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Picture: 123RF/SARAYUTSY
Picture: 123RF/SARAYUTSY

 There is almost a week still to prepare for Earth Day on April 22. This year’s theme is planet versus plastics. Big companies can afford sustainability managers to direct their environmental efforts, but small business owners have to rely on their own ideas and limited time. What can we do? 

First, is it worth it? Small people and small businesses may feel that reducing our minuscule carbon footprint is far too little to be worth distracting us from important businesses imperatives. But there is more to it than our own small saving, and there are good business opportunities in environmental responsibility too. 

Business owners may be able to influence the commitment of all their staff, their customers and their suppliers, and maybe even the wider community. That adds up. And yes, it is important. Climate change is possibly the greatest existential threat to humanity, with an especially big effect on Africa. Even a small, token contribution is worth making. 

Begin with your own team. When you meet, raise awareness about environmental issues and encourage employees to share ideas. Online sites provide mountains of material that can be used in workshops and for distribution. Most of us know about conserving energy and water, but it is still worth distributing material for those who have not yet heard.

More helpful might be to discuss practical ways to reduce the big carbon contributors, like transport, as in driving to work alone. We can’t prescribe, but we could also help people make conscious decisions about how much meat they eat, how often they discard usable clothing or other consumables, and how to avoid single-use plastics. We can set the example by providing reusable glass water bottles. 

Creative activities can generate enthusiasm for saving the planet and building team spirit. For example, giving a prize for the greatest reduction in the carbon footprint at home would encourage team members to learn about carbon, its mitigation, and how to measure their own contribution. 

As a company you have probably already implemented recycling, changed the light bulbs and fixed the taps. The high cost of solar power looks different when we consider the efficiencies of never having to stop work for a power outage. The capital cost to run heavy electric machinery on solar may be prohibitive, but for those of us who rely on computers for work and communicate with customers, a small system that just powers the router makes a huge difference. We can do without the kettle for a few hours, as long as we can access the internet. 

Next we can reduce waste and recycle. Think about sustainable packaging and reducing single-use plastics. Can you install rainwater tanks? Environmentally sensitive cleaning materials can reduce the pollution that is ruining our water supplies. 

Can you influence customers? Many large retailers have made a virtue out of necessity by advertising their recyclable packets and packaging. Even my Woolies roast chicken comes in a recyclable greaseproof packet. UCook collects your used carton, insulation and freeze bags when they deliver the next meal kits. Explaining to customers why you are taking these steps generates goodwill and spreads the message. 

What about suppliers? Big suppliers probably already have their own sustainability programmes, but smaller suppliers might benefit from discussing how together you could reduce waste, improve packaging and use sustainable materials. Maybe even invite them to your staff training on sustainability. Sustainability clauses may or may not make their way into your contracts with suppliers, but a friendly conversation will achieve more in practice for most people who are interested in your business. 

Among suppliers, don’t forget contract staff and service providers, including gardeners, cleaners and professional service providers. Every person educated about the environment is another source of information into the wider community. 

• Cook chairs the African Management Institute.

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