8 Steps to Develop Your 2023 Sustainability Plan
We know many independent eCommerce businesses are in survival mode right now.
The massive online ordering spike in 2020 and 2021 is now behind us, the high-cost structure brought on by inflation does not show signs of declining, and shaky consumer confidence means a lot less spending. All of this is creating a ripe breeding ground for fear. Some business leaders I have spoken with recently have said that the long-term viability of their businesses hinges on how successful their holiday sales end up being.
EcoEnclose is navigating all of these same headwinds alongside the businesses we serve. And we know firsthand that with all of this going on around us, it would be easy to decide 2023 is not the right year to invest in sustainability priorities. It would be understandable for us to batten down the hatches going into 2023, focusing every dollar on bringing in new business or cost-cutting.
But that’s not the game any of us are in. EcoEnclose aims to make eCommerce a positive force for the planet and its people. And almost every business we work with is, to some extent, focused on the same thing - building an operation and brand that tries to source, manufacture, sell and manage in a more sustainable way for the environment and people.
We know our brands are looking ahead to 2023 and determining how to best set sustainability goals that can move the needle while still fitting into budgets that may be getting tightened. If that sounds like you and your company, this guide is written for you.
Here, we share eight steps to crafting a sustainability plan for 2023 and longer-term that recognize the economic uncertainty we are all operating in today.
We’ve also created a deck to help guide you through the process - Download our fillable presentation and planning template here.
Step 1: Determine who’s involved.
Are you a business of one? Suppose you are the owner and sole operator of the business. In that case, you may engage some help in this process by including eco-minded friends, loyal customers, manufacturing partners, or life partners. Or you might prefer to develop your brand’s environmental goals and plans solo - whatever approach makes the most sense.
If you have a larger business, an essential first step is determining who should engage in this process. You’ll want to consider the following:
- Who are the decision makers?
- Who can bring great perspectives and passion to the process - sourcing, manufacturing, marketing, or customer service?
- Who is likely managing the execution of whatever decisions come from this process?
Once you identify who should be involved, engage them to determine their interest and participation capacity. Let them know the role they should expect to play, whether they’ll join in every step, make decisions, and so forth.
Step 2: Define your long-term sustainability vision and mission.
Here’s where you think big and long-term.
First, take stock of the environmental movement and the various issues of concern.
Of course, the world is focused first and foremost on carbon and climate change.
But we are also concerned with the rapid rate of deforestation, the tragic loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, air and water pollution, and freshwater supply. In addition, we are concerned about the current and growing impact of climate change on our world particularly felt by developing nations, the destruction of our natural landscapes, the massive amount of garbage wasting away in landfills, and much more. And these points only deal with the environment. Your lens can be expanded to include the treatment of team members and others across your supply chain and the strength of communities that contribute to your products.
Once you have your head rooted in the broader issues, assess if and how your products and business overlap with these environmental issues.
Then create a narrative for what your company's environmental sustainability could look like five, ten, and fifteen years from now. Avoid the temptation here to be narrow, tactical, or solution-oriented. Rather than saying, “I will only use organic cotton” or “I will eliminate all plastic”, consider statements like “My apparel business will operate in a way that avoids any harm to soil and water, and treats workers across the entire supply chain ethically.”
Step 2 In Action: Company X
I run a small screen printing and apparel business. Ultimately, my vision is that my business and the entire apparel and printing industries are run so that we have no negative impact on the planet. My first step is to minimize my operation's negative impact on the environment by rethinking key aspects of how I operate.
I believe that the textiles I use have the largest negative impact on the planet and, as such, will be where I focus our sustainability vision.
Currently, my business works largely with cotton and polyester. Neither fabrics are sustainable, and collectively, producing these materials contributes to carbon emissions, microplastic and chemical pollution in our waterways, freshwater consumption, soil degradation, and excessive landfill trash. Additionally, traditional cotton production has ties with forced labor, particularly when it comes from Uzbekistan or the Xinjiang of China.
