Green Business Bureau

How To Create A Sustainability Plan: Executive Guide To Becoming A Sustainable Business – Step 5

The playbook for becoming a sustainable business.

If your company is working toward improving its sustainability performance, you need a strategy, plan and roadmap . There are ten steps we’ve defined at Green Business Bureau to gear your company’s purpose, culture, focus and actions towards sustainability. All 10 steps below were summarized in the first article, The Executive Guide for Becoming a Sustainable Business :

Step 1: Define your vision, mission and values Step 2: Create a sustainability committee or green team Step 3: Benchmark and assess your current sustainability performance Step 4: Engage your employees Step 5: Plan, set goals and prioritize based on over 400 GBB initiatives Step 6: Implement the plan, establish and communicate new policies and practices Step 7: Leverage the GBB Scorecard to track progress and measure results Step 8: Analyze your results and compare to goals and benchmarks Step 9: Celebrate and communicate your accomplishments Step 10: If you’re ready, get Certified or continue making improvements

Today’s article will cover Step 5, a blueprint for a sustainability plan.

Step 5: Create a Sustainability Plan for Your Business

The fifth step in your green business journey is to create a sustainability plan. A holistic and well organized sustainability plan will include several key components:

Part 1: Sustainability Drivers – This section summarizes the aspects of your business that use scarce natural resources, contribute to climate change, cause environmental harm or produce useless waste. It’s essentially a summary of your sustainability opportunities and challenges.

Part 2: Goals and KPIs – This section documents your current baseline in terms of your eco profile which includes your energy usage, water usage, carbon emissions and overall eco score. The score can be based on several common certifications including Green Business Bureau and the B Corp Impact Assessment . It also includes your goals and target KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

Part 3: Action Plan – This section includes a list of planned green initiatives and a detailed description for each. The initiatives should be prioritized based on impact, effort, cost and feasibility. They should consider processes, materials, people, policies and projects related to energy, waste, buildings, products, packaging, supply chain, transportation, food, water, community and employee well being.

Part 4: Implementation Plan – This section includes the organization structure required to support your sustainability program as well as employee training, internal and external communication, policy requirements and certification plans.

25 Tips For Managing an ESG Program

Green business bureau sustainability checklist, understand your sustainability drivers.

There is no one sustainable business blueprint that applies to every company. Every industry and every business uses resources and energy differently. However, there are a few common goals every business shares: to minimize their waste and reduce carbon emissions. Business factors that influence sustainability priorities include investors, customers, resource shortages, consumer preferences, the ROI of projects, regulations, employee morale, recruitment and retention, and brand equity. All of these need to be taken into account in your sustainability strategy, tactics and prioritization of initiatives.

Here are the main areas to consider and questions to ask yourself when understanding what changes your company needs to make to improve its sustainability performance:

  • Energy – How much energy do we use? Can we use less or adopt clean alternative energy sources?
  • Water – How much water do we use? How much do we waste? Can we conserve water with smart technology (e.g. motion sensor faucets)? Do we use plastic bottles for water?
  • Food – Where do we source our food from? What food do we provide employees? Is it healthy and produced from sustainable sources? Can we minimize meat and offer more plant-based options? Are we composting food waste?
  • Waste – What waste do we produce and where does it come from? Is it hazardous? How can we reduce waste and prevent pollution? Can we find ways to recycle or upcycle waste materials (e.g. install recycling bins in the break room)?
  • Buildings – How eco-friendly are our buildings? Are there opportunities to improve energy efficiency and upgrade lighting, insulation, heating and cooling? Are we maximizing natural light or natural airflow whenever possible?
  • Products & Packaging – Do our products use sustainably sourced and eco-friendly materials? How does manufacturing our products impact the environment? Is our packaging also safe for people and the planet?
  • Supply Chain – Are we using vendors and suppliers who are environmentally and socially responsible? Are we sourcing products locally or from the closest source? Are there areas to improve supply chain efficiency in terms of lowering waste and carbon emissions?
  • Transportation – What vehicles do we use for distribution and operations? Can we reduce employee business travel? If not, how can we offset our carbon emissions?
  • Community – Do we support our local communities and local farms? Do we get involved in environmental causes, events and associations? Are we evangelizing green business?
  • Employees – Do we offer employee training in sustainability? Do we have a green team? Are we creating a green culture? What’s our level of employee engagement? Do we communicate policies company-wide?

