Growing your business without killing the planet: how to stay true to your sustainability goals as you scale

In the world of startups, scaling and sustainability are made to feel like opposites. You may have started with the best intentions, but as businesses grow it gets harder to ensure high ethical standards are met, particularly when faced with outdated industry practices and the pressure to keep down costs. The company values you wrote at your kitchen table start looking more like suggestions than rules to live by, and growth and greenness feel diametrically opposed. Sustainability just seems like a sacrifice you’ll have to make on the altar of profit and progress.

This never was true, but it’s especially important we don’t believe it in 2020. The climate emergency is only intensifying and it’s increasingly critical that individuals, governments and businesses of every sector and size play their part. Inaction is inexcusable at every level and sustainability can no longer be a nice extra page on a company website. It needs to inform decision-making at every stage and it can’t be dropped as the bottom line swells - our earth can’t afford it. 

But sticking to your original sustainability goals isn’t just for the benefit of the planet. If you’re a brand that’s built a following on your ethical and sustainable practice, don’t think your customers won’t notice if you try and quietly let things slide. It’s foolish businesses that underestimate the intelligence of consumers and overestimate their loyalty. Just ask alternative milk brand Oatly, who faced widespread backlash from fans this autumn after they announced that private equity firm Blackstone had acquired a $200m stake in their business. The move prompted boycott calls from customers who saw the deal as a deep betrayal of Oatly’s values, angered by the company’s alliance with a firm whose portfolio includes a Brazilian business accused of Amazon deforestation. Oatly’s painful example shows that keeping your commitments as you scale isn’t just for your environmental conscience - it’s crucial for your profits too.

However, just because something’s right, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s tough to stick to your guns when exciting opportunities knock at your door. The temptation to compromise on your values and cut corners can be powerful - does it really matter this supplier has a poor recycling record? Is that client’s history really that bad? - but it’s crucial to resist its call. Giving in one time leads to another time and another and before you know it, you’re worlds away from the purpose-driven business you thought you once were. For any company, but especially for ambitious startups, it’s crucial to remember that brand identity isn’t a static entity that you created that one time in a messaging workshop. Who you are, what you represent and ultimately who you can appeal to is continually being shaped by the series of decisions you make on a day to day basis.

But making those good, sustainable decisions is more than just about saying ‘no’ to opportunities that don’t fit your values. It’s about taking proactive steps to shape the future of your business. To do this, and ensure they don’t lose sight of their ethical aims, many companies use an externally-set framework or accreditation scheme around which to build their business model and against which to test their decisions. At Homethings, we chose the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Responsible Production and Consumption) to be the backbone of our business, and we use its specific targets to drive our supply chain decisions and company strategy. We’re also B Corp Pending (we’re too young to be fully certified) and use the B Corp guidelines to shape our goals and steer our choices. Whatever system you use, it’s important that you stick to it and it’s important that it challenges you - consumers are learning to smell greenwash from a mile off and a badge won’t help you if you can’t show what it practically means and how your actions are backing it up.

Finding a sustainable framework isn’t the only way you can keep your eco credentials as you scale. Taking charge of your sustainability story means reordering your priorities and making sustainability the first question you ask, not the last, when meeting new manufacturers or suppliers, or enlisting new team members. It means challenging received wisdom and refusing to accept ‘that’s just the way it is’. And it means laying aside your individual pride to learn from other brands and using their experiences to help you make better choices. Sustainability isn’t a competition that can be won and it’s crucial we don’t let vanity stand in the way of sharing vital knowledge and making environmental progress. That’s why we launched our podcast, Re(Action), to create a space where we can learn from activists, entrepreneurs and anyone pushing to protect the planet, drawing on their collective wisdom to inspire us as we grow.

Finally, just as sustainability and growth can go hand in hand, it’s important to remember that meeting customer needs doesn’t have to be opposed to the best environmental practice. It is possible to make a product convenient and accessible without harming the planet, although it’s true that this isn’t often hasn’t been the case. The popularity of reusable coffee cups (before coronavirus) and reusable water bottles shows that consumers are more than willing to take up sustainable alternatives if brands give them the chance and if it makes sense financially. It can work at a macro level and it can work for small businesses too - it’s this knowledge that led us to found Homethings and make a convenient, eco conscious alternative for the current toxic, wasteful house cleaning market.

Growing our businesses doesn’t have to mean killing the planet and, as we push into 2021 and beyond, we can’t afford to let them. It’s crucial that as startups we don’t cheat on our original environmental goals - crucial for the planet, brand integrity and profit. Staying true to these commitments can be tough but with discipline, creativity and collective knowledge it’s easier than you might think. Those kitchen table core values look good on your new office wall.