sustainable production
Rachel is a legwear and fashion brand that boasts B Corp certification (a global certification program that measures brands on a number of sustainability measures). The garments are also made from sustainable materials including those produced with less water and energy than traditional cottons.
Category: Social responsibility
Where they shine: Giving back
Stunned by the fact that many girls in developing countries miss school due to their periods, Tsuno founder Roz Campbell set out to create a feminine hygiene brand that gave back. She built a one-for-one program that donated products (and martial profits) to organizations providing education to girls.
🌿 Read more: Every Woman Needs Access to Feminine Hygiene. Period
A brief history of sustainability in business
Recycling dates as far back as 1031 when, in Japan, recycled waste paper was first documented. In the 1930s and 1940s, nylon, rubber and metal were rationed and recycled as part of the war effort. Then in the 1950s, when the economy boomed, the planet seemed abundant with resources and cherry soda floats.
Earth Day debuted in 1970, hand-in-hand with mounting global environmental awareness, and the UN discussed the ozone layer for the first time. Recycling programs ramped up over the next decade, with more than 1,000 US cities offering curbside pickup by 1988. Germany, however, made a move that would forever impact our thinking: in 1992, it shifted the responsibility of the material life cycle from the consumer to the manufacturer.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, as eco-friendly became more fashionable, companies cashed in on the buzzwords, slathering packaging with greenwashing (the practice of misrepresenting sustainability claims) that attracted misinformed but well-meaning consumers.
How to achieve sustainability in your business
Sustainable companies are those that consider their footprint across all areas of business. There are a number categories to consider as you establish sustainable business practices and develop your business model. If you’re looking to build a green business, consider sustainability initiatives at every step of the way.
When choosing a product to sell, there are other questions to ask yourself in addition to market fit and current trends: Can it be produced using sustainable or recycled materials? Can you source ingredients that are organic or cruelty free?
- When developing products, look for gaps in the eco-friendly products market or find problems that can be solved with sustainable alternatives.
- Locate sustainable suppliers and materials in your area to support the local community.
- Use sustainable raw materials or recycled options to reduce landfill waste, and produce products using renewable energy.
Manufacturing and sourcing
Producing goods overseas adds to the footprint of products that travel many miles. While producing locally is a great alternative, it isn’t always as cost-effective. If you do manufacture abroad, consider working directly with factories to stay connected to their conditions and wages, empower communities by working with fair trade co-ops, and support small family producers.
- Learn how your business can support fair trade practices and programs.
- Seek out reputable factories with a good track record for paying a living wage and offering safe work environments.
- Strive for energy efficiency in manufacturing practices.
Consider donating back to causes close to your heart, working with registered charities, or purchasing carbon removal. Aligning your business with a social cause isn’t just good for the soul—younger consumers increasingly choose socially responsible companies over other brands.
- Work with charity partners or environmental organizations and donate a percentage of your profits.
- Implement a one-for-one program to donate a product for every one sold.
- Support your local community with job opportunities for underrepresented groups.
This is an area full of low-effort wins for businesses looking to be more sustainable. Some of it may even cut your overhead costs. How is your office or warehouse lit and heated? Can you swap out wasteful packaging materials for post-consumer-waste or compostable alternatives?
- Get an official energy audit to assess areas for improvement. Install renewable energy alternatives.
- Consider green alternatives for office supplies and choose sustainable packaging.
- Be accountable for the full lifecycle of your products by implementing a refill or recycling program.
Looking ahead: sustainable companies are the future
Consumers continue to be more suspicious of sustainability claims, even though 60% report they seek out products with these claims and 93% say they increased sustainable purchase habits in 2022. Brands looking to win customers through sustainability initiatives need to build trust with transparency and a demonstrated commitment to sustainability across a number of areas and products.
Making sustainability efforts in your business isn’t just about doing the right thing to protect the planet for the next generation. If implemented authentically and with intention, it’s also good for your bottom line.
Sustainable businesses FAQ
What are some sustainable business examples?
Some sustainable business examples include those that directly address climate change with strong environmental sustainability programs. Others are leaders in their communities by giving back, providing meaningful employment and living wages, and choosing ethical business practices. Large sustainable business examples include IKEA, Patagonia, LEGO, and New Belgium Brewing.
What is considered a sustainable business?
A sustainable business is one that carries out business practices that consider what’s best for the planet’s natural resources, animals, and people. A company can be considered sustainable if it proves to be making a positive impact in at least one of these areas. Implementing fair hiring practices and good factory conditions, using renewable energy to limit greenhouse gas emissions, or committing to zero-waste production are all sustainability initiatives that companies can consider.
How do you build a sustainable business?
There are many ways you can implement sustainability initiatives to reduce your company’s carbon footprint and make a positive impact. Here are a few examples:
- Rethink your shipping strategy to reduce carbon emissions.
- Create a company culture that prioritizes internal sustainability efforts.
- Identify sustainable suppliers and materials in your area to support the local community.
- Use sustainable raw materials or recycled options to reduce landfill.
- Calculate your carbon footprint and invest in carbon removal technologies.
- Audit your whole supply chain. Can you strive for reduced water usage or energy efficiency at any stage?