Consider All Business Functions and Departments

For many industries, the process of manufacturing products causes the most harm to the planet. This is especially true in Industrial Manufacturing and Consumer Manufacturing where supply chain, materials and factory operations drive significant carbon emissions and waste. But every department and every employee has an impact on your eco footprint, not just manufacturing. Companies looking to become more sustainable need to look at all departments and all business functions:

  • Manufacturing including production, sourcing, fulfillment, distribution and logistics.
  • Facilities including buildings, cleaning and maintenance, bathrooms, food service, heating, air conditioning and landscaping.
  • Engineering including product design, materials and end-of-life management (e.g. the product’s reuse and recycling potential).
  • Finance and Accounting including applying carbon credits, minimizing paper billing and printing and remote working.
  • Customer Service including remote service and product repair that uses spare parts for replacements.
  • Human Resources including video conferencing interviews, hiring of employees that are purpose-driven and committed to sustainability.
  • Information Technology and Printing including your servers, data center and hosting providers.
  • Sales and Marketing including business travel, printing of marketing materials and sustainability evangelism.
  • Executive Team including establishing a company purpose, green mission statement, green culture and the right values.

Building the Sustainability Plan

There are several key steps required before a company actually starts creating and documenting its sustainability plan and program. These are discussed in detail in previous articles in the Green Business Bureau Executive Guide Steps 1 to 4 . The company leadership team must define the sustainability vision, mission and values for the company.  A sustainability committee or green team must be in place to begin the research, strategy and planning phase. The team will need to benchmark and assess the current sustainability performance and engage employees to gather ideas and understand the current state of sustainability. Once these foundational steps are taken, it’s time to begin creating the plan. The following sections review all the major areas that should be considered in your plan.

Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

If your building hasn’t undergone an energy audit, now is the time. Energy audits help you truly understand your energy use and offer recommendations for better efficiency and lower utility bills. You will likely uncover opportunities for alternative clean energy (non-fossil fuel energy sources and processes). Examples include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, wave power, nuclear and hydropower. There are dozens of initiatives in this area and Green Business Bureau provides an in-depth library of them. Here are some of the tactics and initiatives to consider in your plan:

  • Start upgrading your building by installing programmable thermostats and low-flow faucet aerators, and replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs.
  • Consider bigger projects like HVAC retrofits or renewable energy installations like solar roofing. While these projects have expensive upfront costs, they yield significant net savings in the long-term.
  • Buy certified energy efficient appliances and equipment like those from ENERGY STAR .
  • Switch your utilities providers to ones that offer renewable energy options.
  • Research clean energy tax credits and incentives available in your area.

sustainability business plan example

Waste Reduction – Reuse & Recycling

Reducing waste is a win-win for businesses because it’s friendly to both the environment and the bottom line. The ultimate waste reduction goal is to get to zero waste, where no waste makes it to the landfill. If zero waste is too ambitious of a goal, you can start with a goal of waste reduction or waste minimization. Here are some examples of waste initiatives to consider:

  • Improve your manufacturing processes to produce less waste.
  • Comply with strict environmental standards in terms of production materials and the use of raw materials.
  • Uncover all recycling opportunities and turn your waste into something another stakeholder can use.
  • Improve inventory and store food and materials more efficiently to minimize spoilage and over stocking.
  • Aim to be as paperless as possible. Don’t send printed direct mail and stop the flow of junk mail by opting out of direct mailing lists .
  • Use sustainable marketing swag and promotional items that are useful and reusable like totes and reusable water bottles.
  • Teach customers to do repairs rather than dispose of products.

sustainability business plan example

Water Usage Best Practices

The past decade has been one of the driest on record in several parts of the world. Several countries have enacted stringent water rationing for businesses and households. Drought ranks second among U.S. weather-related economic events with annual losses nearing $9 billion. Whether your business is located in a drought-stricken area or not, reducing water usage is an effective way to save money and help conserve valuable environmental resources. Your plan should include water conservation initiatives such as:

  • Fix plumbing that leaks and eliminate dripping taps
  • Install low-flow faucets and water efficient toilets
  • Opt for a drought-tolerant landscape design with drip irrigation and rain sensors.
  • Reduce landscape water use.
  • Engage employees to be more conscientious of their water consumption habits.

sustainability business plan example

Pollution Prevention & Water Stewardship

Companies all pollute at some level, whether it is pollution in the air, water or soil. Pollution prevention begins with reducing or eliminating waste at the source. Here are some of the tactics and initiatives to consider in your plan related to pollution:

  • Modify your production processes to emit less waste or hazardous emissions.
  • Use non-toxic or less toxic materials and substances in your products and processes.
  • Implement conservation techniques by using less energy, water and raw materials.
  • Reuse materials such as production scraps and byproducts to reduce your waste stream.
  • Reduce packaging that is non-biodegradable.
  • Use electric or hybrid fleet vehicles or other lower emissions vehicles.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate discharge pollutants and get to something often referred to as zero discharge – the stats of having no pollutants from a point source (e.g. processing plant) to local waterways. Part of zero discharge includes being a good water steward. 

