3 Trends Shaping the Future of Business Sustainability

A growing number of small- and medium-sized businesses, like this pizza shop in Tucson, Arizona, are opting for renewable energy.
A growing number of small- and medium-sized businesses, like this pizza shop in Tucson, Arizona, are opting for renewable energy.

For those of us involved with the small business, not-for-profit, and startup world, the future of sustainability is here, whether we realize it or not.  Here are three ways that sustainability is changing for the business world — small, medium and large companies alike.

1. Affordable renewable energy and business

Woman-owned businesses are statistically more sustainable than those owned by men, according to a recent sustainability survey conducted by Cox Enterprises: “Seventy percent of women are committed to increasing sustainable business activities and are more likely to offer recycling programs, material efficiency initiatives and telecommuting options, compared to 62 percent of men.”  

Since October is also National Women’s Small Business Month, you might be inspired to take a cue from one of the 10 women cited in this article as inspiration for your own business.  Of course, you likely don’t have the same buying power as large companies like MGM Resorts International.  

However, the good news is that solar panels are soon to be produced and sold at an affordable price for small- and medium-sized businesses — which is quite a feat, since 99 percent of businesses in the United States are classified as small- or medium-sized.  This new development in solar panels will make greener building and renovation possible in the very near future, whereas it was previously considered impossible, budget-wise, for the majority of businesses.  Hopefully this new technology will prove to be a game-changer for our collective use of renewable energy and allow us to begin the migration away from non-renewables like coal, electricity and gas.

In a recent pair of essays, Roger Platt observes that green building has proven itself invaluable in business investment terms.  These trends can be summed up in two phrases: “our investors require it” and “our lender values it.”  

Platt was basically pointing out the viability and wisdom of taking the environmental movement seriously, in terms of giving business leaders and investors impetus to put stock — literally and figuratively — into green and renewable energy initiatives and building renovations.  In other words, let the naysayers naysay. Those in the know realize that sustainable building and business practices, such as LEED certification and investment in renewable energy sources for existing and future company headquarters, is not an idealistic pipe dream but the way of the future.

2. Video games and virtual reality

In terms of preparing the next generation of green pioneers, there’s an extension of the newly fashionable immersive game environment customized for college students majoring in environmental science.   At Arizona State University, environmental science students will play an interactive, online video game as part of their coursework in which their game character is presented with a number of choices in how to deal with a given problem or situation.  As a result of being immersed in the possible virtual scenarios, students experience a virtual simulation of reality that prepares them for dealing with similar situations in their future careers as business leaders who specialize in sustainability.  

If you’re wondering how interactive games and virtual reality are tied to environmental causes, think about the possibilities of visualization.  Video games and simulated worlds are ideally suited to environmental learning because, as author Tom Chatfield stresses, “Perhaps the most exciting thing that could come of this type of technology is students themselves getting excited about [it], and using it to create things — and learn via the act of creating.”  In other words, in a field that is still developing ideal ways to conserve resources, students being encouraged to create ideal realities will allow those virtual realities to get closer to becoming actual realities.

3. Interactive marketing and consumer choice

This use of interactive, online games also applies to the idea of interactive marketing, which is gaining popularity and fast-becoming preferred to traditional advertisements in which the consumer takes a passive role.  With blogging, email marketing, and social networking-based marketing, the online audience actively chooses to participate and give feedback, rendering customers more integral to the product-creation and ideation process.  Because there is no right or wrong answer, necessarily, products are likely to be seen in a more favorable light rather than possibly presented in a way that is unappealing to potential customers.  Marketing, social networking and sustainability are inherently connected — especially if you target eco-conscious consumers.  

One viable, up-and-coming market to target is the youth market — especially since young people tend to lean more to the left, politically and environmentally-speaking.  For example, let’s take the ability to utilize used cooking oil for fueling purposes through the use of biofuel.  Back in 2003, students at Ohio University developed a sustainable business program that not only utilized the vegetable oil that had been previously shipped off campus at a price, but it also calculated the price savings of keeping the oil on campus and utilizing it to make biodiesel to power campus vehicles.

The use of biofuel is a marketable business strategy that is sure to gain customers — as is the use of local products and ingredients at local restaurants, cafes, and retail stores. There’s a large contingent of the population who supports the ‘Buy Local’ movement specifically because it’s more sustainable: In supporting local business, you’re not supporting the oil industry to such a great extent — and the oil industry is a major source of environmental stress and pollution — remember the BP oil spill, anyone?  Marketing your use of biofuel or the sourcing of local products benefits of your business.  In doing so, you harness the power of a large subset of the population who wants your business because of the values you espouse through supporting sustainable sources.

Sustainability is here to stay, and it’s no longer out of reach.  Now that greener options are finally becoming more affordable and connected to the virtual and online realms, more possibilities are within reach than ever before.  The more we embrace technological change and growth, the more we stand to profit from said technologies.  They’re the way of the future, and the future is finally here.  The more of us take advantage of it, the faster it will become less unbelievable and more integral to our daily lives.

Image credit: Flickr/Ken Bosma

Daphne Stanford grew up near the ocean, and she loves taking pictures of the mountains and rivers in Idaho, where she now lives. She believes in the power of writing, education, and radio to change the world. She hosts “The Poetry Show!” Sundays on Radio Boise.  Find her on Twitter @daphne_stanford.

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