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What Does a Sustainable Business Look Like?

Previously on we discussed how does a business go green? We looked at why sustainable development is important, writing a strategy and monitoring the going green process.

Here we address the question what does a sustainable business look like? This is a challenging question to answer, as every business is unique and requires a bespoke sustainable brand. There is no one size fits all answer so, we will describe a series of sustainable practices that a business can adopt on their going green journey.

The Sustainable Business: How to Change the Business Planning Process?

Becoming a sustainable business is as much about policy and strategy development as it is about green products and services. The first step is to decide the sustainability goal for the business. Then you need to identify how far and how fast the business will go on its green journey. Setting this ambition and timescale focuses the business planning process on what needs to change.

A company that sets ambitious goals will find that this leads to an increase in creativity and innovation in the business to meet them. Setting modest goals will lead to a much slower pace and a longer timescale to become sustainable.

The biggest change will be in the way that business performance goals are set.  Traditionally a business would review current and historical data to set performance goals. These would ensure that the business remained competitive with its peers.  This has been termed the ‘inside out approach’ [1] because performance goals are based on data from within the business. This approach will not lead to the creation of a sustainable business because its impact on the environment and society is not being addressed.

To become sustainable a new way of setting performance goals needs to be developed. The ‘outside in approach’ is so called because it combines a review of the business data with global and societal needs. For example, the need to combat climate change and minimise the use of single plastics. This method of goal setting will consider science and external data to move the business to a more sustainable position.

Becoming more sustainable therefore, involves a change management process as well as adopting sustainable practices. Over the coming months will be offering a series of resources to help you with this process.

The Sustainable Business: What Strategies and Processes Can a Business Adopt to Become Sustainable?

In the article how to go green? We looked at the calculation of Scope 1 and 2 emissions, establishing a baseline and a process of improvement to reduce them.  Some businesses are now looking at Scope 3 emissions as a natural progression from their actions on Scope 1 and 2. This is a hard task because these emissions are outside a company’s direct control and require a close partnership with suppliers.  Currently, Scope 3 emission reduction is mainly confined to large companies working with their supply chains. This is an evolving area and something we will be returning to in the future, as the methodology for tackling Scope 3 emissions is developed.

There are other areas that you can set sustainable targets for, such as water use, waste minimisation, ensuring all packaging is recyclable and using eco-design principles to redesign products.

Why reducing your water usage is important?

Water treatment in the UK produces 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in the UK [2] and is a significant contributor to global warming. It has been estimated that 56% of these greenhouse gases emitted are produced from wastewater treatment alone.  Optimising your business processes to save water and reduce wastewater production will save money and reduce the business contribution to climate change.  This reduction in Scope 3 emissions is recorded in any sustainability reporting and will be visible to consumers examining a business’s green credentials.

Why minimising waste production is important?

The UK Government’s 25-year Environmental Plan [3] commits to a goal of zero avoidable waste by 2050. This is part of the promotion of the circular economy that ‘borrows’ raw materials, uses them, and ‘returns’ them to be used again. Excess waste production by a business is a cost that can be reduced by introducing a sustainable waste strategy.

To minimise waste, businesses are encouraged to adopt the waste hierarchy of Prevention, Reuse, Recycling, Other Recovery, Disposal. The idea being that, before waste is disposed to landfill, every effort is made to prevent it being formed in the first place. Any waste generated is then put through a series of processes to reuse, recycle, and recover material. Only that portion of the waste stream that cannot be reused is then disposed in landfill. The way in which the UK Government sees the waste stream changing over time is shown in Figure 1.

Fig 1: The Waste Hierarchy and its Evolution with Time.

Fig 1 Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

This change to zero avoidable waste by 2050 will be enforced by the taxation regime to incentivise take-up. By including waste minimisation in a sustainable strategy, a business will increase its green credentials and save money by reusing waste and minimising landfill tax.

Why Eco-design is the future.

Eco-design (also called sustainable design) describes the process of designing a product (or service) that minimises its environmental impact over its whole lifecycle.  For example, raw materials used in the manufacturing process should be sourced from sustainable sources or can be recovered from the product for reuse at the end of its life.

The manufacturing process should also produce minimal waste and be energy efficient.

The incorporation of eco-design into product manufacture/service delivery contributes to the establishment of a circular economy and the reduction of Scope 3 emissions. As the UK moves to a net zero economy this way of designing products will become more common.

What Does a Sustainable Business Look Like: Concluding Thoughts

This article is the third in a series discussing going green for businesses (previous articles are ‘Why should a business go green?’ and ‘How does a business go green?’).

Our aim, throughout these articles, has been to give you the power to make informed decisions that support a sustainable environmentally conscious future for your business.

Taking the three articles together we can conclude that:

  • There is no one type of sustainable business. Each business will adopt sustainable principles relevant to their operation.
  • Each business will have different ambitions and timescales for their green journey.
  • Going green and embracing sustainable development is a journey of continuous improvement. One where a business strives to improve and grow in a sustainable manner.
  • Businesses that fail to go green are likely to find their pool of customers shrinking year on year. Going green, therefore makes both business and environmental sense.
  • By going green, your impact on the environment is reduced. So not only does your business benefit, but so does the planet.



1 The SDG Compass: The guide for business action on the SDGs.  Published by the United Nations Global Compact
2.  Water UK Annual Emissions Report, 2021
3. A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, HM Government
4. Our Waste, Our resources, A strategy for England, HM Government

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