Boasting green credentials was once considered a competitive differentiator, but in today’s landscape, all businesses are expected to show a commitment to sustainability. Prospective employees, customers, and clients are all rightly invested in sustainability efforts, and they make their employment and purchasing decisions accordingly.
In my position as the Head of Portfolio for one of Europe’s most active startup accelerators and investment funds, I am keen to make our organisation more sustainable and understand how others are progressing with their efforts. I believe that we all need to participate in the conversation, and as I’m eager to learn more myself, I have discussed sustainability with founders, decision-makers, consultants, experts and employees.
Here I can offer some observations about the steps that I have seen startups take, especially early on in their journey.
1. One step is better than zero
In the frenetic early days of a startup, most founders are giving their all to moving the vision forward, so it’s not unusual for an organisation not to have an official set of priorities. Sustainability is one long-term commitment that often goes overlooked early on. However, it’s never too late to start, and any sustainability effort is better than no effort at all.
I advise founders to start developing a commitment to sustainability within the organisation as early as they can. Begin by working with the team to identify ambitious but realistic goals that they are genuinely passionate about. I’ve found Ted Talks a great way to quickly inspire a team to take action on sustainability.
2. Understanding the goals
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a valuable jumping-off point. For startups that may never have heard of sustainability, or those that mistakenly assume that it’s only something that greentech or climate-focused businesses need to consider, they’re a great summary of the basics. While no individual startup will be able to achieve the goals, they’re useful as a summary of the direction that we all want to head in collectively.
Once a founder has a grasp on the ultimate vision, they can choose a smaller number of more specific goals to adopt. Startups have the greatest success when considering their direct impact and the impact of their customers – the energy they use, the waste they create, and the emissions they are responsible for, among other considerations. Selecting, quantifying and working to reduce areas of concern as the company grows provides a clear, achievable goal.
3. Choosing metrics that matter
Many of the sustainability goals that businesses adopt are qualitative, and while this is certainly better than having no goals, there are reasons that businesses prefer quantitative metrics in every other area. Choosing a metric such as approximate energy usage, even if it’s imperfect, provides an opportunity to measure the changes that the organisation makes and determine whether they actually achieve what they set out to.
Being able to see the business’s target metric improve over time is also extremely rewarding, as it reflects a genuine achievement for the team. Tying the company’s efforts to metrics helps the founder, employees and stakeholders to feel confident that the organisation is making a material impact rather than just following the green trend for the sake of it.
4. Taking steps in the right direction
In addition to long-term, systematic efforts, everyday campaigns are a great way to keep sustainability front of mind for everyone – and make a difference. Last year, we launched a challenge for our entire staff, which involved cutting out single-use plastic. The surprising result was that it’s essentially impossible to eliminate the use of single-use plastic as a consumer, which made us realise the incredible scope of the problem.
While none of us could completely cut out single-use plastic, the real impact of the challenge was that it got us all thinking about the issue. What started as a one-month challenge has now changed each of us to think deeply about the impact we are making every day. Most of my colleagues never really stopped the challenge but rather extended our journey towards zero waste.
In the face of a global environmental crisis, it’s easy to feel daunted, but like everything in business, setting goals and staying focused is the key. Small choices add up, so start small and get the team pushing in the right direction. Daily wins also give the team something to focus on while the larger efforts proceed in the background.
5. Getting the team on board
There’s only so much that a founder can do single-handedly, and sustainability projects are a great opportunity to get the entire team pushing in the same direction. Leaders can introduce the topic and ensure that everyone is educated and on the same page, but successful sustainability projects are a team effort.
Encouraging interested employees to step forward and take responsibility for sustainability projects is a great way to ensure that someone is always dedicating time to the project. Appointing someone won’t have the right result, as they will see it as just another task on their to-do list, but inviting someone with a genuine passion will generate results.
6. Education at every level
To succeed, sustainability can’t be a separate project; it has to be a part of the business that affects every employee, department and operation. This means getting buy-in across the organisation and ensuring that everyone has an in-depth understanding of why the organisation is making a commitment to sustainability.
Education ensures that businesses invest time and energy in the most practical areas for improvement rather than wasting time on things that may seem important but have little long-term impact. In our operation, we are planning to develop processes on implementing sustainability education across the different products we run. We believe that education shouldn’t be an afterthought.
7. A long-term commitment
Worldwide, we’re all a little late to the sustainability game – but it’s better to get started late than never. We should take that sense of pressure and urgency and apply it to achieving bold goals – something that everyone in a startup is extremely familiar with.
As startups, we’re well-positioned to take the lead on sustainability issues, and we can play a major role in pioneering a future where sustainability is truly the norm. Sustainability is a journey, and we won’t see results overnight, but by working together on a local and global level, we can truly make a difference.