How to navigate your small business towards sustainability

How to navigate your small business towards sustainability
Cathal O Reilly
Cathal O ReillyNarcissips

Posted: Mon 2nd Oct 2023

A small bakery in Cavan, an independent clothing store in Cork, a cosy family-owned café in Waterford, or, even in my situation, a reusable bottle business based out of Dublin and Westmeath.

These are the small to medium-sized businesses that contribute to building our local economies across Ireland. That's no easy feat while battling with higher rents, the rising cost of living and increased cost of goods due to inflation. Add sustainability to the mix, and it can be daunting.

Over the last few years, I've had the opportunity to work with and hear from people all over Ireland. When it comes to sustainability, many of these business owners are saying that the subject is so large and wide-ranging that they don't know where to start.

But in my brain, because the area of sustainability is somewhat all-encompassing, it means we can literally start and make change anywhere, once we implement the strategies and processes we need to measure, track and, ultimately, make a difference transparently.

In this blog, I explore several areas in which businesses can have the biggest possible impact in their day-to-day operations. This includes:

Why you should make change: The benefits of sustainability

Financial benefits

Several years ago, I was discussing the idea of CSOs – or "chief sustainability officers" – at a corporate meeting. However, I jokingly also referred to them as "common-sense officers".

I studied sustainability in college over 10 years ago, where the focus was initially on the "three Ps" – people, planet, profit – and how they factored into business decisions.

When I began working towards being an accountant by trade – and one who's still also environmentally conscious – the strong relationship between efficiency, energy, sustainability, financial savings and the environment became extremely clear.

With the cost of living crisis over the last few years, I have no doubt that this has now become clear to everyone. But I've still been baffled by larger companies that do not commit to small actions like installing LED lights or heat pumps, introducing new shipping methods, or measuring their practices for controlling food waste. These are all directly related to environmental and financial gains.

And there still seems to be a lack of awareness on the quantity and types of grants that exist to help small businesses grow and develop their green strategies from SEAI and Enterprise Ireland.

Brand-related benefits

Customers today are becoming increasingly more eco-conscious, which leads to a variety of new demands on businesses and new ways to view old businesses.

By being a more conscious, mindful business that makes an honest effort to reduce waste, you can both demonstrate your commitment to the environment – earning the trust and loyalty of customers who appreciate your efforts – and potentially also attract new clients.

In connection with the above, some of these savings can also improve your business's bottom line, boost employees' morale, and help build stronger, more transparent and resilient supply chains. These all ultimately lead to happier customers, whether it's through cheaper products, better customer service or your business becoming more attractive as the result of being a sustainable leader.

Environmental benefits

From my own experience, people are no longer in the dark about the environmental benefits of small changes in their lives.

However, as an example, a petrol car can produce around 250 grams of carbon emissions for every kilometre it drives. So, after driving 50 kilometres each week, you would have produced up to 12.5 kilograms of emissions, as well as contributed to air, noise and traffic pollution.

Now, compare that to cycling that same distance (if possible). You would have saved that 12.5 kilograms of emissions, reduced air pollution, noise and traffic congestion, and worked towards improving your health. That can ultimately lead to other positive effects in terms of potentially working towards reducing stressors on our public health services.

You can make similar changes across your business, whether it's:

I explore ways to do this in the following section.

Where do you start?

Step 1: Define your current supply chain, value chain and operational processes

This might seem basic, but I would recommend mapping out your entire business to understand the inflows and outflows of energy and emissions and waste across your entire supply chain and value chain.

Key definitions

  • Supply chain: The interconnected journey that raw materials, components and goods take before they are assembled and then sold to customers.

  • Value chain: The full lifecycle of a product, including the process of sourcing materials, making the product, using the product and disposing of or recycling the product at the end of its life.

If not, you can do a more streamlined version and focus on your business hotspots or quick wins. This includes reviewing your transport, energy and operations to see where you can make changes to save carbon, energy, waste, water and money.

Manufacturing: How do you make your product/provide your services?

Are there more sustainable or ethical options available, whether that's, for example:

  • manufacturing closer to your store (for a reduced supply chain)

  • changing ingredients in food products, or

  • working with suppliers who are focused on ESG (environmental, social and governance)

Packaging: How do you package or wrap your product?

Can you opt for plastic-free packaging, or less packaging in general? If you need packaging, can the customer re-use it later?

Don't forget, less packaging or alternative packaging may also open up cheaper shipping options, due to the product weighing less. That itself can lead to a reduction in carbon emissions associated with the product.

Delivery: How is your product delivered to you?

