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Sustainable Development for Small Businesses

A Definition of Sustainable Development & How to Implement It

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Sustainable development - green business - environmentally friendly business.

Sustainable development is more than just good PR.

Image (c) Stuart McCall / Getty Images

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." - Brundtland Commission, 1987

Does your business fit this definition of sustainable development?

Sustainable development is a worthy goal for small businesses everywhere. As members of our various communities, we know that society, the environment, and the economy are interconnected. It just makes sense to pay attention to the environmental impact of our economic practices, and try to ensure that our communities are healthy, pleasant places to live.

Paying attention to sustainable development is especially sensible when so many of our potential customers and clients are actively seeking greener products and services. Witness the growth of industries such as "organic" food, for instance. Many food producers have switched to organic production methods; organic products can be sold for a higher price in the market, and consumers are willing to pay that price. Making environmentally conscious decisions about your business operations can be good for the bottom line.

One of the basic assumptions underlying the definition of sustainable development is that environmental considerations have to be entrenched in economic decision-making. While our government has made a strong commitment to practicing sustainable development and implementing policies to support it, if small businesses don't get on board, full sustainable development is impossible. "In Canada, almost 80 per cent of the population is urban. Therefore, a shift to more sustainability must take place at the local level, in the places where we live, work, and shop" (The Sustainability Report).

If you're like me, you're an environmentally conscious person. You reduce, reuse, and recycle in your home, and you've taught your children to do these things, too. But what about where you work? Are you also operating your business in an environmentally conscious fashion?

For small businesses to be actively involved in sustainable development, they need to adopt environmentally sound business principles and translate these into action.

Implementing Sustainable Development

The first step to becoming involved in sustainable development is to choose or formulate the sustainable development principles your business is going to follow. You might, for instance, make a commitment to shift your business practices to follow the principles of whole system design, based on the belief that natural resources and ecological systems are becoming scarce while human capital is increasing.

This approach is also known as eco-effectiveness and natural capitalism. In "The Next Industrial Revolution", William McDonough and Michael Braungart summarize the progress of industry's eco-efficiency efforts, and make a strong case for moving beyond this concept to "eco-effectiveness", human industry that is regenerative rather than depletive.

Adopting the CERES Principles is a good beginning for businesses wanting to incorporate sustainable development principles into their operating practices. The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) includes investors, public pension funds, foundations, labour unions and environmental, religious and public interest groups working in partnership with companies towards the common goal of corporate environmental responsibility. A blueprint for sustainable development, these principles include statements relating to the sustainable use of natural resources, the reduction and disposal of wastes, energy conservation, safe products and services, and environmental restoration, among other topics.

If you prefer to develop your own sustainable development principles, the clearest explanation I've found of what an Environmental Management System (EMS) is is this definition from the government of Canada:

An Environmental Management System (EMS) is a framework developed by an organization to help improve its environmental performance by taking environmental considerations into account when making decisions and managing risks.
The first step to putting together an EMS is to make a commitment and develop an environmental policy; the second is to set goals, objectives, and targets for your environmental management program.

You'll find a great deal of useful information on IISD's Business and Sustainable Development Web site. Funded by the Canada-Manitoba Infrastructure Works Program,this is a comprehensive resource for businesses that want to integrate sustainable development into their successful operations. Here are definitions, tools, and strategies you can implement, as well as case studies, that will show you the way.

The Pembina Institute has done (and continues to do) a great deal to make sustainable development feasible. The organization offers a range of information and programs designed to help businesses increase their profits and competitiveness while becoming more environmentally friendly.

The Canadian government has also put together a Sustainability Roadmap website, a collection of sustainable development resources for businesses who want to reduce costs and increase profits through improved environmental performance as well as a Corporate Social Responsibility Toolkit to help businesses put their sustainable development plans into action.

But you don't have to wait to take action. My article, Ten Ways to Green Your Business, will get you started integrating sustainable development considerations into your business's day-to-day operations in ten simple ways - ten simple ways that you can implement right now.

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