Frequently Asked Questions

I have so much on my plate starting and running my business, and I do care about the environment and my community. So how do I decide where this falls on the priority list? Does it depend on what type of business I have?

If you care about the environment and your community, then gaining the knowledge and skills to strategically embed sustainability into your business is great for you.  When developing a new business, you already are seeking to meet a specific need in the market.  And of course you want to make money doing this. Consider then, that on top of this, you can meet that need and develop products and services that have a positive environmental and social impact – or at least reduce negative impacts that you may not have even thought about.

If you take a few days to fully understand what sustainability is and what it can be, then you can integrate what you know  into each business decision that you make. You’ll be able to make the decision on how to prioritize sustainability – whether you take small steps or whether you make the commitment up front as part of the vision of your company.   Sustainability principles are cross-industry and business type. Our programs will give you a solid understanding of the big picture of sustainability, and a framework and process for embedding sustainability into your business from day one or as you grow. We want to empower you to make smart business decisions now and in the future.

What do you mean by triple bottom line?

Triple bottom line (TBL) is a phrase that was coined in 1994 by John Elkington, author and co-founder of SustainAbility, a consulting firm and think-tank. A TBL business considers profit in addition to its effects on the environment and society. It’s often simply described to mean a business that is good for people, planet and profit. The interest in and demand for TBL companies increases along with corporate responsibility and fair trade in the wake of growing awareness of sustainability challenges including climate change, globalization, gender disparity and human rights violations. Business can either be part of the problem or work toward solutions.

One challenge in TBL is measuring all 3 P’s.  Profits are measured in dollars, but generally do not include the costs of downstream and upstream negative impacts that communities and governments end up paying for. The question is: what’s the true cost? While businesses can’t fully quantify triple bottom line costs and ROI, they can estimate the values.

Our training is about understanding and planning to be a triple bottom line business. Here’s a good resource from Indiana Business Research Center about it: http://www.ibrc.indiana.edu/ibr/2011/spring/article2.html

What are some examples of businesses that are triple bottom line?

One well known business that tries to balance the 3 P’s is Patagonia.  They take great care about the environment and the products they create and sell.  They give a lot back to their employees and to the communities they serve, in fact beside the amazing employee benefits package, their employees can work at a non-profit for two months while receiving their salary and benefits. Patagonia’s founder, Yves Chouinard, also co-founded an organization called 1% for the Planet that companies can join when they commit to giving 1% of their annual sales to nonprofit environmental causes. The company makes high-quality clothing seeking to minimize their environmental impact in the manufacturing process. The pieces last for a long time – plus when a piece needs fixing, they’ve got a van that makes stops at store locations and helps customers fix pieces – or they’ll let you trade in a worn piece and get credit for it toward a new piece. They make sure pieces of clothing they take back are either reused or recycled.

A great example of a locally-owned, small company here in Chicago that takes the TBL approach is the restaurant and bar Uncommon Ground. At their Devon location, they’ve got a certified organic brewery, organic rooftop garden and beehives next to their row of solar thermal panels which provides renewable energy to heat their hot water. They locally source food products and beverages as much as possible and educate their customers and the public through hosting their own events and speaking at community events. They have an amazing organic farm internship program and  are active members of the community – engaging on many fronts to give opportunities to artists and other local groups.

Will I get a certificate from this workshop, something I can point to, confirming my intentions around sustainable practices?

We’re not in a position to provide a certificate for our 2017 programs. Our goal is to give women entrepreneurs the knowledge and skills to  build their business sustainably and be able to communicate it to your stakeholders and customers. There are business and product certification programs that you can get involved in when you are ready. Examples of business certification programs are B Corp and the Illinois Green Business certification program, among others. One great program that provides certification for sustainably-designed products is the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. There are many others product certifications out there that may be worth looking into once you understand sustainability and commit to it for your business. There are fees associated with  business and product certification and you’ll have to decide whether it makes good business sense to join or not. You can be a sustainable business or create a sustainable product without a certification – it’s not a requirement.

When should I think about integrating sustainable aspects into my business? Is it better to start when a business is still just a concept, or can my ongoing business become sustainable, without breaking the bank?

You can integrate sustainability at any stage. We see large companies doing it; companies that have been in business for decades. At the same time, it can be more costly if you wait. If you integrate sustainable principles in the strategic planning stage, you’re budgeting and planning for it, and it becomes part of the DNA of your business. So the costs are laid out for you and simply a part of the normal costs of doing business. Energy and natural resources are expensive, so if you minimize their use, you’re saving money. Let’s say you need to buy a piece of equipment. Well, you will only be looking at more sustainable equipment and buying from companies that operate more sustainably. If they are more costly than unsustainable options, their efficiency properties may save you money in energy costs over time. Sustainable supplies, materials and resources can sometimes be more costly, but not always. Resources that you need might be what another company throws away. Entrepreneur Bunny Yan, interviewed in our Walking the Talk blog, helps companies find, trade and use wasted textile materials to create new products. This not only reduces their costs, but reduces the pressure on the planet.

How do I figure out the return on investment in making my business (more) sustainable?

If you follow a planning process, you plan it into your business.  You do the research, find out the costs, or cost reductions.  Anyone starting a business knows your first budget is somewhat guesswork.  Sustainable budgeting is similar; you can develop a budget, and consider all the costs involved, and also consider the added customers.  If you look at sustainability planning separate from business planning, it’ll always feel like an added elephant in the room.  Sustainability should be part of business and all the critical decisions you make.  I believe the knowledge and skills an entrepreneur gains from understanding sustainability and how to implement sustainable strategies – these skills also improve your ability to make business decisions.

Are there certain considerations that every business should think about, if it’s going to be truly sustainable? Like using renewable energy or recycling my waste or finding ways to give back to my community…

All are important.  In our programs, we give an overview of the range of sustainable practices you can consider – it’s broad but holistic, and in that way, digestible and doable.  Yes, both using renewable energy and recycling are two of many items to consider.  Both are easy and important.  Looking at energy efficiency and renewable energy is another important step.  We’ll also talk about people and communities and making a positive impact, or at least, minimizing negative impacts, in that category.  As a startup, it’s always a good idea to go after the easy steps, the low-hanging fruit.  Learn the range of choices, and use your creativity and knowledge of your market to make a positive impact.   With the framework and process you’ll learn to use in our workshops, you’ll have added skills for strategic decision-making.

If I can only afford to invest in some things right now, can I authentically market my business as a sustainable business? I don’t want to be accused of green-washing!

Once you have the knowledge and skills to move toward sustainability, you will be able to answer that question yourself. Your communications should be transparent and honest. If you are just recycling for your business, but intend to do integrate many more sustainable aspects into your business later, then you should communicate this clearly to your stakeholders and to the public. It would be considered greenwashing if you were to then say you are a business that operates sustainably. If you spell out clearly what you are doing and provide information regarding your plan to become a sustainable business as you move forward, along with some definite goals and dates to reach those goals, then you are telling the truth about where you are at and where you are going.