What it really means to be a sustainable business


Welcome back to Leader Talk! In episode 51 we spoke to Mike Spirkovski, Founder of Sustainability Revolution. 

Prior to establishing Sustainability Revolution, Mike was the National Chief Creative Officer of Saatchi and Saatchi Australia for eight years and part of the Saatchi and Saatchi Worldwide Creative Board. He also worked within the Worldwide Toyota Creative Leadership Team.

His mission is to drive a ‘nothing is impossible’ spirit and create work that makes a difference for humanity and the planet.

In this chat we spoke about why sustainability isn’t expensive, the importance of considering future generations and how businesses can make the change to being more sustainable. 

Want to learn more? You can read or listen to our chat with Mike Spirkovski on YouTubeSpotifyListen Notes, or Player FM. It’s also available anywhere you listen to your favourite podcasts via Buzzsprout.

Authored by Mike Spirkovski, Founder of Sustainability Revolution.

For many of us, when we hear the word “sustainability”, we automatically think about the environment when, in fact, it’s so much more than that. Running a sustainable business means ensuring long-term sustainable impact across its employees, clients, culture, diversity, innovation, and the environment. It’s about asking yourself, “How do I make my business sustainable so it’s successful in the future across all these aspects, not just one?”

Right now, you might think you’re getting clients and so your business is fine. The problem is, your business is fine until all your clients, and even your employees, start asking for more. They want more equality, fair trade and meaning in the businesses they associate with. The world is constantly changing, and you have to change with it if you want to survive in the long run. That’s what being a sustainable business means.

Many people will tell you that if you don’t adapt to the industry and society appropriately, you will not survive – and it’s true. Sure, you’ll retain existing customers, but even they will start to drift. I advise you to embrace all the new online tools that are cropping up to grow your workplace culture, processes and goals. Change is good and I think any business that is innovating in order to progress is brilliant. That’s where you start to see humanity at its finest; when they are down but think about what they can do to survive. You can’t beat the changing world, so you’re better off joining it.

Sustainability is not expensive
A common misconception is that in order to be sustainable, you have to break the bank. But it’s not about throwing money at people and things. Much of being sustainable is simply how you treat your staff with care and kindness. It’s about finding ways to pay employees fairly, creating an inclusive work environment, giving women leadership roles equal to men, and more. These are examples of behavioural factors that help guarantee your business lasts.

Even when tackling the environmental aspects, it’s a matter of behavioural changes. These can be big changes like changing energy companies to reduce your emissions. Asking yourself questions like, should you continue with Energy Australia which claims to be Australian but is actually wholly Chinese-owned? While there’s nothing wrong with that, it makes you wonder if it’s really the business you want to be taking your energy from. Instead, you could be taking it from companies like Red Energy, which has a renewable matching promise.

Alternatively, you could make much smaller changes like where you get your paper or toilet paper from. There are excellent companies, like Who Gives a Crap, doing great things for sustainability for a price that’s not that different from what you’re paying now.

Education is a huge factor in building a sustainable business. It gets rid of these myths and stigmas that to be sustainable, you have to spend more money. It’s not true. Everyone can be more sustainable as early as tomorrow by simply changing the brands they associate themselves with. It’s about moving from the harmful brands to the helpful ones. Changing small things in our daily lives is how we create change across the country and globe.

Adjusting to future generations
Business owners used to interview potential employees. You may not realise it but now, businesses are the ones being questioned by the candidates. People in their twenties are showing up to waiter job interviews already with a dream to own their own restaurant one day. They’re now coming to see if the restaurant adheres to their values and beliefs. There are plenty of other restaurants they can work for if they don’t. So, as a business owner, remember that you’re not in charge anymore. You should be fighting for people to come to you. You can only do that by changing your business and adapting to what society wants. In other words, you need to tick those boxes of inclusivity, diversity, appropriate pay, and other benefits.

The youth of today grew up in a world where information is easily accessible. As a result, they research everything in detail before consuming it. What many older people underestimate is just how much our youth cares. They aren’t going to engage with a business that’s harming businesses, people, or the environment. They gravitate to products that have recycled packaging, are made without harming animals, and adhere to good ethics. If you don’t have a plan for being sustainable, you won’t survive long-term because these people are going to be dictating consumption in the future.

We cannot put the onus on all these big companies to do better. In fact, small businesses have a better opportunity to change a lot faster. You’re a speedboat, while they’re an oil tanker. It’s very difficult for a large business to change its direction and processes, but small companies have it easier and should take advantage of it. As a small business, you shouldn’t wait for the big businesses to dictate what to do, you should be leading the way.

Although environmental sustainability is different from business sustainability, the two play into each other. Larger companies are adopting more Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) commitments and making them accessible to the public. People are looking for those set of standards that a company is adhering to in relation to the environment, society, and governance.

This is something small to medium-sized businesses can adopt. Making your ESG strategies public shows what you’re doing to meet targets end-to-end, from staff to products to point of sale. This is becoming increasingly important for shareholders and customers. They need to see a company’s ESG strategies in order to feel comfortable investing in them because they want to know if they’re helping head in the right direction, and also not doing any kind of greenwashing.

Making the change
While you want to promote the positive changes you’re making, you don’t want to be seen as greenwashing. Many businesses out there use their environmental friendliness to lure people back into their brand. They use a mirage of language to explain their promises and commitments. Meanwhile, they’re still using exploitative labour or other processes that cannot be labelled as sustainable. While the government is cracking down on these issues, it’s not lawyers you should be afraid of. The consumers are the ones with their eyes on you, seeing whether or not you are in fact doing good for the world.

It’s simpler than people make it out to be. If you’re in the trades industry, start by researching the products used in your processes. Did you know cement production has the world’s largest carbon footprint? You can research what concrete you’re using and what companies are creating innovative concrete with fewer carbon emissions. Sure, you might have to charge your clients a little more now, but you can truthfully market yourself as zero-carbon concrete or paint users.

They don’t have to be big changes. You just need to be mindful that all the brands and products you’re using are good for the environment and people. Then, you can tell everyone about the positive changes you’ve made in your business. Your transparency and genuine sustainability are effective marketing tools.

If you’re a cafe owner, look at your supply chain. Where do your coffee beans come from? Is it sustainable from end-to-end? What companies produce sustainable coffee beans? What do we do with our used coffee beans? Throw them away or compost them? Make those changes and tell everyone about them.

Similar to if you’re a painter, you can think of the products you’re using and how you’re using them. Are there harmful toxins in your paint? Are you washing paint down the drain or putting empty paint cans in the rubbish bin? Do you know if there is a better way to go about it? Research things you can do because they don’t just help the environment, they help your branding. Customers today and in the future will see an advertisement for a painter and ask if they use environmentally friendly paints. You can’t lie because it’ll catch up to you. So, it’s best for everyone if you do the research and make the switch.

With the level of education coming out over the next few years, everyone is going to be looking for sustainable businesses. Being a sustainable business is simple. Ask yourself how you can do the best for your employees, customers, and the environment. Be transparent about the positive changes you’re making and let them be a part of your brand.