My long-term vision is that the apparel I print on and sell:
- Is grown, picked, or produced so that workers across the entire supply chain are treated with dignity and paid fair wages.
- Is grown and produced so that carbon emissions, soil degradation, and water pollution are minimized (optimally, it is net neutral or even net positive for the planet).
- Is designed and supported such that the waste and pollution it created during its useful life and at the end of its useful life is minimized.
I recognize that other elements of my business have a negative environmental impact as well, including the electricity my equipment and operations consume, the ink I use and then discard, the internal and shipping packaging I use, the water I use and the wastewater I create, and the material wasted due to setup and print quality issues. While these collectively represent less of my business’s environmental impact than my fabrics, they are still important to address. I envision a future in which my business is powered by renewable energy, my material inputs are produced thoughtfully, and all the waste my business creates is minimized and then recycled or disposed of responsibly.
Ready to craft your 2023 strategic plan? Download our fillable presentation and planning template here.
2A: A deeper review of different environmental issues.
Above, I share a high-level summary of the varied and sometimes complicated environmental issues that the world and eco-conscious brands must contend with and reverse. Here, I share a bit more about a handful of the most common issues that companies consider, set goals around, establish sourcing policies for, and, where feasible, measure.
As you review, don’t get caught up in thinking you need to understand or set goals around them fully. You may decide to consider only one or two of these as core to your vision. Alternatively, you may set a vision that isn’t directly related to any goal and is more tangential. For example, many brands we work with set goals around transparency and data-sharing, a step they believe will inherently force them to be more ecological.
But, I believe brands will set much more thoughtful, grounded, and nuanced visions with a general understanding of the broadest issues facing our planet. For more in-depth research, we encourage you to check out the Nine Planetary Boundaries framework, an approach that nicely illustrates different ecological challenges.
Carbon Emissions and Climate Change
Many would argue that emissions, and the resulting warming climate, are the most pervasive and critical issues in the environmental movement.
A focus on climate change means businesses would choose energy sources, materials, partners, operational strategies, and transportation methods to minimize their greenhouse gas emissions. Purchasing renewable energy, shipping rail instead of freight, eliminating air/expedited shipping, and making raw supplies lighter and thinner – are all strategies that would decrease emissions. Many brands will make it their main sustainability priority to reduce carbon emissions and help reverse climate change, with policies or visions that promote minimizing or even sequestering emissions to become a long-term carbon-negative operation.
Decline of Freshwater Supply
Water scarcity is rapidly another pressing issue. Only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater, of which two-thirds is unavailable for use.
Unfortunately, many of our water ecosystems are becoming stressed. Rivers, lakes, and aquifers are drying up or becoming too polluted to use, and over 50% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared. Droughts are becoming more common and prolonged as climate change, and the destruction of forests and natural landscapes alter weather patterns worldwide. Some brands, particularly those rooted in the production of industrial crops such as grains, cotton, or viscose, or that have water-intensive agricultural processes, will make it a priority to operate their business in a way that reduces their use of freshwater or minimizes water pollution that they are generating.
An estimated 12 million hectares of forests are being lost annually due to logging, conversion of forests to agricultural land, and wildfires. And this doesn’t even consider forest degradation when a forest still exists but is so degraded that it can no longer function well and properly support biodiversity or human populations.
Forest degradation is even more of a challenge than deforestation: about 6.5 million square miles of forest are at high risk of degradation in the next ten years. Healthy forests store carbon, purify our air, filter our water, are home to most of the world’s land animals and plants, and help prevent land erosion. Environmentalists generally agree that preventing the degradation or destruction of our world’s intact primary forests is the first strategy we should adopt to help mitigate climate change. For this reason, many brands set goals and policies focused on avoiding deforestation, with sourcing policies that ensure their wood products are not sourced from or putting pressure on ancient and endangered forests.
The WWF’s Living Planet Report of 2022 found that wildlife populations have declined by an average 69% in the past 50 years. Humans have decimated biodiversity through several actions.
