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Your Sustainable Business Might Fail — Don’t Panic, It’s Completely Normal

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Before embarking on building a sustainable business, you must realize the field of landmines you are walking into. Sustainability is one of the hottest topics in business, but it is also the least defined and most controversial one.

No one, from tree-huggers to business moguls, can agree on what it means to be sustainable. There is no guarantee that sustainable initiatives will reap any reward for the planet or for your bottom line. Not that the endeavor is fruitless, but one should manage their expectations when starting a sustainable business.

A plane landed in the middle of a forest.
Photo by David Kovalenko on Unsplash

Can you make money from sustainability?

Sustainability initiatives are hard to track. Economists and consultants try to create cost-benefit analyses for sustainable actions, but they are often lacking. It is not as easy as connecting increased marketing to increased sales. Instead, environmental action may send a business in circles. A sustainability initiative may bring in money upfront, but costs money somewhere else. Some initiatives have clear monetary impacts, others do not.

Impact metrics may only tell part of your company’s impact on the environment. Again, the varying ethics of sustainability make it increasingly difficult to label a company as sustainable. Businesses can track the spending on sustainability initiatives, but it is harder to assign any direct benefits to them. Some initiatives are so linked to the business’s operating procedures it’s hard to parse out what are actually sustainability-specific initiatives.

There are many changes a business owner can make to their business that have hidden environmental impacts. If employees drive to an office, their car emissions are technically part of that business’s environmental impact, but no one would factor that into their sustainability report. It is not productive to tally every single action traced back to a single company; there is no concrete way to define the benefits from any sustainability initiatives.

A tree growing right in the middle of a concrete passage way.
Photo by Alexander Abero on Unsplash

What even is sustainable?

As it is near-impossible to trace the benefits of any sustainability action, it is near-impossible to define sustainability itself. Environmentalists will fight with each other about whether their favorite business is actually sustainable. People with degrees in climate change struggle to define if a business is sustainable—and not from a lack of trying. There are too many variables to account for.

There are certain quantifiable metrics, like carbon emissions or plastic waste, but sustainability is subjective, especially as consumers become more scrutinizing. Even simple metrics like carbon emissions can be difficult to track. You may calculate the carbon emissions in your factory, but what about all the carbon emissions along your production line? What about the carbon emissions from your suppliers? The global economy is too large and complex to divest any one business’s impact on others.

There is no standardization of terms. Look at a box of cookies at a health food store: buzzwords like organic, natural, and non-GMO can be thrown around with little regulatory insight. Sustainable certifications offer little help. The most well-known have somewhat relaxed standards, and more niche ones either don’t bring in new customers or are scams. Companies can take advantage of the nebulous definition of sustainability, ruining trust with consumers and making it harder for more sustainable companies to succeed.

It is hard for companies without sustainability departments to take on the challenge of sustainability. Even professionals in corporate responsibility struggle with the overlap of sustainability and business. Heads of sustainability departments may be too driven by profits to make meaningful action, which often occurs in large corporations. Conversely, younger professionals may advocate for policies that are too risky for companies to undertake. Hardcore environmentalists argue that there is no such thing as an environmentally friendly business.

College campus building Aeres Hogeschool Almere. Plants on the inside and outside!
Photo by Jw. on Unsplash

The conflict between consumption and sustainability

Some environmentalists will argue that consumption itself is unsustainable. If that is the case, there is no way to make money off of the population that is concerned with climate change. There is a sizable portion of people that believe that sustainable consumption means reducing consumption.

These are often people who are not persuaded by greenwashing tactics and are instead much more intentional in their consumer habits. If this trend continues, it will make it harder for companies to rely on increased profits from their environmentally conscious consumers.

At some point, every business must make an action that is not so environmentally friendly. A sustainable business can only try to avoid this when possible. It is impossible to run a perfect business in an imperfect world.

Environmental sustainability vs. Financial stability

For many companies, environmental sustainability and financial sustainability do not match up. Some people like to boast that sustainability will guarantee profits, but it is more complicated than that. Not only is sustainability a complicated task to take on; it is also a costly one. Depending on a company’s resources, knowledge, and financial capital, sustainability can make or break a company’s financial success.

Some companies can build brands off sustainability, others cannot. Sustainability is often too complicated for small businesses to jump into, especially if no one on their team is familiar with sustainability.

The environmental effects of businesses are delayed by decades. We are removed from the effects of our actions, so we are not pressured to change. For some businesses, it makes no financial sense to pay the upfront costs for sustainability when they will not see returns for years to come.

A girl holding her palms covered in dirt in front of the camera
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

In conclusion

Your sustainable idea may fail. But just as sustainability is hard to define, so is failure. Intention goes a long way, and many consumers will recognize the effort to be sustainable. There will be people who criticize sustainability initiatives as not progressive enough. Others will promote initiatives that are so progressive they aren’t profitable. Like any decision in business, the decision on how sustainable to be comes down to the business owner.

What’s next for you?

If you want to understand how building your new eco-friendly business website will help your sustainable business, contact me. With my experience and professional knowledge, we will elevate your sustainable project into the online world and reach your target audience.

Also, if you are a solo entrepreneur check out my FREE 5-day email course, How to Build Your Sustainable Brand, which will help you understand your brand, tell the story it needs to tell, and show your passion to the customers who will value and support your brand.

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