By James Brueton
Successful businesses don’t just cater to the desires of the market, they shape those desires. That’s why we need more people looking to start sustainable businesses with great products and values at the core.
How can sustainable businesses get started on the right foot?
The principles behind a successful sustainable business are very similar to those behind any successful business. For your company to do well, it needs to be marketing and selling products or services that people want to pay for.
I believe the best sustainable businesses have truly innovative products at their centre. These are the businesses that will have a positive impact because their products continue to sell well. LEDs are a prime example. Yes, they are attractive because they are environmentally friendly, but people also buy them because of their long lifespan and the variety of sizes and colours that they’re available in. Importantly, they are able to compete with other energy-saving alternatives, like compact fluorescent bulbs, because they are better at giving off light.
If we want to make an impact in business, we need to find gaps in the market where our products are both useful and sustainable. If you’re not sure where to start, keep your eyes open. The best way to get going is to find your niche and fill it with something sustainable.
Shaping a culture
Creating a great sustainable product is only half of the picture, however; in order to shape a market, you need to tell people why they want to buy it. This comes down to sales and marketing – two well-known business tools that can’t be ignored.
When it comes to selling a sustainable product, don’t focus purely on the sustainable aspect, especially if there are well-known alternatives. Sustainability might give your product a bit of novelty, but it won’t translate into lasting success. You need to find the other selling points, like the long life of LEDs, or the money-saving potential of many of these products. Don’t give customers any reason to choose something else, even if it’s cheaper than your sustainable offering.
Get the balance right
Despite my advice not to focus solely on the sustainability aspects of products, don’t go to the other extreme and forget to talk about them. A recent Unilever study found that “a third of consumers are now buying from brands based on social and environmental impact.” They estimated that there is an untapped €966 billion waiting for brands who make their environmental credentials more obvious.
The study suggests that the appetite for sustainable products is already there. This should be an encouragement to anyone thinking of starting an eco-friendly business. If more of us start to make products that are environmentally friendly and good quality, we could start to see more of a shift in the market’s attitude to sustainability.
Timber: a case study
Let me go back a step to look at why we need more sustainable businesses in the first place. I’m going to talk about timber because it’s an area that I’m familiar with, but there are many other areas that sustainable businesses can impact.
Simply put, we need to find alternatives to timber. As the world’s need for wood remains unstoppable, it is not an overstatement to say that logging – especially illegal logging – is destroying our planet.
According to the Rainforest Trust, humans have already cut down 3.6 million square miles of tropical rainforest, and another 1.5 acres are cut down every second. A big part of this problem is the illegal timber trade, which is worth an estimated £22.5 billion and is responsible for socio-economic problems in the areas that it is most prevalent.
Business owners working with timber who have a desire to be sustainable have to make sure they’re not supporting the illegal market, even indirectly. More than that, however, business owners can make a difference not just passively, but actively, by supporting ethical sources of material. For timber, business owners can look at alternatives such as wood-polymer composite products, which are manufactured from recycled wood and plastic, or partner with organisations to ensure their timber comes from managed sources.
Applying this ethos more broadly
I’m convinced that a sustainable ethos can be placed at the heart of companies working with all kinds of products and materials, even those who don’t directly make sustainable products.
Of course, I would urge any business owners reading this to look into what can be done to make their materials more ethical and sustainable, but a culture shift within the workplace can also have real benefits.
I would love more businesses to consider supporting an environmental charity or organisation that they either believe in strongly or which does work that directly impacts the area that their company works in. If you know, for example, that your products take a lot of energy to make and transport, you could support an organisation like the Renewable Energy Foundation by setting apart some percentage of your profits to go directly to them.
It would also be great to see more businesses take steps towards a greener office. Perhaps you could incentivise your staff or employees to cycle to work? Could you buy some of your furniture second hand? Do you have a recycling initiative?
This isn’t a pipe dream for me. I believe that there are real opportunities for businesses to make a difference through the products that they sell and the culture they encourage. What’s stopping you from trying out your sustainable idea?
James Brueton is the CEO of EnviroBuild, a supplier of sustainable construction materials.