Marshall Atkinson explains how to start your business’s sustainability programme the right way

Many shops are starting to research and investigate building a sustainability programme as pressure from customers, competition and the avalanche of news articles that constantly point to the greening of the supply chain. Being sustainable isn’t just about printing with a different ink, or only using recycled or organic fabrics. Building a working sustainability programme is all about installing best practices, some sound foundational thinking, and measuring and documenting your efforts. But where should you start? Below are some tips that should get you going so you can build your programme on a firm foundation to set you up for future success.

Sustainability committee

The first place to start is to establish a sustainability committee. This is a small working group of individuals from different areas of your company that will meet on a regular basis to discuss everything about your programme. Ideally you want an owner or senior manager present, as well as someone from accounting, and a few department managers too. I would also include a few floor-level workers as well, as these are the people that will be on the working end of any policy or procedure that the committee invents. It’s good to get their point of view before something new rolls out. (The actual make-up of your committee will depend to some extent on the size of your business.)

The sustainability committee is in charge of putting together the initial programme for your company. You should start by asking why you want to build your programme anyway? Are you doing it because of governmental regulations? Market or competition pressure? Better efficiencies or to save money? Maybe because it is just the right thing to do? There isn’t a right or wrong answer… only what matters to you the most. Discuss your challenge and decide what should be the first thing you tackle.

Set SMART goals

Your committee should decide and set a SMART goal for each thing you want to try. If you don’t know, a SMART goal stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.

Saying you want to cut your energy bill isn’t a SMART goal. True, it is a goal, but it isn’t defined enough. Writing down that you are going to reduce your energy costs by 20% by the end of the year, and then listing all of the methods you are going to implement to achieve the goal, how you are going to track your effort, who is responsible for certain tasks; that’s setting a SMART goal. Get it all down on paper. Study it. Refine it. Make people accountable for actionable items. Make it public to your company so everyone knows what you are trying to achieve. Bring in their ideas, and train people on how they can help.

If your goal is important to you, it’s going to be important to everyone in the company. Make it a big deal. Celebrate it.

Benchmark your current state

Whatever the sustainability goal that you set for your company (and it is OK to have more than one), make sure that you begin with benchmarking your current state so as you progress you can compare to see how you are doing. That’s the reason we have speedometers in our cars, so we can tell how fast we are driving. For your shop, you’ll need a tool that can do the same thing. Tie this in with your goal.

If you are working on energy reduction, use your utility bills and chart your progress. If you are working on reducing your chemicals, or building a recycling programme it works the same way too.

Throw those numbers on a spreadsheet and as new information develops, add those new numbers to your file. Chart your progress and see if your decisions are making an impact.

Get an energy audit

Even if your SMART goal isn’t one that focuses on energy reduction, a great way to get going with a sustainability programme is to have an energy audit. Many utility companies offer this free of charge. Simply call them and schedule their team to come out to your business. Usually they are a little backed up so this could take a few weeks to schedule, so plan early.

The auditors will poke and probe around your building. They’ll look at your HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning), measure the heat or cooling loss from your windows and doors, examine your machinery and air compressors, and review your lighting. A short period of time after your audit, you’ll get a great report that outlines your current usage and how you can reduce your energy consumption.

Part of that report is a list of things you can do to use less energy every day. This works as a great action plan for projects for your committee to initiate. For bigger projects, such as lighting conversions, there are often low interest loans and grants that you can apply for assistance.

Making changes

The great thing about starting your sustainability journey is that it is going to force you to ask questions about why you are using products in your shop, and you’ll start to search to see if there’s anything out there that’s better. We all get comfortable with doing things a certain way, and sometimes we don’t stop and think that there may be a better method, product or equipment that could save us time, money and effort. Talk to your suppliers and see what they have that could help. Be bold, and try out new products to see what works for you the best. Go to a trade show and discover new opportunities.

Be sure to get your staff on board with your plans, too. Switching to a new product will not matter much if you staff is not using it properly. You might need some training, or even some time doing something new to get the results you are seeking. There even will be occasions where something just is not going to work and you have failed. Don’t get discouraged, failure is part of doing new things, and I can guarantee you that you will fail at something. Learn from it. What when wrong? Document your efforts so you can trace the circumstances that led to the failure. Also be sure to talk with your staff about the failure and let them know that it is part of growing, and for them to not take it to heart.


Some tips

Building your programme is going to take a lot of work. You will have to research and investigate as to what will make sense for your company. Here are some quick tips to make your programme work:

  1. Start with the easiest things first. I would recommend getting an energy audit or starting a recycling programme. Early success can give you momentum and training for working on harder projects.
  2. Communication is the key to getting your employees involved. Talk to them about what you are doing and why. Get their ideas. Involve them in the process.
  3. Make it fun. Have a celebration when you achieve a goal.
  4. Apply for funding. Use the internet and see what is available in your area. Ask questions and get some help. You don’t have to do this alone.
  5. Don’t be afraid to fail. Mistakes are going to happen
  6. Local manufacturing business associations often have great programmes and consultants that can offer assistance, training, and education.
  7. Sustainability is also about increasing efficiency, so look to use Lean Six Sigma methodologies in your workflow. Increase performance by eliminating wasted steps. Do more with less.
  8. Ask your customers what is important to them. Occasionally they can help or offer guidance as well, as sometimes they have their own sustainability programmes already going. This will cement your relationship further.

The three Rs

Think about starting your programme based using the three Rs guideline – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce  Reduce the amount of consumables you are purchasing and using. Using some lean thinking, examine your workflow and processes and try to see what you can change to reduce the amount of material you are using, energy you are consuming, and steps it takes you to do your work. It’s basically an efficiency mind-set. If something takes five steps to do, how can you achieve the same task in three? What can you do to reduce your energy consumption on a daily basis? Small things add up quickly here.

Reuse  What can you reuse around your shop so you won’t have to purchase new? The easiest example is always shop towels. Why buy new when you can use defective or misprinted shirts? Can you reuse cardboard boxes or drums for something?

Recycle  More than just fizzy drinks cans… You can recycle light bulbs, cardboard, paper, batteries, chemicals, computers, office furniture, metal, old equipment, ink, plastic, and other materials. The trick is to find how to do it in your area. To build our recycling programme, it took nearly a year’s worth of effort to find a recycling partner that would help us achieve our goals correctly, but in the end, the wait was worth it as they make the programme very easy. You just have to keep plugging away!

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.