Land use change for large-scale agricultural production drives an estimated 30% of biodiversity decline globally. Overexploitation such as logging and fishing drives another 20%. Climate change is estimated to account for 14%. The introduction of invasive alien species is estimated to account for 11%. Brands and nations are starting to wake up to these tragic trends. They are increasingly considering goals and policies that mitigate biodiversity loss. Some are even looking to go “nature positive," or operating in a way that restores wildlife and improves biodiversity.
According to National Geographic and many other sources, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations every year. An estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris are in the ocean now.
Plastic generally does not biodegrade in a marine environment. This is true even for the vast majority of plastics and bioplastics labeled as “biodegradable”, meaning that all of that litter remains and will remain for many generations unless it is actively removed. This plastic poses a danger in several ways. Plastic leads to biodiversity decline, as millions of animals are killed by strangulation, entanglement, or starvation, and species experience diminished fertility.
Human health is at risk, as microplastics are now found in our water supply and food that humans commonly consume. Additionally, the majority of plastic is produced by fossil fuels. Plastic that isn’t produced by fossil fuels such as PLA and other bioplastics is produced by intensive agriculture, which relies heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and pollutes our soil and waterways. Many brands, seeing these tragic images, have responded by setting goals to minimize their use of plastic.
According to the EPA, the average person in the U.S. produces 4.9 pounds of trash per day as of 2018. In 2018, 292.4 million tons of waste were generated, 69 million tons were recycled, and 25 million tons were composted. Another 17.7 million tons of food was managed by other methods (on farm waste management, co-digestion, donation, etc.). This means that 62% of our waste was either landfilled or incinerated.
Landfilled waste creates major issues. First, when waste degrades in an anaerobic environment devoid of oxygen, it creates methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. In the vast majority of landfills in North America, this methane is being leaked into the atmosphere, making landfills the third largest contributor to methane emissions worldwide.
Second, landfills represent millions of tons of valuable resources that are out of reach. Every time an aluminum can goes to the landfill, all of the raw materials are wasted rather than being remanufactured back into new aluminum material. This remanufacturing is a process which would ensure the raw materials are reused and offsets the need for new raw materials to be mined and manufactured. Landfills are also an important environmental justice issue, as they create highly localized air and water pollution. Because they are far more likely to be located near lower-income cities, these hazards directly impact disadvantaged communities.
Additionally, it is important to note that waste is the environmental issue created by a brand that its end consumers most directly and viscerally experience. Because of the environmental hazards associated with poorly managed waste, and consumers are more sensitive to this than other environmental issues, it is one that many brands set goals around. Goals range, but can include everything from setting a zero waste vision for products and packaging whereby all products and packaging are designed to not have to be landfilled. It can also include maximizing circularity (100% recycled content and maximum recyclability) to implementing re-commerce strategies, like take-back programs and repair services.
Soil Degradation and Desertification
The average topsoil depth in Iowa decreased from around 14-18 inches at the start of the 20th century to 6-8 inches by its end. This trend isn’t isolated to the American Midwest. Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. Soil that hasn’t eroded has declined significantly.
Several trends drive these trends: global deforestation, farm equipment that heavily compacts soils, agrochemicals that eliminate the critically-biodiverse ecosystem in soils and decrease their nutrients, and the impact of climate change on water patterns worldwide.
Additionally, the spread of cities and roads globally is simply sealing soil out of reach beneath a layer of concrete.
These issues greatly impact humanity, biodiversity, and climate more broadly. It reduces the productivity of arable land, making soil less economically beneficial to the farmers and community members depending on it for their income or sustenance. It makes the food consumed by humans significantly less healthy for us.
Degraded soils increase the risk of flooding and lead to over-clogged and highly polluted waterways. In this way, soil health is central to many other environmental and ethical issues. Given this, some brands, particularly those relying on agricultural resources for their raw materials, set goals to promote soil health and biodiversity and minimize soil degradation and pollution.
