Home Advice For The Young At Heart Five Stages Of Sustainability: How To Build A Sustainable Startup That Doesn’t...

Five Stages Of Sustainability: How To Build A Sustainable Startup That Doesn’t Sacrifice Profit


by Tara Milburn, Founder and CEO of Ethical Swag

For years, as our collective understanding of the climate change crisis progressed, sustainable practices in the corporate sphere were growing in their urgency. The opinion that corporate sustainability should rank high as an aim was universally held. In practice, though, efforts were pulled in two different directions: sustainable practices vs. sustainable profits.

Sustainable profits — earning a bottom line that would keep the company afloat, satisfy shareholders, and achieve investor aims—seemed mutually exclusive with sustainable practices. Eco-friendly materials cost more. Sustainable delivery habits are less competitive. Social campaigns and favorable employee conditions need, somehow, to be funded.

These days, the two seemingly competitive aims have merged into one imperative. The twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and global climate change have accelerated the urgency. In the fast-approaching new normal, sustainable practices will be the only way to see company-sustaining profits. Consumer sentiments have shifted. Employee standards, government policy, and buyer awareness are all raising the social, governmental, and environmental ideal. At this stage, a fledgling company without sustainable practices will struggle to find relevance in a post-pandemic market. Luckily, the newfound reward for green companies is making it easier for founders to advocate for proper practices from the beginning.

Below are five important steps for post-COVID founders to take in their path toward sustainable operations.

1. Fact-Based Communications.

The case for ethical operations is easily quantified. Founders should begin with an analysis of the benefits, both financially tangible and otherwise, as they relate to their specific industry niche. In every recent S&P analysis, ESG funds have outperformed their market peers. But there’s a lot of ground for a new founder to cover between idea and IPO. What are some of the immediate benefits to your stakeholders? How do employee relations and minimized turnover relate to more vacation time, or higher donation match programs? Doing the initial research, and letting the numbers speak in the planning stages, will help to keep everyone inspired and on the same, sustainable page.

2. Sustainable Planning. 

As soon as possible, begin to put real action items behind your sustainability goals. What does sustainability mean for your products, your packaging, your employee offerings, and your own work life balance? Begin with more general ideas and work toward establishing specific goals. Part of ethical operations might be making sure each team member is happy with the amount of vacation time they’re offered. With your team, work toward a number — approximately how much time is that? What does it mean financially and structurally to be able to offer that much time to each team member? Begin this process across all aspects of your operations, and budget for the time it takes to do it right!

3. Seeking Wisdom.

Luckily, your sustainability planning doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Consultancies and auditing companies have mastered the art of helping founders move closer toward their sustainability goals. A B-Certification is the highest possible standard of social and environmental performance. Certified B Corporations are audited and verified to uphold public transparency, legal accountability, and socially-oriented purpose. For green-oriented founders, becoming a certified B Corporation is a worthy goal.

But you don’t have to wait until you’re ready for the audit; you can consult with experts along the way. B Labs has an Impact Assessment tool that helps founders measure their actions toward their employees, community, environment, and future customers. A practice like that can be invaluable in the early stages, catching mistakes early and preventing them from manifesting into something larger.

In addition, expert auditors will happily lend their time and assess segments of a company before it is time for the formal auditing process. With these check-ins, founders can be sure they’re on the right track.

4. Cloud Optimization.

Part of post-COVID sustainability is hybrid operations. Working from home, in some capacity, is an offering that can diminish the barriers to workforce activity. Employed parents can juggle their work schedule with the additional caregiving work that’s been an almost universal outcome of the pandemic. Early-career professionals can choose the environment that works best for them, maybe allotting some of their hours to in-office networking and others to uninterrupted, focused hours at home.

Whatever works best with the specific lifestyle and learning preferences of your team members, investing in cloud optimization will make it easier for them to operate in that way. Advanced video conferencing technologies reduce the pressure of being in-office for team meetings. Seamless file sharing and editing strategies help employees access their work when and where it works for them. For founders who are committed to bringing sustainable values into their team operations, this is an area of investment that’s worth prioritizing.

5. Leaving Space — Recalibration.

It’s the founder’s orientation, not their initial success, that matters. The aforementioned four steps are sizable undertakings. Meanwhile, the founder is juggling the day to day requirements of selling an idea, engaging with investors, and ensuring a great product or service comes at the end of it all. Creating a two way street for feedback around the success of the systems in place is the best way to reduce the impact of the inevitable errors that will come along the way. Create a way for your team to tell you how the systems you have in place are mapping onto their work life reality. Delegate team power toward monitoring your early ecological footprint and identify areas for that to be improved.

The pressure to get everything right from the beginning can be paralyzing. Instead, put the right systems in place to increase your confidence that for every wrong turn, you’ll have a network that will get you back on track. The road from idea to sustainable success is long — there’s no reason for founders to walk it alone.


Tara Milburn is the Founder and CEO of Ethical Swag, a sustainable branding company that makes it easy for brands to offer personalized promotional products that they can stand behind. A certified B-Corporation, Ethical Swag has been audited to the highest global standard for sustainability.