  • Recycle industrial wastewater by treating any reusable water or other material from wastewater and transferring any potential pollutants to a solid phase (sludge).
  • Reduce the amount of water needed during production.

Sustainable Building Best Practices

Your buildings can certainly be more efficient and eco-friendly. When moving, building or expanding, look for buildings that have a high-efficiency architecture. These buildings typically have net-zero and passive construction methods that employ super-insulated shells equipped with solar and geothermal systems to reduce energy usage. Here are some areas to consider:

  • Consider solar roofing or solar panels.
  • Upgrade insulation, HVAC and appliances to more energy efficient models.
  • Organize workspaces that use natural light to cut down on energy usage.
  • Use energy efficient light bulbs such as LEDs.
  • Install programmable thermostats to optimally control indoor temperatures.
  • Bring in live plants to improve indoor air quality.
  • Consider water conservation solutions like motion sensor faucets.
  • Install automatic light shut off systems and motion detectors.
  • Switch to data center providers that use clean energy.

This short list are just a few examples. The Green Business Bureau lists dozens of initiatives related to green buildings . You should also investigate rebate and incentive programs that may be offered for many of these upgrades or overhauls.

sustainability business plan example

Sustainable Product Best Practices

Sustainable products start with sustainable design. Be sure product designs include resources that are renewable and not energy or water-intensive. Make products that are recyclable, renewable and/or biodegradable, and do not contain toxic or ozone-depleting substances. Look for fairtrade partners to ensure your materials are manufactured by ethical suppliers that pay their employees fair and livable wages. Examples of the most sustainable materials include:

  • Cardboard and paper
  • Recycled plastic
  • Bamboo, straw, cork, wool, wheatboard and strawboard
  • Reclaimed or recycled wood and metal
  • Cornstarch and hemp
  • Carbon capture blocks instead of concrete

Sustainable Packaging Best Practices

According to the EPA, packaging alone contributes to over 23% of the material reaching landfills in the United States. You can significantly reduce your carbon footprint and waste output by changing the way you package and ship your products. Here are some areas to consider for your plan:

  • Go with eco-friendly boxes and packaging for storage and shipping.
  • Swap out single-use containers for materials that break down quickly and effectively, like corn starch, mycelium, wood pulp and seaweed.
  • Don’t use undesired “hybrid” combinations of packaging material. Packaging made from two different types of polymers, for example, can render it non-recyclable.
  • Use water activated paper tape instead of plastic tape.
  • Minimize/reduce the packaging materials.

Sustainable Procurement Best Practices

One of the best ways to make your business more environmentally-friendly is to practice green procurement . Your procurement department needs to purchase products that are sustainable and that are delivered to you with minimal impact on the environment. Whenever possible, make sure you source your goods and services from local suppliers to support communities and cut down on transportation costs. Here are some areas to consider for sustainable procurement initiatives:

  • Change your purchasing habits for office supplies, kitchen supplies and cleaning products to be more eco-friendly.
  • Consider a shift to reusable tableware in your cafeterias and break rooms.
  • From raw materials to tools and equipment, always source sustainably.
  • Choose products made from recyclable and biodegradable materials and avoid those containing toxic or ozone-depleting substances.
  • Use products that are durable and designed to be repaired and not thrown away.

sustainability business plan example

Sustainable Travel Best Practices

Your employees’ commute is one of the greatest offenders of carbon emissions. That includes business travel as well as supply chain transportation. Air travel accounts for as much as 10 to 25% of the carbon footprint of international companies. Here are some areas to consider:

  • Reduce commute emissions by enabling and supporting employees to work from home.
  • Have all your departments including your sales, marketing and executive teams reduce the need to travel by hosting video conference calls.
  • Organize a carpooling or ride sharing program.
  • Encourage employees to walk, bike or use public transit if possible.
  • For those who must fly, choose airlines with their carbon offset programs such as Delta Air Lines .
  • Encourage employees to buy their flights and hotels on websites such as GoodWings which offsets CO2 emissions
  • Offset your CO2 emissions by investing in carbon offset projects .

