4 Simple, Low-Cost Ways to Run a More Sustainable Business (2021)

Let’s face it—our planet is in bad shape. Climate change is accelerating, plastic waste is plugging our oceans, ecosystems are disappearing, and yet, we continue to extract what’s left of the world’s resources.

If your first instinct is to assume your individual decisions as a business owner don’t matter, imagine a world where sustainable business practices are the norm, rather than the exception.

We envision a future where companies can thrive while also contributing to positive environmental change, and it starts with you.

But getting started can be daunting—which is why we’re simplifying it for you with four of the most impactful ways to make your business more sustainable.

1. Switch to sustainable packaging to minimize waste

In a recent survey of global ecommerce shoppers, 82% of respondents said they would like their parcel packaging material to be recyclable, and 77% said biodegradable. It’s clear that sustainable packaging is a priority for buyers. 

In May 2018, following years of sourcing and product development, Stephanie Devine launched the world’s first zero-waste bra: The Very Good Bra. The bra itself is fully compostable at the end of its life, so it makes perfect sense for it to be accompanied with sustainable packaging.

Stephanie celebrates her award for Fashion Impact.

The company uses The Better Packaging Co.’s comPOST Packs, which are made from cornstarch, polylactide (made from corn), and polybutyrate adipate terephthalate. Translation: they’re biodegradable. At the end of their life, these packages can be mixed in with food scraps and garden waste and will break down within months. It also uses acid-free recyclable tissue and stickers from noissue. And the company’s efforts are being noticed—in 2020 it was awarded Best In Class for Fashion Impact at the prestigious Good Design Awards.

Another option for sustainable packaging comes from Shopify. We’ve partnered with EcoEnclose, an eco-friendly packaging and shipping supply company, to offer sustainable packaging to US-based Shopify merchants. From mailers and boxes to inner packaging, packing tape, and labels, EcoEnclose is truly a one-stop shop for sustainable packaging. To date, it’s helped more than 50,000 businesses ship more sustainably.

Equally as important as packing your products in sustainable packaging is instructing buyers on how to treat it properly—because what good is recyclable packaging that ends up in the garbage? 

New York–based natural vegan skin care company Meow Meow Tweet does an amazing job of handling this. From paper boxes, glass jars, and paper tubes all the way down to metal caps and seals, there’s an optimal way to discard every element of its product packaging, and it makes that very clear to customers. On every product page you’ll see The Breakdown. Take the page for Meow Meow Tweet’s Rose Geranium deodorant, where it tells you that its paper tube and seal can be disposed of in your backyard or municipal compost.

Deodorant stick in sustainable packaging
Meow Meow Tweet’s Rose Geranium deodorant stick.

2. Offset your delivery emissions for a low cost or for free

In the same survey of global ecommerce shoppers, 73% of respondents said they would prefer the delivery of their parcels to be carbon neutral. And they’re right to think this matters. By Shopify’s calculations, a single delivery emits roughly one kilogram of carbon dioxide emissions. Across 1.7 million businesses on Shopify, this certainly adds up.

Shipping companies like Sendle and DHL offer carbon neutral deliveries. Climate Neutral can help you calculate and offset your delivery emissions yourself.

If you’re a Shopify customer, we offer two ways to offset your delivery emissions. Add our Offset app to your store and enable Shop Pay, and you’ll be able to claim 100% carbon neutral shipping to your buyers.

With the Offset app, Shopify calculates the delivery emissions of every single one of your orders using package weight, distance travelled, and mode of transportation. As part of your bill, we tack on the offset cost (a few cents or less per order). We don’t take a cut, with the full amount going directly to the Jari Pará Forest Conservation Project in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.

Application dashboard
Shopify’s Offset app helps businesses achieve carbon neutral shipping.

We make sure to never double count. Any time your buyer checks out with Shop Pay, Shopify will automatically pay to offset their shipping emissions with no charge to your Offset app account.

All things offsets: Tune in to this webinar to learn more about offsetting for your business from Shopify’s Sustainability Fund team.

3. Source low-impact materials to make your products

Sourcing is one of the most exciting ways to make your business more sustainable, because it leaves room for so much creativity.

To start, audit your current inputs and calculate how they impact the environment. For example, cotton: it can take 2,700 liters of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt, not to mention the heavy use of insecticides and fungicides and the amount of land it takes up to grow.

Then investigate replacements. There are at least 29 sustainable fabrics you can use instead of cotton. One example is hemp—although slightly more expensive right now, the environmental impact is significantly less, as it yields 220% more fiber per plant than cotton and doesn’t rely on harmful sprays.

If this sounds overwhelming, N.A.bld can help you with sustainable sourcing by giving you access to preferred sustainable fabric suppliers and deadstock fabric deals, and by minimizing material waste during production.

