From “Nice to Have” to Business Critical

Small businesses are discovering that making sustainability a cost-effective priority is within their reach.
Aug 4, 2016 4:30 PM ET
Campaign: Thought Leadership

Tom Bihn | TOM BIHN, INC.

When I was a kid, I was a gear geek: I eagerly poured over the catalogs from outdoor equipment companies, dreaming of the adventures I might have with a backpack, tent and sleeping bag.

Being 10 years old, I couldn’t afford to buy any of that hi-tech stuff made of nylon and aluminum, so my parents suggested I try to make my own.

My mom taught me the basics of sewing, my brother fixed up our grandmother’s old Singer machine, and I started making outdoor gear.

And as you see in the photo up top, I’m still at it today!

I spent countless hours outdoors with my homemade hiking equipment, exploring the wild lands around our house (now mostly housing developments), in the nearby state park, and eventually the High Sierra Mountains, the North Cascades and Vancouver Island.

I came to appreciate in the natural world what people are now calling “sustainability”: the complex and endless cycle of renewal and regeneration that makes the air and water clean and allows us to live here on this beautiful blue planet.

I knew that, whatever I did later in life, had to parallel nature’s own plan and minimize and mitigate adverse impacts on the environment. But building a sustainable small business is not intuitive for many entrepreneurs.

It requires time and resources – two things not always abundant in many small businesses – to keep up with new technologies and strategies that go beyond basic recycling.

I understand where small business owners are coming from: Our focus is on the functionality and quality of our products and making our customers happy.

We care about the environment, but at the end of the day, we have rent and payroll to cover, business strategies to figure out and lights to keep on.

It’s easy to forget the bigger picture when the day to day requires so much attention, but let’s not be quick to throw in the sustainability towel.

As I’ve experienced first hand, there are many ways to make a product and deliver it to customers around the world all while being sustainable.

You just have to make it a priority.

A global outlook

People know that their communities and their businesses are part of the global community. We’re all breathing the same air and drinking the same water. We’re all affected by climate change. I think of the environment as a “silent partner” in the decisions we make as a company.

From here in Seattle, I can see Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Mountains, and I’m reminded what’s at risk if we make poor sustainability choices.

That’s why we make nearly every business decision with the environment in mind – from minimizing our carbon footprint and the amount of our materials going to a landfill to using the most eco-friendly shipping process.

Smart and sustainable shipping

We use only the minimum amount of packaging to ship our products, making sure we’re not sacrificing customer service or product protection (Don’t you hate when you order a sweater and it comes engulfed in plastic inside a box big enough for child to play in?).

We work with UPS to figure out the best package size for each of our bags. We’ve also worked with their logistics folks on ways to lower our carbon footprint.

In the process, we were introduced to two UPS sustainability programs – UPS Carbon Neutral Shipping and Certified Green Packaging – that are helping us ship more responsibly.

Yes, we pay a little extra to ship our products, and we purchase carbon credits to offset the emissions generated by the shipping process.

We believe that small cost is worth it to deliver our products in the most sustainable ways possible.

The fact that we’re able to do that without compromising the quality of our products or affecting our bottom line makes it a no-brainer.

Other eco-conscious choices

You could say that sustainability is literally woven into the fabric of our company culture.

Most of the fabrics we use are made in the U.S. (we use a few fabrics made in Japan), where the Environmental Protection Agency has control over how they are produced.

We use U.S.-sourced materials whenever possible, from our nylon to our snap hooks to our shoulder-strap hardware. We make all of our designs in the U.S.

We keep our manufacturing process lean, and our main manufacturing facility runs almost entirely on renewable energy.

Even the finished product promotes sustainability. A TOM BIHN bag will last (almost) forever.

They are designed to endure; like great architecture, they are useful, attractive and built to be here for a good, long time.

Learn from others

  1. Eyewear maker Warby Parker conducts internal environmental reviews and an annual carbon inventory. To stay as carbon-neutral as possible, the company tracks its greenhouse gas emissions related to production, shipping, warehousing and office work, and purchases carbon offsets.
  2. Oil and vacuum filter maker Solberg Manufacturing works with the U.S. Energy Department’s Better Buildings Better Plants program, aiming to cut its energy use by 25 percent over 10 years.
  3. SunRidge Farms in California pays employees $5 a day to bike to and from work.
  4. And in addition to the social responsibility programs for children around the world that TOMS is known for, the shoe company is working to expand its line of shoes made with sustainable and vegan materials.

What’s your strategy?

The obstacles are not insurmountable: Small companies are more flexible and nimble than large corporations, and can more easily adapt as eco-innovations develop.

A first step is to examine how you ship your products and find alternatives that are more carbon neutral. Are you using the right packaging?

Conduct an energy audit and check with your local utility to see how to reduce fuel and electricity.

Amp up your recycling program or encourage your landlord to do so for your building.

Use biodegradable cleaning products. The list goes on.

Many large companies have created codes of conduct for their supply chains that include social and environmental aspects.

Small-business owners can follow their lead and join the environmental regulatory conversation.

Sustainability is the direction of commerce. Is your business on the right path?

Tom Bihn is President, Founder and Designer for TOM BIHN, a Seattle-based designer, manufacturer and retailer of laptop and travel bags.

This article first appeared on Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy. Subscribe here to receive new content.