What are some small businesses doing to make themselves more sustainable - to minimise their impact on the environment and ensure they stay viable for the long term?

Sustainability is a buzzword you hear often in business, but it's a topic where there can sometimes be more talk than walk.

So what are some small businesses doing to make themselves more sustainable - to minimise their impact on the environment and ensure they stay viable for the long term?

This week I've talked to a small group of business owners about why sustainability is an issue in their firms, as well as some of the practical steps they've taken to make their operations more sustainable and the commercial payback they're seeing from those initiatives.

Rachel Brown, CEO of the Sustainable Business Network, says there are a number of trends driving small businesses to look at issues of sustainability: the desire for companies to have an environmental or social purpose; a need for small business suppliers to meet council or corporate sustainability procurement demands; and employees - particularly younger ones - who want to work for more progressive businesses.

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"This is a time of massive rethinking, and for finding new solutions and new ways of doing things via technology," adds Brown. "We're also seeing consumers being much more informed, a greater desire for regulations to counter poor performance, as well as sector trends driving a move towards greater sustainability."

Many of the business owners interviewed this week say they were motivated to institute sustainable business practices due to their personal philosophies and a desire to 'do the right thing'. However, they've created some significant efficiencies within their operations and discovered other commercial benefits as a result.

Shaun Clouston is a partner, with Steve Logan, in Wellington-based restaurant Logan Brown, where he's also head chef.

"[Sustainability] is something Steve and I feel quite passionate about," says Clouston. "People often ask me what the big food trends are and I think sustainability has to be the main one. The human race isn't getting any smaller, so everybody has to think about the way they do things."

Logan Brown has had Enviro-Mark certification since 2010 and Clouston says as part of that process they've had to closely examine their suppliers and where the food they serve ultimately comes from, with a focus on seasonal and local produce.

"We get a lot of people coming from Europe, the States and Australia and it's nice to have something served that's so local and that has that story that goes with it. You build up all these relationships with the suppliers and the growers, so we can pass on those stories and customers love it."

Little things matter when it comes to building a more sustainable business and sometimes it's just a matter of more closely examining business as usual. Logan Brown recently furnished all their tables with new tops at a cost of $14,000, but the change has allowed them to do away with tablecloths, which were costing the business around $50,000 a year to launder (and using chemicals and creating emissions in the process).

Steve Rickerby is the founder of We Compost, a collection service for compostable waste, and says personal reasons prompted him to build sustainability thinking into his operation from its inception.

"It was inherent in who I was and I wanted to build a business with the same values," he says. "As the business has grown it has become an integral part of the brand and is one of the things that differentiates us. My partner and I now have two young boys and I'd love to see them take over the business one day and for it to continue after I'm gone."

Fuel consumption is a big focus for the business, which has worked with its fuel supplier Z Energy to install telematics in its vehicles to track fuel consumption against driver behaviour. The firm also undertakes training for fuel-efficient driving, gets vehicles regularly serviced, and looks closely at route optimisation.

"Improving our fuel consumption rate has a direct impact on our bottom line. We spend around $15,000 a year on fuel so a 10 per cent saving on that is really worthwhile for a small business."

Rachel Brown, Sustainable Business Network

Rachel Brown is the CEO of the Sustainable Business Network.

What are the trends driving small business owners to look at the sustainability of their operations?

The main trends we're seeing are the desire for companies to have a purpose, which may be either environmental or social; the need for small business suppliers to meet council or corporate sustainability procurement demands; and employees - young ones in particular - who are seeking to work for more progressive businesses. In Colmar Brunton's recent Better Business survey, 70 per cent of New Zealanders said they'd prefer to work for a sustainable company.

This is a time of massive rethinking, and for finding new solutions and new ways of doing things via technology. We're also seeing consumers being much more informed, a greater desire for regulations to counter poor performance, as well as sector trends driving a move towards greater sustainability. And all of these areas need to be watched closely because things are moving fast.

How do New Zealand's small businesses stack up internationally in terms of their sustainability efforts?

There are some really innovative small and medium-sized businesses with strong export opportunities and unique branding that are leveraging off the 'clean, green' New Zealand image. But there are still a large number of companies not reflecting their purpose against anything other than profit. Those companies aren't likely to succeed in the long term, since the global movement for businesses to have a purpose is picking up pace in alignment with the tremendous environmental and social challenges we're facing.

We recently formed a relationship with sustainability organisation Forum for the Future in the UK, which means we now have access to global examples and strategies for transforming businesses on to a more sustainable path. As a result we're seeing New Zealand collaborations around transport - things like electric vehicles, cycling, biofuels - and around the refurbishment of offices using mega efficient approaches, restorative food systems and embedding social values into business models.

What are the biggest obstacles our small businesses face in making their operations more sustainable?

I think it can often be too hard for small businesses to bring about change on their own, so collaborating with others can often be a lot more effective in finding new solutions. A lack of financing is often a problem for small businesses in New Zealand, and we need greater investment in sustainable businesses and ventures to help them flourish.

Last of all, I think in New Zealand we sometimes suffer from a lack of imagination of what is possible, and sometimes we need more of an appetite for risk. We lag behind in sustainable investment in New Zealand, which is why the Sustainable Business Network is in the midst of forming a coalition of businesses in the investment space to speed this up.

What's a piece of key advice you'd give a small business owner who's wanting to make their operation more sustainable?

For small businesses in particular it can help to focus on what is material to your business, so you can concentrate your efforts on the area that can make the greatest contribution to sustainability and have the biggest impact for your business. We've put together a resource, called a Pathway to Sustainability (pathwaytosustainability.org.nz), to help businesses do that. It also has other practical advice to help businesses make their operations more sustainable across the key areas of waste, energy, transport, purchasing and workplace.

Coming up in Your Business: The end of the year is rolling in, and it's a time when businesses are saying thanks to their employees and supporters. So what are some of the ways small businesses say thank you customers and staff at the end of the year? If you've got a story to tell about what you do to say thanks and why, drop me a note: nzhsmallbusiness@gmail.com