Community Involvement Best Practices

Protecting the environment includes working with your local communities, green associations and driving other businesses and people you interact with to be more mindful and sustainable. Here are a few ideas:

  • Become an annual sponsor of an event promoting sustainability in your area.
  • Place an employee on the organizing committee for the same or another event to achieve maximum involvement and exposure.
  • Become an active member of an organization that continually works to improve the environment nationally or in your area.
  • Offer a green promotion such as planting a tree for every 10 products sold.
  • Donate a percentage of your profit to local environmental and community programs.
  • Set up a fundraiser in your community to promote eco-conscious initiatives.

sustainability business plan example

Summary: Having a Sustainability Plan is Necessary for Success

As we’ve discussed, creating a sustainability plan and program is a major undertaking. It can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Identify the sustainability drivers for your company.
  • Understand all the potential green initiatives possible at your company.
  • Prioritize the top practical sustainability initiatives that make the most sense and are aligned with your strategic vision and purpose.
  • Establish goals and timelines that are specific and measurable.
  • Schedule your sustainability initiatives and use formal program management to track progress and results.

Developing a sustainability plan sets the foundation for your actionable sustainability program including its organizational structure, accountability, project management, tracking and measurement. Improving your company’s sustainability performance is a complex and ambitious undertaking, thus you need a reliable and accurate plan to help you navigate.

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How to Develop a Small Business Sustainability Plan

If you’re a small business owner, you may be wondering what you’ll gain by adopting a small business sustainability plan. In a word, plenty! Regardless of your industry, adopting sustainable business practices can improve your bottom line—in both the traditional and the environmental sense.

Your cost savings, reduced risk, positive brand association, improvements to the environment and public health, and ability to meet demands for eco-conscientious products and services will more than offset the costs of up-front integration of sustainability initiatives. In other words, your small business sustainability plan’s initial costs are a wise investment!

sustainability business plan example

What Is a Business Sustainability Plan?

A business sustainability plan is simply something an organization develops to achieve goals that create financial, societal and environmental sustainability. A business impacts communities and resources, so taking these steps to sustainability is in the best interests of the environment, the business owner and the consumer.

Reasons to Build a Sustainable Business

Making the case for a sustainable business is simple: an environmentally friendly business can be a profitable one. You can decrease your business’s negative impact on the environment and potentially save money. Just take it from the many  companies around the world that generate at least $1 billion a year in revenue from sustainable products or services. These companies manufacture everything from burritos to sports cars. Collectively, these businesses generate more than $100 billion in annual revenue from their green product lines alone, and they can outperform competitors by nearly 12 percent annually.

Small businesses can easily scale these practices and implement them in their own organizations through a small business sustainability plan. From saving money and promoting public health to improving public relations, the benefits of building a sustainable business might surprise you.

Benefits of a Small Business Sustainability Plan

  • Reduce energy use. From installing ENERGY STAR products and appliances to using LED light bulbs and automatic taps, if you reduce waste, you will increase your business’s efficiency, potentially save money on energy and contribute to overall small business sustainability. You can even start small: encourage employees in energy-saving practices such as turning off lights, carpooling, or telecommuting whenever possible.
  • Improve public health.  Be committed to going beyond mere compliance with baseline government standards. A sustainable business will implement changes that reduce emissions, improve air quality, and identify products that reduce concerns about health and safety liability. This promotes higher standards of public health and environmental protection.
  • Be a trailblazer.  Not too long ago, no one thought a sustainable business could also be a profitable one, so many industries still lack sustainable companies. Become an inspiring voice of advocacy beyond the four walls of your organization, and blaze trails by creating value for employees, consumers and the public. The visionary thinking and passion behind your business sustainability plan will be remembered—and will yield dividends—for years to come.
  • Attract green-conscious consumers—and publicity. Improve public relations with your sustainable business by becoming attractive to Earth-conscious consumers and raising your brand’s value. And remember to let the public know when you implement your environmentally friendly policies. Learn more about the  benefits of running an environmentally friendly business here !

5 Steps to Sustainability for a Small Business

If you’re ready to develop your small business sustainability plan, we’re here to help! With these five steps to sustainability based on going above and beyond mere regulatory compliance , you’ll be equipped to make your business more up to date and efficient. The result will be rewards for both the environment and your bottom line.

Step one to sustainability for a small business

Step 1: Learn about Sustainability

The first step in creating a small business sustainability plan is learning what, exactly, sustainability is all about.

