The small business sustainability checklist

October 18, 2023 | 9 minute read

Every business’s sustainability journey will be different, but there are well-defined strategies and steps all companies can consider along the way. This checklist breaks down these steps and strategies into three parts that can help guide your small business to become more sustainable while cutting costs and identifying business opportunities.


Part 1: Implement quick environmental wins that cut costs while identifying longer-term sustainability strategies

Build a foundation for sustainable business practices by increasing sustainability at your office and creating a longer-term strategy. These steps include several simple but impactful ways to conserve resources and minimize waste, resulting in both environmental and business benefits.


Increase sustainability at your place of business:


  • Use green-certified cleaning products.
    Many traditional cleaning products can be harmful to our health and the environment. Green alternatives that are certified to environmental standards are a great way to reduce these concerns.
  • Go digital to reduce paper.
    There are many ways to cut back on paper consumption, including sharing and editing documents online, converting to electronic payroll, setting default printer settings to double-sided printing, and unsubscribing to paper mailers and magazines. You can also reduce your impact by purchasing certified-sustainable or recycled paper, which is less resource- and energy-intensive to make.
  • Limit plastic.
    Switch from single-use plastic bottles to filtered tap water, from coffee pods to a pot and from plastic utensils to reusable options. Also, eliminate straws and other unnecessary plastic.
  • Encourage recycling and composting.
    Make it easy for employees to recycle and compost by placing labeled bins alongside all garbage cans. Put up posters to remind employees what products can go in each bin and encourage them to consider how they might reuse office supplies.
  • Switch to LED lighting.
    Light-emitting diode – or LED – lights last up to 25 times longer and use up to 90% less energy than traditional incandescent lights, helping lower your electricity bills and reduce maintenance and operating costs.1 LEDs are compatible with most existing light fixtures, so it is often an easy and low-cost switch.
  • Reduce energy use around your place of work.
    There are many small changes you can make to use less energy. For example, set computers, monitors and printers to sleep after inactivity and program thermostats to automatically reduce heat after working hours. Make sure nonessential electronics are powered down at the end of each day. Also, opt to work in the natural sunlight when you can.
  • Limit commuting.
    Employees commuting to your business can be a large source of indirect greenhouse gas emissions. Some reduction strategies include providing bike storage, offering public transportation benefits and implementing work-from-home days. Encourage video calls instead of in-person meetings when it’s possible.


Create a sustainability strategy:


  • Assess your business and prioritize.
    Each business has different sustainability challenges. Identifying your specific priorities requires an assessment of impacts and opportunities across your entire business. Think about your physical business space, how your employees get to work and do their jobs, technology needs, the resources you use, your procurement strategy, the waste you generate, how you market your business and communicate externally, and so on.
  • Conduct an energy audit.
    An energy audit surveys your business to measure energy use and identify opportunities to conserve energy and save on utility bills. The process typically involves a professional energy auditor inspecting heating and cooling systems, lighting, insulation and appliances.
  • Measure your operational carbon footprint.
    A company’s operational carbon footprint typically includes Scope 1 emissions, which occur directly from sources the company owns and controls, and Scope 2 emissions, which occur through purchased electricity. The process of measuring your carbon footprint will help determine how big your business’s environmental impact is so you can start identifying reduction opportunities. There are many tools to help measure your carbon footprint, like the SME Climate Hub’s free calculator, designed specifically for small businesses.
Company GHG emissions are categorized into three scopes. The GHG Protocol, developed in 2001 by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, established a GHG measurement methodology for organizations. It classifies emissions into three different scopes for reporting purposes and provides a universal standard for organizations to follow when calculating emissions. Scope 1: Direct emissions a company makes as a result of its operations. (Company-owned vehicles + Gases released during industrial processes, i.e. factory fumes. Scope 2: Indirect emissions a company makes through the purchase of electricity, cooling, heating and steam. (Purcahsed energy). Scope 3: Indirect emissions a company is resonsible for from activity up and down its value chain. (Business travel + Waste disposal + Product use).

Graphic for illustration purposes only and does not include all types of emissions.

  • Set goals and targets.
    Setting goals and targets based on your priorities and carbon footprint is important in helping focus your initiatives and measure progress. Your business can set short-term goals, like using 10% less energy next year, or longer-term goals, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% within 10 years.
  • Educate and engage employees.
    Find out what issues are most important to employees and then empower and support them in making a difference through efforts like reducing waste or organizing a volunteer activity. You can also establish a sustainability team to help develop and implement ways to operate more sustainably.
  • Review policies for environmental and social sustainability.
    Consider adding sustainability principles to existing policies or creating new ones. For example, would an electronic waste policy that explains how employees should handle old computers and equipment help reduce costs? Could your company benefit from attracting a broader range of candidates through a commitment to diversity in your hiring policies? Taking these steps will help further integrate sustainability into your day-to-day operations.


Part 2: Achieve the business benefits of social sustainability

Social sustainability steps can help improve your business by attracting new customers and employees, strengthening customer loyalty, boosting employee engagement and productivity, and building community relationships.


