Originally posted on the Creative Coast's blog here.
When I set out to create a new product line last year, I wanted it to be as sustainable as possible. But what exactly did that mean for my product and my business practices? Both as a maker of things and a consumer, I couldn't disregard the growing desire to know, not just who I was purchasing from, but where each item and raw material originated and where and how they were made before arriving into my hands.
Regardless of whether or not you consider yourself an environmentalist, every action has a reaction. The products we create are made with raw materials from the Earth or man-made materials that are derived from the pre-existing elements of our planet. Consider the impact of one product or the delivery of a service from start to finish: How many steps does it take from product (or project) creation to completion? Is it directly derived from a raw material, indirectly made from other manufactured elements, or does it utilize other products? And how long does it last? What happens to it when it's no longer useful?
It's easy to pass off the responsibility to the buyer or end user. But as a businessperson, it's our responsibility to create a quality product or service, and it's logical to extend that responsibility to construction and afterlife as well. After a year of sourcing for my own product, I've come to realize that it's not as easy to trace as one might think. While transparency in business is becoming more prevalent, it's still difficult to find the information, even when you are looking for it. I was surprised to find, that even here in the Southeast where cotton is grown, it's still downright hard to find a cotton fabric that is woven here. Most customers don't have the time to do the research necessary to truly know where and how something is made, especially given the (often necessary) secrecy concerning business practices, sourcing, and materials in many products. Conscious consumerism does make sense (buyers making conscious decisions about the products they purchase), but it doesn't directly create new sustainable options. People can only choose from options that exist. That's where business comes in!
There are still a few roadblocks to applying sustainable practices, like cost or time and research, but there are also many options that are surprisingly easy to implement. My first steps towards sustainable practices included using recycled, re-usable marketing and packaging materials and using eco-friendly inks. After the initial research, I found two outstanding companies that I now know and trust. And my customers love it! My recycled shipping mailers include an extra adhesive strip for them to use when exchanging sizes; it saves them from having to find and purchase new packaging or saves me from having to include extra packaging, the price for me wasn't much different than a high quality poly mailer and it's recyclable.
It's going to be an incremental process that requires a shift in the way we think about our products and services, but as businesses we're in a powerful position. Incorporating sustainable practices in the business sector, which could be as simple as switching from styrofoam to biodegradable plates and containers in a restaurant or using sustainable fabrics in apparel products, is the fastest and most realistic way towards a sustainable future. If every business takes one or two small steps in the direction of sustainability, the more efficient the whole system becomes; more options for consumers and business, more demand lowers the costs, and the easier making those choices becomes. It's not just a moral decision, it's good business!
A few of my sustainable priorities:
- Efficiency: Is your good or service delivered as efficiently as possible? What materials or efforts are wasted directly or indirectly by inefficiency?
- Durability: How long does your product last? Will it need to be replaced? If so what will happen to it once it's obsolete or worn out?
- Raw Materials: What raw materials go into your product or a product used during the rendering of your service? Is it a renewable resource? Is it man-made? Is there a sustainable alternative? Is it biodegradable?
- Carbon Footprint: What is your carbon footprint and what is the indirect carbon footprint of the materials, products you use or source, or services you provide? Is there a lot of extra shipping or driving involved? The use of plant based materials often has an indirect positive carbon because the plant was consuming CO2 during it's lifetime.
What impacts does your business have on the world and are there small decisions you can make to move it in a more sustainable direction? Let's take it one small step at a time.