Social Responsibility for Small Businesses

  •    A freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia, Pa., Dinah previously worked as a staff reporter for The Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires.

The Stonyfield yogurt company emerged decades ago from an organic farm school that promoted family farms, a clean environment and healthy food. To fund their work, the owners used milk from their cows to make pesticide-free, fertilizer-free yogurt. The product was so successful that it became the focus of the company's business, which now buys ingredients from hundreds of organic farms and runs on environmentally friendly principles.

While Stonyfield's story is unique, it shows that small businesses can embrace sustainability and corporate social responsibility — practices that support the environment, fair working conditions and other positive social conditions for communities and individuals that they touch — while also growing and strengthening the bottom line.

"Corporate social responsibility is a management concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and interactions with their stakeholders," according to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

Green Plus, a North-Carolina-based program to help small and medium-sized businesses become greener and more sustainable, says it works on the triple-bottom-line-sustainability philosophy, "meaning we help you improve your bottom line by focusing on your environmental, social and business practices — what we like to call the planet, people and performance aspects of your business."

Green Plus and various other organizations and government agencies cite numerous companies that have consciously taken steps to become more sustainable. (The U.S. Small Business Administration links to information about some of these businesses.)

Among those that Green Plus has certified is food-waste-diversion startup Food FWD of Durham, NC, which collects food waste from restaurants and takes it to a local composter. Food FWD sells compostable serviceware as well, Green Plus notes.

"Only a service, product or policy that adds value to people, the planet and profit will be adopted," the company says on its mission and values page. "Sacrifices in service, customer relationships, employment or environment will not be made in order to make an extra profit."

Bix Produce, of St. Paul, Minn., sells to restaurants, hotels and universities. "With an increasing customer need for locally grown and sustainably raised food, it was important to Bix Produce to meet those customer needs, while also ensuring the business was serving its employees and providing a great place to work," Green Plus says.

Bix is part of a national network of independent local distributors helping to promote the Greener Fields Together initiative, which takes a "seed-to-fork approach" to bringing "safe, sustainable produce" in environmentally friendly ways to restaurants, grocers, hospitals, ballparks and other businesses.

Sustainable Farming near City

Small business case studies posted by include Sacramento Event Planners, which provides eco-friendly and zero-waste event planning services," and E&B Auto Repair in Fort Bragg, a California Certified Green Station that installed a solar energy system and motion sensors, and replaced its shop lights with more energy-efficient versions.

"Companies known for proactive environmental policies often receive positive recognition from customers, employees, regulators, the media and others. Because of their reputation, they are able to reap benefits such as reduced pressure from activist groups and the media, increased ability to attract and retain high-quality employees, improved community relations, enhanced brand image, stronger customer loyalty and increased appeal to socially responsible investors and portfolio managers," the SBA says.

Corporate social responsibility isn't necessarily a simple matter, even for major corporations. The Associated Press reported this year that Burmese fishermen were being held and worked as slaves in brutal conditions on a remote Indonesian island — the fish they caught made its way into supermarkets, restaurants and pet food worldwide. If you run a mom-and-pop pet shop, how would you have known that the cat food on your shelves might have originated with slave labor?

On the other hand, there are steps you can take. Various organizations, such as Green Plus, offer guidance to help companies achieve sustainability. The United Nations Global Compact provides resources, including a supply chain traceability guide and a sustainable supply chains website with articles related to labor, human rights, anti-corruption and environmental concerns.

The SBA provides tips and resources on environmentally sustainable practices for small businesses. Among its suggestions:

Use energy-efficient technology, like Energy Star-qualified appliances, building products, and heating and cooling systems to cut air pollution from power plants. Drive fuel-efficient cars. Consider using "green power" — electricity from renewable resources such as solar, geothermal and wind energy.

Cut paper usage by using electronic distribution of documents and double-sided copying, and recycle the paper you do use. Conserve water by fixing leaky plumbing, using faucets that turn off automatically and installing water-efficient applicances, among other steps.

Even if sustainability isn't part of your company's origin story, your small business can embrace and benefit from environmentally friendly and socially conscious practices. For more ideas and information, see CSRwire.