Sustainability is a big topic, but the central idea is often misunderstood and is surrounded by a myriad of myths. As a result, many business owners aren’t sure what they can do to make their company more environmentally friendly. Even if they do know what to do, some consider the requirements too expensive or unattainable. Still others don’t believe that their small business can make a significant difference, so they might ultimately decide that the efforts required for change outweigh the rewards.

Despite any hesitation on the part of businesses, today’s consumers are more educated on the topic of sustainability than ever before. The implications of doing nothing, therefore, are huge — companies that don’t put the right foot forward in terms of sustainability can tarnish customer loyalty and thwart their own expansion plans. In addition to being the right thing to do, giving sustainability the attention it deserves can be a key differentiator in the value you offer to your clients and their brands.

It's not uncommon to feel a bit overwhelmed if you’re considering eco-friendly improvements for your business. Fortunately, even small steps can have a big impact and may pave the way for additional efforts in the future. Sustainability is a system of change that is designed to protect our environment, and businesses of all sizes can play a role. This article explores some simple sustainability efforts that you can take today.

What Does Sustainable Mean?

The topic of environmental sustainability encompasses several definitions, and each of these definitions can cause additional uncertainty. For print and mail providers, environmental sustainability involves acting in a way that considers future generations and preserving the valuable resources that are required to ensure a high quality of life.

Topics covered under the umbrella of sustainability often include air, water, or soil quality. It is also not uncommon for eco-friendly efforts to consider animal welfare, the preservation of wildlife habitats, and the effects of hazardous waste or greenhouse emissions. Sustainable decisions then involve offsetting pollution, protecting raw materials, minimizing waste, and offering the opportunity to recycle or reuse products.

Sustainability by Generation

As is the case with many important topics, each generational group will sometimes respond differently than others. A good illustration of this can be found in The Global Sustainability Study published by Simon-Kucher & Partners in 2021, which surveyed over 10,000 consumers across all generations about their interest in sustainability. According to the results, 85% of consumers across the board are seeking greener options when they make purchasing decisions. What’s more, 63% of consumers have made changes to become more sustainable over the past five years.

Interestingly, the results of this survey varied by generation. For example, older respondents were somewhat less active in the sustainability movement. Although only 24% of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers reported that they have “significantly” changed their behaviors to become more sustainable, the same was true for 32% of Millennials. Members of Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) continue to emerge as an especially “green” generation as they tend to be more concerned about climate change than previous generations.

On average, 34% of total respondents to this survey reported a willingness to pay more for sustainable products and services. Once again, though, the results varied by age — whereas 39% of Generation Z consumers and 42% of Millennials were open to paying more for eco-friendly options, the same was true for only 31% of Gen Xers and just 26% of Boomers. Among those respondents that were willing to pay for sustainability, younger consumers were also open to paying a higher average premium than their older counterparts.

This data is significant because it’s important to understand how the various generational market segments view their options when they are selecting a print and mailing services provider. Moreover, this data offers insight about the audience members that your prospects and customers serve. In many cases, environmental friendliness will play a key role in their response. This, in turn, can become a meaningful conversation when considering options for their campaigns.

A Shift in Behavior

Industry leaders continue to spotlight the need to become more eco-friendly. For the most part, we’ve all come a long way from prior days of manufacturing at all costs. Few would argue that a traditional print and mailing operation might be viewed as a roadblock on the path to sustainability. After all, the printing processes of former days were rich in waste, often emitting higher-than-average VOCs and consuming a large amount of energy. Fortunately, many of today’s businesses have learned how to mitigate the biggest offenders of unsustainable practices. Proper waste disposal is easier than ever. Thanks to digital production presses, there are fewer chemicals needed in the print shop. The use of recycled paper is on the rise and the practice of printing for purpose rather than perfection is widely accepted. Some organizations have even found practical ways to produce or use renewable energy.

There are many opportunities to protect our environment, resources, and future well-being. If you don’t have a sustainability strategy in place but are hoping to take steps that will improve your firm’s footprint on the planet we share, know that small changes can add up. Getting started means challenging the status quo. Take a critical look at your current practices and then commit to a simple audit. Determine the things that are important to your goal and put a plan in place to take action. Here are some examples of questions you can ask yourself:

· What are we doing to minimize waste?

o In the production of our products?

o When acquiring supplies?

§ Are there supplies that can be sourced locally?

o Do we offer incentives for recycling?

o Do we give our customers the option to use recycled products/paper?

· What steps can we take to improve our facility?

o Is the HVAC system smart and efficient?

o Do we have procedures in place to reduce electrical use?

o Are there any cleaning products that should be replaced with non-toxic alternatives?

o Do we use certified electronic recycling centers when it’s time to replace technology?

o What actions can we take to use clean energy?

o Have we optimized our manufacturing process?

§ Can we benefit from Artificial Intelligence?

§ Are we using the right, most efficient technologies?

§ Do we have a prescribed maintenance plan to increase the life of our equipment?

· Does the landscaping around our facility consider sustainable practices?

o Do we properly manage runoff and storm water?

· What can we do differently to encourage our entire team to join our sustainability efforts?

o Do we actively seek feedback from our employees, partners, and vendors?

o How do we educate our employees as well as our customers to become more eco-friendly?

o What measures can we take to reduce commuting emissions?

§ Do we work with distributors that reduce emissions caused by transportation and shipping requirements?

· Do any of our partners or suppliers breach their eco-friendly obligations?

o How can we help so that their actions better align with our own efforts?

The Bottom Line

Even if your business is very small, there are many steps you can take to move toward a more sustainable future. There is no need to commit to big audacious projects or huge capital expenditures. Take a close look at your company and understand that your sustainability goals might be completely different from your neighboring business. Some firms have already put a stake in the ground by pledging to become carbon-neutral by 2035, but a simple commitment to save on energy consumption is also a step in the right direction.

The path toward becoming more eco-friendly can be smoother than ever if you focus on the benefits of change. Turn to the younger members of your workforce and give them the opportunity to become sustainability ambassadors. They understand the importance of protecting our natural resources and might have some creative ideas that you haven’t yet considered. Whether you go big or start small, make a commitment to our environment and see your efforts through — they’re important!

Karen Kimerer of Keypoint Intelligence has experienced the many challenges of expanding current market opportunities and securing new business. She has developed a systematic approach to these opportunities, addressing the unique requirements of becoming a leader in our changing industry. She is well-versed in 1:1 marketing, web-to-print, direct mail, book publishing, supply chain management, data segmentation, channel integration, and photo products.

This article originally appeared in the September/October, 2022 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.