  • Knowledge is power. Use your resources wisely! There are many guides out there that offer suggestions on sustainability as well as renewable and sustainable energy. Use them as a jumping-off point.
  • Profits, people and planet. Internalize the idea that sustainability within your business means managing your triple bottom line: your financial, social and environmental impacts, obligations and opportunities.
  • Going green vs. going sustainable. You may be wondering, what is a green business? Green products and services directly reduce the environmental impact when compared to other products and services— sustainability is a broader concept. It’s about the long-term, multifaceted impacts and implications of your products and services. But you can use green language in your small business sustainability plan and campaign using green goals to measure your total sustainability success.
  • Out with the old (way of thinking). Forget the outdated “take-make-waste” worldview, and adopt the “borrow-use-return” model. It’s all about a perspective shift. The key is to see the business, the self, the economy and the household as connected with—instead of separate from—the environment.

Step two to sustainability for a small business

Step 2: Assess Areas of Improvement

If the federal government and major corporations can find ways to improve sustainability, so can your small business! It just takes some research.

  • Learn the laws. From local development laws to self-regulation in your industry to international treaties, many standards are already on the books in terms of sustainable practices. The Environmental Protection Agency ’s website is a great place to start in your research.
  • Check your compliance. At a minimum, your business should be in total compliance with any laws or standards already in place. Research cost-effective ways to improve compliance, such as through pollution-prevention techniques and innovation.
  • Assess global issues. Research issues such as global warming, energy and fuel crises, and ecosystem decline to see whether your practices are a contributing factor. This will guide what small business sustainability goals you set in terms of improvement.

Step three to sustainability for a small business

Step 3: Find Opportunities

Start embracing the entrepreneurial spirit of innovation and asking yourself the hard questions: check out these opportunities for creating the best small business sustainability plan possible.

  • Innovate. Success in implementing sustainable business practices is directly related to innovation. If you want to meaningfully reduce waste and energy consumption, you’ll need to innovate, whether you’re a start-up or a thriving business. From problem solving to finding cheaper and better ways of doing things, innovation ranges from simple changes to implementation of complex new technologies.
  • Get employee input. Bring in employee ideas and support; employees will take responsibility for things like energy efficiency and come up with solutions that will help you implement and improve sustainability.
  • Self-reflect. Ask yourself a few questions, and you’ll find numerous opportunities for improvement: What strengths does my business bring to the table that can play a unique role in sustainability? Does my company create an overabundance of waste? Do the companies I work with create mass amounts of waste?

Step four to sustainability for a small business

Step 4: Create a Vision

Your vision for sustainability is all about what makes you and your business tick.

  • Find your company’s passion. What is your company passionate about? Choose from a few environmental issues (e.g., global warming, air pollution, waste disposal, water pollution, urban sprawl), and focus on where you can have a meaningful impact.
  • Be specific about your small business’s vision. Create a separate vision for each section of your small business, from those on the front lines to those working behind the scenes in different departments.
  • Define your sustainability model’s terms. Be sure to define a few words that describe your business’s specific sustainability model. This will help you give your employees the ability to take ownership of your overall vision.

Step five to sustainability for a small business

Step 5: Implement Changes

The final of the five steps to sustainability is an exciting one. Implementation!

  • Communicate clearly. Adequately communicate your new sustainability plan across your entire company. Educate your employees to ensure successful implementation, and make sure all leaders are involved.
  • Change policies. Ensure your current policies align with your sustainability plan. If not, create new ones that are specific to different departments and employees.
  • Review performance. Create specific, measurable and attainable written goals, and develop metrics on how to track the success of your changes. This could be as simple as comparing a previous energy bill under the old policies with a new one that comes after you’ve implemented changes.
  • Get feedback . Have your leaders in the company report back to you on any difficulties they encounter in implementing changes to policies, so that you can troubleshoot how to fix them while still staying true to the sustainability model. This will help you identify opportunities for more small business sustainability.

After you’ve taken the five steps to sustainability, make sure you can substantiate your sustainability claims before going public with the environmental advantages of your products or services. You can avoid making unqualified claims by following the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines and general principles that apply to environmental marketing. You’ll learn how consumers will interpret your claims and how to support and qualify your claims without being misleading. Then you’ll be ready to let people know about your small business sustainability plan. The financial, societal, environmental and public relations rewards are sure to follow!

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Once only the responsibility of sustainability managers, ESG performance and sustainability are today considered key areas of strategic focus for organizations, often reflected in Sustainability Action Plans developed by organizations.

Looming investor pressure, consumer awareness and the understanding that sustainability is an important tenet in risk management and corporate governance has seen responsibilities shift and awareness ripple across both departments and management levels. The tidal shift has been embraced by organizations as they champion decarbonization. It presents ever-growing opportunities for innovation and increased investments towards green technologies, which ultimately accelerate sustainability.