Another alternative fabric is bison fiber. This is what Philadelphia-based United By Blue uses as insulation in its apparel products. Essentially, it’s a layer of the bison’s shaggy coat that is shaved off as part of regular maintenance. When co-founders Brian Linton and Mike Cangi learned about this underused sustainable fiber, they created a supply chain that would give them access to it before it was thrown away, and with that they established a circular business model. And the company isn’t sacrificing quality: bison fiber is warm, moisture-wicking, lightweight, and soft.

Employees removing fabric from a bag
United By Blue employees harvest bison fiber to use as insulation in their apparel products.

We’ve talked a lot about the fashion industry, but the same principle applies to pretty much every vertical, from health and beauty to food and beverage and beyond. 

In Canada, nearly 60% of food is wasted every year for reasons like stock management and consumer pickiness. On a mission to reduce food waste, Canada-based LOOP Mission is transforming rejected food into products like cold-pressed juices and smoothies, probiotic sodas, beers, and fruity soaps. And its sourcing efforts are core to its marketing. Its tagline is “Nobody likes to be rejected, not even food.”

Bottles of juice
LOOP Missions’ cold pressed juices are made from rescued food.

Then there’s AKUA, a company creating jerky and burgers using ocean-farmed kelp, a type of seaweed, instead of beef. The meat and dairy industries account for 14.5% of human emissions, and beef is the biggest contributor

On the other end of the spectrum, kelp actually absorbs carbon as it grows in the ocean and doesn’t take up any land. Don’t think the materials you chose matter in terms of publicity for your business? Think again. AKUA has been featured in over 80 publications, from Time to Fast Company.

Woman sitting on boat eating snack
AKUA’s kelp harvest.

“We create all of our products from ocean-farmed kelp, one of the most healing and healthy forms of food on the planet. Our goal has always been to create delicious meat-alternative foods that can feed the planet sustainably while reversing climate change, and restoring health to our world’s oceans.” —Eve Palmer, Brand Manager at AKUA

The options are out there for you, and now it’s time for you to seek them out. And remember, the more companies that support emerging low-impact materials, the better and cheaper these alternatives become. You can be part of that change.

4. Measure, reduce, and offset your company’s carbon footprint

You can’t fix what you don’t know. 

If you want to reduce and offset your company’s carbon footprint, you need to know your emissions profile first. Which of your business activities emit the most carbon dioxide? Is it the energy you use to power your workplace? Or perhaps employees commuting to and from work?

Once you have a handle on your footprint, the fun part begins. It’s time to figure out opportunities to reduce these emissions, and what remaining emissions you need to offset. Maybe you’ll want to look ahead and set an emissions reduction target or even a carbon neutral or net zero commitment. Businesses of all sizes and governments around the world are setting these kinds of targets—why can’t you?

Two Days Off is an independent, women-owned carbon neutral lifestyle brand based in California. Not only does it focus on thoughtfully crafted clothes, it wants to put consumers at ease, knowing that their clothing manufacturing didn’t come at a cost to the environment.

With the help of non-profit Climate Neutral, Two Days Off has measured its emissions and is taking steps to procure 100% renewable energy for its office operations, work with suppliers to limit the use of air freight, and support factory partners in energy efficiency improvement. Then, it offsets any remaining emissions. In 2020, the company spent only $250.98 to fully offset their carbon footprint. 

Woman in beige sweater
Two Days Off founder Gina Stovall.

“Addressing the ongoing climate crisis is an all-hands-on-deck challenge. After a decade working in the public sector on this issue, I have come to realize the unique opportunity entrepreneurs have in addressing the climate crisis. So few companies know what their carbon footprints look like and even fewer are actually investing to eliminate them. I believe it is our responsibility to do both of these things.” —Gina Stovall, founder of Two Days Off

Chia Sisters is the first solar-powered juicery in New Zealand. How did they get there? Co-founders and sisters Chloe and Florence Van Dyke measured their emissions with the help of local non-profit Ekos and saw that they could reduce them by minimizing waste, harnessing renewable energy, using an electric vehicle, and switching to delivering their packages by boat instead of by airplane.

Two women looking at each other
Chia Sisters Florence and Chloe.

So they incorporated these findings and offset their remaining emissions to reach net zero. Most notably, they installed 32 solar panels on the roof of their factory. To celebrate their shift to solar power, they created a fresh-pressed juice line called Bottled by the Sun, which won Best Drink in New Zealand for 2019 in a country-wide competition.

They’re also getting bonus points by looking outside of their own business to others in the Te Tauihu region where they’re located. They’ve already helped more than 50 other businesses become net zero certified and are working as part of a team to have the entire Te Tauihu region be net zero by 2030. Now that’s leadership.

Planning for planet and profit

Ready to start contributing to the health of the planet in addition to your business’ bottom line? By following the recommendations above, you’ll join the growing small business movement to protect the planet for future generations (and entrepreneurs!). What’s more, you’ll find buyers ready and waiting to support you.

PS: We know we need to put our money where our mouth is—that’s why we launched the Shopify Sustainability Fund, which invests a minimum of $5 million annually into the most promising technologies and solutions to combat climate change. Read more about how we’re investing our fund.

Feature illustration by Borja Bonaque

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