Support employees and give back to your community:


  • Evaluate employee resources and benefits.
    Ensuring that employees feel safe and supported, free to contribute ideas and provide feedback, and have the ability to grow professionally are essential elements for engagement, job satisfaction and retention. Review whether your code of conduct and policies, benefits packages, paid leave policies, professional development opportunities and methods for collecting employee feedback are meeting these needs and expectations.
  • Establish inclusive policies and practices.
    Diverse and inclusive workplaces lead to increased business growth and innovation and are a key factor in the ability to hire and retain talented employees.2 Establish inclusive workplace policies and practices by reviewing job descriptions, recruitment strategies, interview processes and promotions policies for bias. Tactics like standardizing interview questions can help make objective and balanced hiring decisions.
  • Foster healthy work-life balance.
    Work-life balance is an important factor in employee productivity, performance and retention. Some ways to achieve this include supporting time off, promoting collaboration and teamwork, creating more flexible work schedules, and providing opportunities for remote work.
  • Provide volunteer opportunities.
    Employee volunteering programs are a great way to give back to your employees and communities. This could include organizing a team volunteer activity or giving employees a certain amount of paid time off to volunteer on their own.
  • Support community organizations.
    Giving back to your community builds relationships and appeals to customers. Philanthropic donations can be cash or in-kind services and products. You can also set up a charitable giving campaign that matches employee donations.


Part 3: Expand your impact

Working to implement systemic changes and engaging suppliers and business partners in sustainability is essential to becoming a fully sustainable operation. It can also help differentiate your business and enhance your brand reputation. These steps are especially important for business-to-business businesses as large and multinational companies tackle sustainability in their supply chains by setting requirements for vendors and sub-contractors.


Implement systemic environmental changes:


  • Switch to electric vehicles.
    Electric vehicles produce significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gas cars. These models save on fuel and maintenance costs over time and are increasingly affordable to purchase through recent tax credits.
  • Invest in energy efficiency upgrades and retrofits.
    Many buildings and offices lose a portion of energy to drafts, air leaks and outdated systems. Sealing leaks as well as installing low-carbon cooling, heating and ventilation systems are some ways to save costs and reduce your business’s environmental impact. Start by scheduling an energy audit through your electric utility to help identify options for improving energy efficiency based on the age of your building, whether you lease or own and how you use your space.
  • Purchase carbon offsets.
    Carbon offsets – think of them like tradeable certificates – can help cancel out a portion of your business’s carbon footprint by supporting emissions reduction projects elsewhere. For example, your business can buy offsets that fund tree planting, renewable energy installations or the distribution of cleaner cooking stoves in developing countries. When buying offsets, it is important to look for certifications to verify that the project meets rigorous environmental and social standards.
  • Generate or purchase renewable energy.
    Renewable energy is increasingly accessible and affordable for small businesses. Installing rooftop solar panels is a great option for businesses that can, but there are also other options. For example, some power companies offer options to purchase renewable energy as part of your regular service. You can also explore power purchase agreements, which are long-term contracts between a renewable energy generator and a customer.


Engage suppliers and business partners:


  • Integrate sustainability into purchasing decisions.
    Look for sustainable options when purchasing new office supplies, technology and equipment. Sustainability standards and certifications, like Energy Star for appliances and electronics, USDA Organic for agricultural products, and Fairtrade for coffee, produce, soap and other packaged goods (among other products), help identify products that meet sustainability criteria.
  • Include social and environmental criteria in supplier selection.
    When making supplier decisions, evaluate their social practices, such as commitments to diversity, human rights and employee health and safety, as well as environmental and carbon footprint data. You can also request that your suppliers set sustainability goals. Energy reduction targets, for example, can lead to a reduced carbon footprint.
  • Commit to supplier diversity.
    Supplier diversity is an organizational commitment to do more business with companies that have traditionally been overlooked in funding and purchasing decisions, including small and minority-, women-, disability-, LGBTQ+- and veteran-owned businesses. Supporting diverse businesses not only helps create jobs and benefits local communities but also has business benefits like expanding your pool of potential vendors and promoting competition.
  • Identify Scope 3 emissions reduction opportunities.
    Scope 3 emissions occur in your supply chain. Take a lighting company, for example – the company’s aluminum suppliers generate emissions when creating materials for their lighting systems. This contributes to the lighting company’s Scope 3 emissions footprint, along with all the emissions their customers generate when they turn on their lights.


    Other sources of Scope 3 emissions include employee business travel and commuting, product transport, and waste disposal and treatment. It can be challenging to measure and manage Scope 3 emissions because they are not in your company’s direct control. But taking steps to measure and mitigate these emissions is important to your overall sustainability and reputation. The EPA’s Simplified GHG Emissions Calculator can help you measure Scope 3 emissions. You can also learn more in the EPA’s Guide to Greenhouse Gas Management for Small Business & Low Emitters.

1. Lighting Choices to Save You Money |

2. Why Is Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace Important? | Great Place to Work

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