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Getting started with sustainability

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Sustainability is not only a buzz world but serious opportunity to stay competitive and gain new markets and funding. Small businesses can lack time, money and expertise which stops them embarking on the sustainability journey. Liza Degtyareva co-founder of 4D Sustainability Canvas shares how the first barriers can be tackled in a 5-step guide. 

What does sustainability mean for your business? 

Let us demystify business sustainability, the common notion that a sustainable business means green and environmentally responsible is not quite complete. It is true that carbon reduction efforts (net-zero targets), restoration of biodiversity and waste reduction are key components, but the concept -sustainable development has a broader definition encompassing social aspects that call for inclusion and dignity for all people leaving no one behind, while pursuing growth in the company. 

That leads us to a more holistic definition of the triple bottom line of sustainability that considers the balance of People, Planet, and Profit . While traditional business strategies aim at fast growth and profit maximization, sustainable business strategies focus on the long-term, steady, and sustainable growth that ensures the well-being of employees, empowerment of communities and protection of the planet.  

Where do you start? 

To build long-term resilience in your business change needs to happen at a leadership level with a shift in mindset that conveys new values.  

But what comes after? Our experience from working with SMEs shows that the start is always the hardest, companies that had the intention to take the first steps struggle to gain momentum due to lack of resources (63% of SMEs according to a UNGC-Accenture study). 

Here I would like to offer a quick guide on how you can start your sustainability journey using the 4D Sustainability framework. 

  1. 1. Assess your value chain – whether your business provides service or products, map out all the activities in the organisation. Divide the support activities, like office admin, marketing, infrastructure, and finance from the core activities, such as manufacturing, purchasing, assembly, distribution, retail etc. Understand the impact (CO2 footprint/waste/social risk) related to each activity and identify which ones would take priority in terms of mitigation and reduction of negative impact. The latter would require more thorough research of industry benchmark data e.g. in case of garments, what initiatives are being taken by the textiles industry already? 
  1. 2. Know your stakeholders – by stakeholders we mean all affected parties in your business, indirect and direct. Create a stakeholder map and list not only employees, partners and suppliers but include local government, your local community, and even future generations. Prioritise the stakeholder groups that have the biggest influence on the future of your business and the ones your business activities impact the most. 
  1. 3. Run an impact mapping – Explore how your organisation stacks up to social and environmental sustainability principles by running an impact assessment. The 4D Sustainability Canvas offers a visual and participatory method to assess your impact across 4 dimensions of Community, Employees, Governance and Planet. Gather your team and answer the questions in each quadrant of the Canvas to explore what actions you can take:  
  • to create healthy and just communities along your value chain (Community), 
  • to unleash the power of high-performing teams with inclusion and diversity (Employees)
  • to reduce and eliminate the negative environmental impact and strive for regeneration of lands, biosphere (Planet), 
  • to have structures and processes in place that will enable the impact creation (Governance). 
  1. 4. Identify your SDGs – You may have heard of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global agenda that set 17 goals seeking to eradicate poverty, promote dignity for all within the limits of the planet by 2030. This blueprint not only helps setting a roadmap for a better future on a country level, but invites the private sector including companies of any size to embed them into their strategy. 
  2. Learn about all 17 goals and link your potential actions identified in the previous steps to the most relevant SDGs, for instance, by providing job opportunities to underprivileged groups you will contribute to SDG1-No Poverty and SDG10-Reduced inequalities. 
  1. 5. Set goals, targets and communicate – Prioritise the most urgent actions that were identified in step 1 and 3 and set measurable, time-bound goals and an action plan to meet them. Once that is done, don’t forget to regularly update them and communicate about your progress to all stakeholders. Transparent communication will create trust and will hold your company to account. 

Embarking on your sustainability journey can be daunting but taking one step at a time, engaging your team in the process and starting with just a few goals, can set your business for long-lasting success. 

Liza Degtyareva is the co-founder of 4D Sustainability Canvas, a boutique consultancy helping small & medium enterprises with affordable, simplified & collaborative solutions towards sustainability.

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