Sustainability in Business

Sustainability 101 for small businesses: Small changes for a big impact

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Once upon a time, companies who boasted that they were "green" or "eco-friendly" were often looked at as, well, kind of crunchy. Then, slowly but surely, select businesses – from beauty brands to car manufacturers – started making their own sustainability commitments (very public ones, might we add).

And now? Sustainability as a core value is no longer a nice-to-have: Consumers demand it. Need proof? According to The Global Sustainability Study 2021, 61% of people in the US rate sustainability as a top purchase criterion. And 85% say they have shifted their shopping behavior toward being more sustainable in the past five years.

Customers are driving sustainability. And if you want to stay competitive, it’s time to board the train.

Ok, wait: What is sustainability in business?

Going green, eco-friendly, whatever you want to call it — the term sustainable business practices refers to adjusting your operations and exports to reduce negative environmental impacts. That can be a combination of decreasing waste, toxins, your carbon footprint and more.

For years we’ve heard everyone from elected officials to non-profits stress business leaders’ corporate social responsibility in committing to renewable energy, natural resources and other sustainable practices. But you don’t have to be a massive corporation to participate in these climate change initiatives. And you don’t have to do a complete overhaul of your manufacturing or operations to run a greener business. No one is asking you to put a wind turbine in the back of your restaurant or start making your handbags out of mushrooms. Small changes can make a big social impact.

In this guide, we’ll hand over a few tips for how just about any small business can become a more sustainable company, plus some bonus ideas specific to running your retail or foodservice business.

Packaging Products

Sustainability initiatives for your small business

Switch to green cleaning products

Store, salon, traditional office or wherever, you likely require some housekeeping. Unfortunately, according to the EPA, many ingredients in conventional cleaning products can be hazardous to air quality, aquatic life, the ozone and – most immediately concerning – you and your employees exposed to the chemicals.

Look for cleaning products that are:

  • Non-toxic

  • Biodegradable

  • Phosphate-free

  • Packaged in recycled containers

  • Fragrance-free or naturally fragranced

  • Free of dyes, chlorine or hypochlorite

  • Disclosed or labeled with "active" and "inert" ingredients

Reduce paper usage

Look for a point of sale that offers email and/or text receipts. Even better, consider QR code menus: Heartland Restaurant point of sale’s Scan to Order feature is a great replacement for traditional paper menus.

Learn more about our paperless point of sale systems

Reconsider promotional products

Your branded pens, drink sleeves and lanyards… sorry to burst your bubble, but a huge portion of those are likely ending up in landfills — both contributing to toxic pollution and failing to achieve your desired marketing outcome. If you aren’t ready to forfeit physical swag entirely, opt for useful, eco-friendly pieces, like bamboo notebooks, jute tote bags or recycled blankets. Or, choose items that promote a green lifestyle, like reusable water bottles or branded metal straws.

Promote remote

If your business model lends itself to a work-from-home arrangement, encourage employees to do so (even if just part-time). That’s less commuting and office energy usage. Plus, cloud-based small business solutions make it easy to work from anywhere.


Sustainable business ideas for retail stores

Trade plastic for eco-friendly shopping bags and packaging materials

"Eco-friendly" can mean made from recycled materials or recyclable, but make sure "recyclable" = easy to recycle. Some plastic envelopes and shipping materials claim to be recyclable, but very few curbside recycling services accept them, forcing consumers to make a special trip to a drop-off center that does. And how many people – even with the best intentions – do you really think make that trip? Let’s face it: At the end of the day, most plastic is headed to a landfill.

This for That

Create a trade-in program

It’s not just for second-hand stores. Invite customers to donate or sell back gently used pieces they purchased from you but are ready to part with. Create a section of your store dedicated to these products at a lower price. Boost trade-in participation with an incentive, like 10% off their next full-price purchase.

Cut the free returns policy

When you offer free mail-in returns, you’re essentially inviting customers to order more than they plan to keep, contributing to unnecessary packaging and freight (the transportation of returns emitted an estimated 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 alone). Charging either a restocking or return label fee will help discourage excessive returns and motivate shoppers to be more mindful about their purchases.

Make shopping for the right item easier than returning the wrong one. The more detailed your product descriptions, and the clearer your sizing charts, the lower your return rate will be.

Invest in sustainable manufacturing

If you manufacture your own products, step 1: Choose eco-friendly materials and working conditions. Step 2: Tell people about it! Especially on your ecommerce site, include a material description in each product’s web copy, and create an "our commitment to sustainability" pledge in your footer or its own page.

We know what you’re thinking: Yes, sustainable manufacturing is, in many cases, more expensive. But 64% of Americans are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products and services (with that number only going up from here), so it’s worth working the increased costs into your sticker prices.

Plus, when you consider that 81% of people claim they expect to buy more environmentally friendly products over the next five years, it’s clear that shifting to sustainable materials and processes has a strong chance of boosting your bottom line — even if it’s a higher upfront cost.

75% of millennials are willing to pay more for an environmentally sustainable product.

- Greenprint, Business of Sustainability Index

Restaurant Order

Sustainability efforts for restaurants

Switch to eco-friendly takeout packaging

Trade plastic containers and bags for compostable boxes and paper bags. Ask customers when they place their online order to note if they need plastic utensils and napkins, instead of including them in every order by default.

Say goodbye to plastic straws

"Paper straws are gross" — yeah, we’ve heard that too. But they aren’t the only alternative option: Consider biodegradable straws, or even selling reusable ones at your coffee shop or counter-service restaurant.

Monitor portion sizes

If customers aren’t earning a spot in the clean plate club or asking for their leftovers to-go, there’s likely an opportunity to reduce portion sizes. Consider a slight reduction in portions, particularly for plate filler items that often go uneaten.

You may also want to revisit policies for automatically including items - like the standard lettuce, onion and tomato toppings for burgers - to reduce waste.

Reevaluate your menu

Use your restaurant point of sale to record and report on sales by item. If something isn’t selling well, you’re likely stocking ingredients that are going to waste.

Food waste contributes to 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Compost or donate leftover ingredients

No restaurant is perfect (we don’t expect you to be!) — there will always be food waste. Instead of trashing it, create partnerships with local composters and/or food banks.

Create seasonal menus

When you can rely on local ingredients, you’ll reduce carbon emissions that come with importing off-season ingredients.

Perfect your planning

Some sit-down restaurants may find it on-brand to host occasional ticketed prix-fixe menu events. By sticking to the same dishes and knowing exactly how many you need to serve, you’ll drastically cut food waste.

Whew! Overwhelmed? It’s ok to start small!

"The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones"

- Confucius

We hope these tips have proved that you don’t need an MBA in environmental sustainability to work sustainability initiatives into your business strategy. Even just swapping your packaging materials and cleaning products can have a positive impact. Let’s all do our part to leave a better Earth for future generations (and create happier customers while you’re at it).


Heartland is the point of sale, payments and payroll solution of choice for entrepreneurs that need human-centered technology to sell more, keep customers coming back and spend less time in the back office. Nearly 1,000,000 businesses trust us to guide them through market changes and technology challenges, so they can stay competitive and focus on building remarkable businesses instead of managing the daily grind. Learn more at