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Sustainable Business Planning

We’ve curated this introduction to sustainable business planning to help you explore the topic because sustainable, resilient businesses are good for their owners and good for the communities in which they operate.

Use the framework below to start thinking about where sustainability fits into your business.

What is sustainable business planning?

Every time an entrepreneur’s planning process extends beyond financial needs to account for environmental and societal impacts, they have engaged in sustainable business planning. Sustainable business planning seeks to balance profit, environment, and community by:

  • Taking ownership of impacts, both financially and non-financially
  • Contributing to the development and spread of resilient, healthy business practices
  • Building strong community

Although this document focuses on the environmental component, it is always important to keep community and financial viability in mind as well.

Why should I care about sustainability?

The bottom line is that sustainable business practices are good business practices. Despite the challenges, many businesses are continuing to implement sustainable operations because of the inherent advantages they can result in:

  • Increased profitability – Sustainability and efficiency go hand in hand. Streamlined processes and reduced material use not only reduces a business’ impact on the environment, but can also save money.

  • Stakeholders – Customers, employees and investors are increasingly concerned with business sustainability. A study by Unilever indicated that 33% of customers want to buy from businesses that are doing environmental good. At the same time, some clients and investors are requiring businesses to provide environmental performance information. Maintaining a good reputation with these groups may require taking on sustainability initiatives.

  • Lower risk – Businesses with more sustainable practices and supply chains tend to be more resistant to unexpected environmental impacts on their operations.

What sustainability opportunities are available for my business?

Every business is capable of being more sustainable. However, the form that sustainability takes will vary. For some businesses it may make sense for sustainability to become a key part of all its operations and marketing. For others, it may be limited to smaller initiatives. In this sense, sustainability is a spectrum, where each business must determine its own optimal point that balances profit with environmental and social impacts.

The degree to which sustainability becomes a part of your business strategy is dependent on many factors. Answering these questions can help you to determine how sustainability fits into your business:

  • What can I afford to do? – Financial viability comes first. Afterall, a business that is not making money cannot maintain any sustainability initiatives in the long term.

  • What do my customers want? – If sustainability is not a criterion for customers’ purchases, then greening your product or service may not make sense. Instead, consider other areas of your business operations that could be made more sustainable.

  • What is my competition doing? – Whether your competitors are or are not undertaking sustainability initiatives has implications for your business. If they are, you may risk being left behind. If not, it may be an opportunity to distinguish your business.

How do I get started?

Finding the exact way to integrate sustainability into your business takes time and care. This four-step process will help guide you through some of the key considerations and planning needed to develop and share your commitment to sustainability:

1. Realize – Identify the ways in which your business impacts the environment. Consider questions such as:

  • What business processes use energy?

  • Where are my products coming from and does that place enforce environmental protection laws? Does that place enforce fair labour laws?

  • What resources support my service?

  • How am I delivering my product or service?

In addition, consider establishing a baseline for your business location’s environmental impact. Natural Resources Canada’s and Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager is a free tool that can help to evaluate the energy, water and greenhouse emissions of your business location:

2. Understand – Determine how the environment you operate in affects your business. Review the questions in the “Is sustainability right for my business?” section. Apply a new sustainability lens to your business model canvas:

  • What can I control or change?

  • Which stakeholders affect my decision?

  • How would a change in one aspect, for instance a supplier, affect the rest of the canvas?

3. Explore – Taking the information gathered in the previous steps, identify your options for sustainable business practices. The ideas that follow range from beginner, which can be implemented quickly, to advanced, which require significant planning and resources:

DifficultySustainability InitiativeNotes
BeginnerCut lighting costs
  • Lighting can account for 20% - 50% of the electricity bill depending on the type of business.
  • Switching to LED lighting over incandescent or halogen can save up to 75% of that energy and occupancy lighting sensors can also reduce costs significantly.

BeginnerJoin local initiatives
BeginnerReduce single use products

For instance, paper:

  • The production of paper consumes large amounts of energy.
  • Going digital can save time and money.
  • Reducing the amount of packaging used to ship products can also reduce the amount of waste generated.

ModeratePurchase efficient tools
ModerateSupplier screening
  • Small businesses cannot control suppliers in the way larger firms do, but this does not mean they cannot be selective.
  • When purchasing products or materials from a supplier, ask whether they have any certifications or sustainability initiatives.
  • Look for and understand the meaning of various product certifications. These “Ecolabels” indicate that a product has met a set of environmental standards.
  • Consider buying locally to reduce transportation emissions.

ModerateScreen your business space
Advanced3rd party certification
AdvancedBuilding renovations

4. Develop – Once you’ve explored some options, define your sustainability goals and create a plan to achieve them. Finally, establish how you will share your initiatives with customers.

Now that you have reviewed your business impact, the environment in which you operate, and considered different options, you are ready to establish realistic goals and a plan to achieve them. To ensure that you develop quality goals, use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) goal model. In addition, establish a plan to review and evaluate your goals on an ongoing basis.

If you intend to market your sustainability initiatives, determining how to clearly communicate your goals and accomplishments to stakeholders is essential. Accusations of greenwashing can cause considerable harm, as BDC’s Chief Strategy Officer has noted, “a reputation takes many years to build but can be lost in minutes”. By following the Realize, Understand, Explore, and Develop model to build your commitment to sustainability, you have already taken a step to minimize this risk. However, there are additional best practices to consider:

  1. Start with a great product or service – Sustainability benefits will not be enough to attract and retain customers on their own. The base product or service must adequately meet the customer’s need before sustainability attributes will be compelling to customers.

  2. Make sure that “green” fits your brand – The perceived authenticity of your sustainability branding depends on the extent of your commitment. A single product in a line of products is likely to be perceived as greenwashing. This does not mean that you cannot present smaller sustainability initiatives to customers but that the promotion should be proportional to the work being done.

  3. Consider your market – For sustainability to add value to your brand it needs to differentiate you from your competition. Investigating your competitor’s sustainability initiatives and finding unique ways to present yours is an important part of ensuring you effectively communicate with customers.

  4. Be transparent and honest – The entire business does not need to be sustainable to make sustainability claims but being clear about your commitment is essential. The best way to avoid accusations of greenwashing and build customer trust is to be honest in your representations. For guidance regarding best practices for marketing claims refer to:

Small business case-studies

Other resources to check out:


  3. Realize, Understand, Explore, Develop adapted from: