Big-box retail and sustainability might sound like mutually exclusive business endeavors, but some major players are going to great lengths to change that perception. In 2009, Walmart set aside initial funding for The Sustainability Consortium, an organization tasked with creating a comprehensive resource for credible information about the sustainability (both environmental and social) of everyday consumer products across a variety of categories.

Along with some 90 member organizations, including supermarkets such as Kroger, Royal Ahold, Tesco, and Safeway; focused retailers like Marks & Spencer and Best Buy; as well as nonprofits, research institutions, and government agencies, the "Everyday Low Prices" purveyor is looking to spend smarter and save resources. "Our goal was to improve the sustainability of our products by creating a more transparent supply chain, accelerating adoption of best practices, and driving product innovation," states the company website. And over the past three years, their commitment has started to pay off.

Take, for example, the retailer's recent "End-to-End" project, during which its Brazilian branch partnered with a packaging technology center to analyze a handful of basic products (think cooking oil, household cleaners, diapers, body soap, etc.). By cutting back on packaging and increasing the incorporation of recycled packing materials for 13 specific items, the team was able to eliminate 3,171 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, raise truck capacity by 32-64 percent, diminish diesel consumption by more than 232,400 liters, decrease packaging mass by 79,450 kilograms, and reduce energy consumption by roughly 19 million kilowatt hours (equal to some 8 million 100-watt light bulbs).

So how do these global measures affect grassroots sustainability efforts? The trend towards a triple bottom line (quality products manufactured with environmental respect, fairly treated employees paid livable wages, and ethically gained profits) is one that's easily scaled down for small businesses and entrepreneurs. Just allow The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) to lead by example. Let's take a look at the organization's three largest "knowledge products" and see how they might be translated on a local scale.

 

  1. TSC is working to create a category sustainability profile, which documents "hot spots" (areas with high levels of social and environmental impact) for various product categories so it has a better understanding of where to make improvements. For many brick-and-mortar businesses, the building itself -- be it a retail site or office building -- forms one of the largest "hot spots."

    You can take strides to reduce your impact:

    • Visit www.EPA.gov to conduct a free energy audit and create an action plan for increasing recycling, reducing water use, and saving electricity.
    • Consider opening up your floor plan and discarding blinds to take advantage of no-cost natural daylight.
    • Install CFLs in place of incandescent light bulbs for long-lasting energy savings.
    • Program computers to "go to sleep" after a few minutes of inactivity, and unplug power strips nightly to halt phantom power drain.
    • Increase insulation within the walls and around windows.
    • Outfit restrooms with low-flow toilets and aerated or motion-sensor faucets.
    • Be sure to first check with your local department of water and power to find out if your updates qualify for conservation rebates.

  2. TSC possesses a literature bank, dubbed its dossier, filled with research about the sustainability impacts of consumer products.
    • Establish your own research bank by reaching out to those around you with a vested interest in your business's green success.
    • Invite employees to share and implement their ideas for reducing, reusing, and recycling within the office. Including the entire team will help your sustainability efforts gain momentum, as well as create a positive work environment.
    • You might extend your reach even further by utilizing social media such as Twitter and Facebook as a forum for clients and other small business owners to share their sustainability tips and topics.
    • Try creating some sort of interactive customer contest to get the discussion rolling.

  3. TSC has established a set of questions, known as Key Performance Indicators, that retailers can pose to their suppliers to garner a better understanding of a product's sustainability performance.
    • Take time to understand the sustainability performance of your own purchases.
    • Be mindful that any products and services your business pays for are environmentally sound -- seek out vendors using recycled materials, renewable energy, alternatives to hazardous and toxic chemicals, bio-based products, and energy and water-efficient practices.

 

Luckily, thanks in large part to international efforts by groups like TSC, suppliers are increasing their marketing of such products, making them easier for small businesses to find.

How is your small business making sustainable strides?