Much like operational plans are developed to future-proof an organization’s success, so too are Sustainability Action Plans in helping to achieve a low-carbon business fit for the future. In this article, we lay out practical guidance on how to create a Sustainability Action Plan along with recommended inclusions and structure. We also provide a free Sustainability Action Plan template for download to support your sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

Download template

What is a Sustainability Action Plan?

A Sustainability Action Plan is created by an organization to detail how it will achieve sustainability goals over time, particularly if ambitious targets have been set, such as achieving net zero by a specific time frame. It is usually a static document that details a two to five-year timeline of objectives, although this period is at the organization’s discretion.

Its purpose is to embed ESG and sustainability across an organization, within all business operations. The path to a Sustainability Action Plan typically starts with a vision at an executive level, with the Sustainability Action Plan serving as the detailed strategy of how the vision will be achieved.

To complement the Sustainability Action Plan, organizations often release annual Sustainability Reports that detail the organization’s progress against the objectives. Together, Sustainability Action Plans and Sustainability Reports function as an important communications tool for organizations to illustrate their sustainability journey to a wide audience of stakeholders.

Sustainability Action Plans are not mandatory, rather, they are an initiative of an organization who wishes to make a positive impact on their sustainability performance.

In addition to planning and internal reporting, many organizations disclose their sustainability performance via various ESG reporting frameworks . In some instances, the data collected for the production of a Sustainability Action Plan can be used to support the reporting requirements of frameworks such as GRI , GRESB and SASB.

And vice-versa, organizations reporting detailed information to ESG reporting frameworks may export some of those responses to their Sustainability Action Plans to illustrate how they are performing against their goals.

This task is made easy with Envizi’s ESG Reporting Frameworks module which allows organizations to collate responses for both external and internal reporting frameworks in one place. In addition to collating responses, the module includes functionality to extract responses for use in documentation such as a Sustainability Action Plan.

Who needs a Sustainability Action Plan?

Organizations of all sizes can make steps towards making their business operations more sustainable and positively contributing to their community and environment. Smaller organizations should consider the resource requirements of developing a comprehensive Sustainability Action Plan and achieving those objectives over time.

For larger organizations, a comprehensive Sustainability Action Plan is ideal for outlining the long-term vision and plans to satisfy investor requirements, to change consumer attitudes and to take advantage of opportunities. This is especially the case once pledges have been made, as the next stage in the process is to work out exactly how the organization will achieve those pledges.

How to create a Sustainability Action Plan

A Sustainability Action Plan requires dedicated commitment across all levels of an organization, and it can be transformational as it requires a top-down approach with cultural change, realignment of values and leadership endorsement. As a result, there are several considerations to take into account when developing a plan.

The consultation process and stakeholder engagement

Much like corporate annual reports require the input of an executive team, the Board, finance department and other internal departments, so too does the process of creating a Sustainability Action Plan.

It requires extensive consultation across the executive and leadership levels, committees and even the community (depending on the sector and type of organization) to establish targets and accountabilities. At the center of the consultation process is an organization’s Sustainability Manager. In many organizations, the person in this role is responsible for developing both the business cases and doing the work to support the implementation and management of programs within organizations to deliver on their objectives.

Whether the organization has a Sustainability Manager or not, they may also choose to use the services of a sustainability consulting firm to guide them on the process and support their objectives.

Other examples of stakeholders involved in the consultation and implementation process may include:

Establishing benchmarks

The Sustainability Action Plan will involve setting outcomes, actions and targets. Therefore it’s important that an organization understands its current ESG performance with accurate data to inform future benchmarks. Using an ESG and sustainability reporting software platform such as Envizi can simplify emissions calculations and automate the collection of energy consumption data, which will be required when reporting on the progress of the plan.

What is included in a Sustainability Action Plan?

Inclusions in a Sustainability Action Plan can vary depending on the type of organization, its size, and the sector it operates in. For example, a start-up or an independent education center such as a school may choose to focus on smaller initiatives to start implementing changes at the business.

