Can Small Businesses Afford to Care about the Environment?

carrie rollwagen records a podcast in the studio

Our next two Localist episodes are going to focus on what a small business can do about the environment — and I should admit that this is not a topic I wanted to talk about.

Small business owners are already struggling, and I didn’t want to add something else to the list of things they feel like they have to do. They’re already facing slim margins and supply issues, even before reevaluating their packaging and waste disposal. They already have to wear a lot of hats and deep dive into huge issues they previously knew nothing about. They’re already told every day that what they’re doing is not enough, that they should try harder and be better than big box stores (even though they have a fraction of the income and resources).

Also, small businesses already have a smaller environmental footprint than big businesses, just by the nature of the way their businesses work. The difference in shipping and packaging alone between big box stores and small businesses is massive. As just one example, think of all those Amazon boxes that come full of shipping material for just one item, and contrast that with an order from a small business that receives 30+ items in one box because they have to order strategically to keep prices down. In some ways, ordering an item from a small business instead of Amazon is a little like joining a shipping coop that ensures you won’t create a lot of shipping waste for one individual product. (And it doesn’t take an expert to realize that a system based on warehouses and cross-country trucking isn’t exactly environmentally friendly.)

So I’ve never tried to do a podcast episode on environmental impact — but thankfully, I had two guests who wanted to talk about it anyway. One runs an international business, and one runs a coffee shop right here in Birmingham. Both are dedicated to making their lives and their businesses more sustainable, and both gave me a lot of hope (and practical ideas) about how running a business and doing something good for the environment aren’t mutually exclusive.

One thing both of the guests I talked to have in common is that they both began by learning more about the problem, and then they started taking incremental steps toward change. It wasn’t the overwhelming sea change I was imagining — it was more like doing one small thing, and then another, until they reached a tipping point. That doesn’t mean it was easy, and it doesn’t mean it didn’t impact their margins. But it’s easy to tell that they both think the changes were worth it, and that they’re both committed to doing even more. That kind of attitude gives me a lot of hope, and it’s why I love talking to small business owners in the first place.

The episodes start tomorrow, so subscribe to the Localist on your favorite podcast player to check them out (or listen right here on the website).

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