When you’re trying to reduce the environmental impact of your business, getting started can be the hardest part. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming, particularly if you have some help.
Given the increasing urgency surrounding climate change, a handful of nonprofits and philanthropic initiatives have sprouted up to help America’s business community take less of a toll on the planet. Here is a game plan for navigating the path toward more eco-conscious operations, along with some helpful resources for easing the transition.
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To set any kind of environmental targets, you need to have a firm understanding of your organization’s existing impact. Depending on the nature of your business and supply chains, there are numerous organizations that can help with that process. The Sustainability Consortium, a global nonprofit housed within three research universities, works with small and midsize businesses through its Thesis assessment process. This online assessment gives businesses insights into the sustainability of their products, taking into consideration factors like supply chain, water use and worker safety. Many of the small businesses that come to the Sustainability Consortium do so because they’ve been asked by a retail partner–such as Walgreens or Kroger–to undergo the Thesis process, says CEO Christy Slay.
Businesses should also develop a budget for sustainable investments and get a clear understanding of what financing may be necessary to reach their environmental goals. Slay recommends using a return on investment calculator to learn how and when investments, like a transition to more energy-efficient technology, will start to pay off.
A sustainability analysis like Thesis can give a business a better idea of “core issues” in its supply chain, says Slay, which can help it identify first steps to reducing its carbon footprint. But ultimately, the Sustainability Consortium doesn’t devise “strategic plans” or step-by-step guides for businesses like a consultancy might.
That’s where organizations like Canopy come in. Since its 1996 launch, the Vancouver-based conservation nonprofit has partnered with more than 900 companies globally to remove ancient and endangered forests from their supply chains. The organization works with businesses that are corporate customers of the forest products industries, such as fashion brands like Gap, consumer companies like Avocado Green Mattress, and publishers like The New York Times.
“We always start our work with brands by orienting them to the geopolitical context of their sourcing, the impact of their current sourcing practices, and the role they can play,” says founder and executive director Nicole Rycroft. Then, on a pro bono basis, the organization helps businesses develop policies with a two- to three-year timeline through which they commit to not sourcing materials from ancient and endangered forests, and to gradually improving the sustainability of their packaging and viscose products by using more circular inputs. The nonprofit’s goal is to help businesses not just drive change within their own organizations but in their industries as a whole.
Another reason a company might work with a nonprofit to become more sustainable: There’s power in numbers. “Oftentimes these companies are fierce competitors with each other in the rest of their operations, but we find that they’re willing to come together in the pre-competitive space that we convene, because they know, no matter how big they are, they can’t transform an entire supply chain by themselves or solve the climate crisis,” says Rycroft.
There’s an economic advantage to working with potential competitors when it comes to embracing next-generation sustainable means of production, especially for smaller businesses. The Apparel Impact Institute (AII), a nonprofit collective that brings together brands, manufacturers, and associations in the apparel and footwear industry, helps businesses of all sizes take advantage of manufacturing processes that might be otherwise inaccessible to them because of cost or minimum order volume. “We meet companies where they are with their budgets and where they are with their ambition,” says president Lewis Perkins. Through its recently launched $250 million Fashion Climate Fund, AII aims to lower the barrier of entry for smaller brands to embrace supply chain solutions such as using renewable energy or sustainable materials that might have a higher cost of production.
Ultimately, Perkins says, cross-sector collaboration is the key to making business more sustainable. A rarely used next-generation material, such as faux leather made from citrus pulp, might not seem scalable at first, he says. But when organizations like AII can help facilitate the right investments, it can become accessible to businesses of all sizes. Says Perkins: “We’re signaling the market toward the solutions. There are economies of scale at play here.”
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