Examples of achievable initiatives at this level could include:

  • Using water tanks
  • Gardening, such as a vegetable garden
  • Recycling system
  • Turning off lights when not in use
  • Using energy-saving bulbs
  • Implementing a printing policy

Larger organizations with ambitious goals and extensive resources could include initiatives such as:

Councils and municipalities

  • Reducing Scope 3 emissions from suppliers
  • Implementing a mass tree planting scheme
  • Providing a community shuttle bus
  • Introducing cycle routes
  • Installing LED lighting

Property developers and organizations

  • Optimizing HVAC equipment performance
  • Using local labor and materials
  • Incorporating water and waste reuse strategies
  • Ensuring sustainability is part of client consultation and scoping
  • Incentivizing staff remote-work opportunities


  • Reducing GHG emissions in the upstream supply chain
  • Reducing power usage in data centers
  • Investing in renewable energy sources
  • Electrifying the transport fleet
  • Upgrading energy-intensive equipment

Commercial real estate

  • Developing a demand-side energy management strategy
  • Minimizing waste
  • Implementing renewable energy
  • Improving GRESB score
  • Implementing end-of-trip facilities

Structure of a Sustainability Action Plan

Whilst the structure, inclusions and scale of a Sustainability Action Plan are at the organization’s discretion and stem from the initial consultation process, there are a few inclusions we recommend to ensure a Sustainability Action Plan which reflects an organization’s commitment to sustainability:

Sustainability values

Background on the organization’s view of sustainability and its core values which motivate the development of the Sustainability Action Plan.

Executive message

Endorsement at the C-Level usually from the CEO, outlining the organization’s commitment to sustainability.

Mandatory frameworks

If the organization operates within a sector which legislates reporting to a framework, this section would outline the requirements of that legislation or policy to provide stakeholders with context around the motivations for the Sustainability Action Plan.

Consultation process

Outlines how stakeholders participated in the development of the Sustainability Action Plan (such as workshops and forums), and which stakeholders were involved.

Methodology and review process

Outlines how the targets will be measured and progress monitored, which could include how regularly a Steering Committee or other key stakeholders will be updated. A Sustainability Report could be one of the vehicles for communicating this progress.

These are broad outcomes that steer the detailed actions and targets in the Sustainability Action Plan. Examples of outcomes could be “Decrease energy usage by 2025” or “Educate stakeholders.”

  • Secondary outcomes These could be complementary outcomes which help to group actions within the broader outcome. Examples of secondary outcomes could be “Transport” or “Energy and emissions.”
  • Action The tangible actions that will be undertaken to achieve a specific target within that secondary outcome, and broader outcome. Examples of actions could be “Replace inefficient HVAC systems” or “Develop recycling policy.”
  • Target Specific KPIs placed against the actions to ensure progress is made. Examples of targets could be “100% of older HVAC systems replaced” or “75% increase in electronics diverted to e-waste programs.”
  • Responsibility Assigning champions to action the targets could include listing departments or position titles.
  • Timeframe Assigning specific months or quarterly timeframes ensures that targets can be realistically achieved.

The structure of a Sustainability Action Plan varies widely, and care should be taken to ensure that the inclusions of the plan, including the targets, are achievable for the organization. Build your sustainability data foundation, streamline reporting and accelerate decarbonization with the IBM Envizi ESG Suite

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Developing a Corporate Sustainability Plan: Small Businesses

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Bachelor's in Sustainability

Corporate sustainability consists of three pillars: environmental, social, and economic. Each business is responsible for creating a sustainability plan that acknowledges all three. In addition to protecting the environment, sustainability measures can help small businesses gain favor with consumers by demonstrating social responsibility and business ethics. Sustainable practices also positively impact a company’s bottom line by reducing resource waste and improving productivity.

To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Sustainability .

Information on how small businesses can develop a corporate sustainability plan.

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The three pillars of corporate sustainability.

Corporate sustainability incorporates intentional business practices in three societal areas, with the goal of providing stakeholder value without compromising the environment, people, or the economy.

The Environmental Pillar

Businesses should work to limit their impact on the environment by reducing their carbon footprint, minimizing waste from packaging, and efficiently using water. By tracking the use of resources by benchmarking — or measuring resource consumption against a set standard — businesses can see and understand their spending and plan for the future.

The Social Pillar

Businesses need to maintain their social license — their ongoing acceptance by employees, stakeholders, and the public. A business can ensure it has a good reputation through several means, including treating employees well and engaging the community. It can also promote sustainable practices and make responsible supply chain decisions, publicly displaying its commitment to sustainability.

The Economic Pillar

Businesses should consider the benefits of displaying a commitment to sustainability, including improved profitability through sustainable practices. They can benefit from aligning resource spending practices with the company’s values, listening to employees’ insight about possible process improvements, and involving customers in planning sustainable practices.

Businesses also need to be transparent with investors to gain their trust. This can include maintaining compliance with regulatory requirements; avoiding hiring board members who may have a conflict of interest; avoiding the exchange of political contributions for favors; and avoiding using inaccurate, or opaque, accounting methods.