Transport (public and private) makes up around one-fifth of Ireland's overall emissions. While it's quite tricky for businesses to manage inventory levels due to ever-changing economic systems and consumer preferences, implementing better planning practices can mean longer lead times for product deliveries.

As a result, you're able to make use of alternative, slower methods of delivery (for example, shipping by sea or train rather than plane), which can dramatically reduce your emissions. It can also save you substantial amounts of money, which helps increase your margins and/or means you can lower prices and attract new customers.

Processes: What do your business operations look like?

This is where the small things add up and can show how easy sustainable changes can be. For example – and this may sound extreme – even an email has a carbon footprint. When you map out your operations, look for ways to remove wasted time or inefficiencies across your processes for sales and ordering.

After all, the less time you spend on unnecessary processes, the more satisfied you and your employees will be. You'll also become more energy-efficient as a consequence, due to spending less time on desktop computers or other systems.

End of life: What happens when the product has reached the end of its life?

Lastly, what happens at the end of the product's lifecycle? Can the buyer re-use, reclaim, refurbish or recycle it?

Keeping materials in use or in cycle for as long as possible is key to moving away from our old "take, make, use, dispose" view on items over the last couple of decades.

Step 2: Measure your current emissions and baseline your current quantities of waste

To do this, you can conduct a materiality assessment or audit across your business. This means gathering documents related to your electricity use and sorting, organising and weighing all of your waste to identify the types and volumes of waste you produce.

There are a range of free carbon/emissions calculator tools online that can help you with this work, such as the Environmental Protection Agency carbon emissions calculators.

Step 3: Analyse, assess and gain insights

Having measured your baseline emissions and associated waste, it's now time to review, analyse and assess your findings.

Here, the focus should be on solving the quick wins that you can directly influence and build confidence on before tackling the long-term, harder-to-influence changes – which can be the more aspirational sustainability goals for the future.

When it comes to these changes, be conscious that they can involve a lot of work. Also try not to take on more than you can accomplish, as you may become demoralised. Focus on the quick wins, the small changes and what you can directly affect first.

Step 4: Structure your goals and strategies for change

Sustainability is a journey, and we all begin at different points. It's key to get off to a good start with some quick wins that can motivate and assure you early on.

Having baselined your data and mapped your goals for change, make sure all goals follow the SMART methodology in that they are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Timely. There's no point in setting yourself up for failure, or trying to take on more work than you can manage.

Step 5: Controls, training and transparency

Lastly, as the old saying goes, if it doesn't get measured, it won't get managed.

Ultimately, you'll need to become slightly proficient with spreadsheets (such as Excel or Google Sheets), which are best suited to tracking, measuring, analysing and reporting on your goals each month or quarter (depending on your preference).

You can share your spreadsheet with teammates or employees who may be tasked with managing specific sections of your sustainability strategy, such as measuring and managing your waste reduction, or by tracking your electricity use.

By measuring these changes – specifically those that can bring about financial success – you're not only opening up new financial opportunities to reinvest in the business, but you're rewarding your team for the environmental successes too.

By making this effort, you should be proud and feel confident and transparent with your goals and achievements. Measuring and managing your data, goals and achievements allows you to tell your story to your customers, which may drive new revenues, attract new customers, increase customer loyalty or perhaps even motivate other businesses to replicate your successes.

Step 6: Lessons learned and continuous improvement

No-one is perfect – especially when it comes to business and sustainability. Over the course of your sustainability journey, make sure to record what you did wrong and right, what you learned, and how you would do things differently next time around.

This is particularly important given the fact that guidance on sustainability can change – for example, at one time, we may have thought a certain product was good for the environment, then later learned, through new research and study, that it's actually harmful.

This will be vital for your own learning and development, but in helping to spur change across your own network and community too. After all, I genuinely believe that actions speak louder than words. And speaking from experience is more likely to spur change that speaking from theory – it fosters more respect, and can also help other people to realise that change is possible.


In the world of small business, sustainability isn't a luxury anymore. It's becoming a necessity for a variety of reasons: to be more cost-effective, to be able to better compete, to build trust and loyalty and even just to make a difference.

As mentioned above, there are so many benefits to becoming more sustainable: you improve employees' morale, reduce costs and boost margins, build brand trust and loyalty, expand your customer base and, ultimately, reduce your impact on the environment.


Plan it with Purpose Ireland: Helping businesses develop a better understanding of environmental and social issues

Plan it with Purpose: Sustainability discovery tool

Answer a series of questions about your business and get a tailored action plan that tells you where to find the support, resources and advice you need to be more sustainable. Take me to the tool


Relevant resources

Cathal O Reilly
Cathal O ReillyNarcissips

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