Actionable Practices in Corporate Sustainability

Companies can easily put into action a number of sustainability practices.

The Triple Bottom Line

The triple bottom line expands a company’s bottom line to consider not just profits but also people and the planet. A business that models its operating plans on the triple bottom line examines risks and opportunities to create a profitable sustainability plan. Risks include inefficiently wasting resources on packaging and hurting the environment, as well as inefficiently managing energy and creating a larger carbon footprint. Opportunities include looking for more sustainable materials in wider supply markets to reduce waste and installing energy-efficient appliances to lower long-term utility costs.

Employee Incentive Programs

These programs help involve employees in a business’s sustainability efforts. Incentives can include rewards for carpooling, biking, and taking public transit, as well as telecommuting options. In-office incentives could involve reusable supplies, such as washable cups to minimize plastic water bottle usage and rewards for lessening an office’s waste.

Corporate Sustainability Plan

More small businesses are realizing the benefit of creating an official sustainability plan. Creating a sustainability plan entails five key steps. The first step involves learning about sustainability. Next, companies should assess business areas that can be improved. Then, they should find opportunities for change. Finally, businesses should enact the changes that will make their operations more sustainable.

The Global Reporting Initiative’s Guidelines    

The Global Reporting Initiative provides businesses with the tools to create a standardized sustainability report. Tools such as downloadable, editable forms and training make reporting simple. Reporting shows a business’s dedication to transparency and sustainability.

Short and Long-Term Benefits of Corporate Sustainability

Consumers and employees want to support responsible businesses. Businesses with better environmental and social responsibility can reduce employee turnover by 25% to 30%. Some 47% of consumers want to buy from environmentally conscious businesses. Additionally, 58% of Generation Z consumers want eco-friendly packaging, and 57% want environmentally sustainable products.


Sustainability leads to lower costs, better operational efficiency, and better stock price performance. The assets under management that use sustainable investing strategies amounted to $12 trillion at the start of 2018 and grew to $17 trillion by the start of 2020, a 42% increase. Being energy efficient and using responsible packaging saves money and makes resources last longer, lowering costs. For example, a hotel can reduce its energy costs by 25% by asking guests to forgo daily sheet changes. This also reduces the replacement rate of the sheets, lowering both expenses and waste.

Business leaders might worry about a lack of resources and the cost, but sustainability can be implemented in small steps, removing a large overhead. The Global Reporting Initiative and other resources can help them understand the process of implementing sustainable practices. Business leaders might worry about long-term benefits, but stockholders, investors, and consumers support sustainable efforts.

Corporate sustainability should be a priority for all businesses. Small businesses that focus on implementing sustainable practices will gain and maintain a loyal customer base. Stockholders and investors prefer to support businesses that practice sustainability. Small businesses should consider a sustainability plan’s long-term benefits when creating a business strategy.

Accenture, 2019 Annual Holiday Local Shopping Survey

Business News Daily, “Your Small Business Needs a Corporate Social Responsibility Report”

Cape Farewell Foundation, “How to Bring Sustainability to Your Small Business While Maintaining Profits”

Constellation, “How to Develop a Small Business Sustainability Plan”

Cultivating Capital, “The Small Business Guide to Sustainable Business Practices”

Cultivating Capital, “10 Surprising Areas Missed in Small Business Sustainability Programs”

Cultivating Capital, “Three Excellent Employee Engagement Strategies for Sustainability”

Eco-Business, “The SME’s Guide to Benefitting from Sustainability”

Emarketer, “Sustainability Is Factoring into 2019 Holiday Shopping”

Global Reporting, The Global Standards for Sustainability Reporting

GreenBiz, Sustainability

Harvard Business Review , “The Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability”

Investopedia, “The Three Pillars of Corporate Sustainability”

Investopedia, “Triple Bottom Line”

Kearney, “How Gen Z’s Concern with Emotional Health Fuels Retail Growth and Failure”

L.A. Times , “How Nestle, Google and Other Businesses Make Money by Going Green”

Sumas, “Unpacking the Business Case for Sustainability”

Sustainability Knowledge Group, “The Importance of SMEs Role in Achieving Sustainable Development”

US|SIF, “The US SIF Foundation’s Biennial ‘Trends Report’ Finds That Sustainable Investing Assets Reach $17.1 Trillion”

Unboxed Technology, “Corporate Sustainability vs. CSR: What’s the Difference?”

You Matter, “Should SMBs Have a CSR or Sustainability Strategy? How Can They Create It?”

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