Water and Air Pollution
The sheer volume of pollution emitted into the water and air due to human activities is mind-blowing. Water and outdoor air pollution are two of the world’s largest health problems. 7.8% of global deaths are attributed to outdoor air pollution, and in some countries like India and China, it is responsible for 10%.
Outdoor air pollution is typically caused by burning fossil fuels, wildfires, windblown dust, and biogenic emissions from vegetation (pollen and mold spores). Water pollution is caused when wastewater (from households and commercial operations) is dumped back into waterways without purification. Natural or industrial disasters often exacerbate it.
For example, the Japanese government dumped roughly 2 million gallons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 tsunami hit. Today, 40% of bodies of water in China (and 40% of lakes in the US) are heavily polluted. Over 700 million Chinese nationals consume this contaminated water on a day-to-day basis. Humans are responsible for dumping some 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated wastewater back into bodies of water, ranging from the vast ocean to tiny streams forming rivers. An estimated 8.3 million people die each year due to water pollution.
We don’t see brands set concrete, high-level goals related to air pollution or water pollution that frequently, but these issues are important to consider environmentally and ethically.
Step 3: Conduct an internal audit.
In this next step, we encourage you to do an in-depth audit of your business. Get as specific as possible while recognizing that most businesses don’t have the capacity or resources to conduct detailed quantitative assessments and that much can still be determined based on secondary research and your knowledge of your operations.
Conducting an audit involves outlining every aspect of your business that impacts the planet. For each component, note what you are currently doing, what your long-term vision would direct you to, how well your current approaches align with this long-term vision and your opportunity for improvement. If you have resources to support a quantitative assessment of the component’s carbon footprint, energy usage, water usage, etc., include that information.
Depending on the size and complexity of the team you’ve assembled for this project, you might divvy up the assessment of components to different individuals or departments.
Step 3 In Action: Company X
Raw Materials and Production for Products
Packaging & Marketing Material
Ready to craft your 2023 strategic plan? Download our fillable presentation and planning template here.
Step 4: Assess your forecast and budget against your sustainability priorities.
This current economic climate means this is unlikely to be a time when businesses take risks or pursue steps that could lead to decreased margins either by increasing costs or decreasing revenue/pricing. But this doesn’t mean 2023 is a year to stall out on sustainability priorities.
To pursue eco initiatives thoughtfully in a year that is likely to be marked by continued inflation and the looming potential of a recession, first take a thorough and honest stock in your forecast, financials, cash flow, and budget this year, and include the right team members in this discussion. Consider questions such as:
- What are your current and forecasted margins? This is the amount of money you make per order after you’ve paid for the product and shipping cost. We know that some brands have recently had to run aggressive sales that have cut into their standard margins quite a bit.
- What are your current inventory levels of products, packaging, and other supplies? Are you sitting on more than you usually would that is tying up your cash?
- Is the company entering a period of budgetary tightening? If so, where are budget cuts expected? If you run your business by yourself, this is a step you can take solo. First, review your current monthly expense budget. Then determine how much revenue you need to generate (based on your anticipated margin) to cover these expenses. Once you have that number, look to the last six months and use that to gauge your next six months of sales. Consider, if your next six months of sales are 10-15% under your last six months, will you generate enough profit margin to cover your current expenses? If so, great! You may find that you have an opportunity to increase your budget for certain expenses. If not, it may mean you are entering a period requiring some budget tightening. If that is the case, determine what aspects of your budget can be cut.
At the end of this step, the goal is to assess your financial approach to sustainability initiatives in 2023. You’ll want to answer questions such as:
- Is this a year to focus on sustainability initiatives that lead to cost cuts or give you access to credits or subsidies? For example, we often help brands “right size” their packaging or move from shipping boxes to recycled mailers. Right-sizing packaging helps brands reduce packaging size and eliminate extra void fill, decreasing overall packaging costs. Moving from boxes to mailers has a similar, immediate cost-saving impact.
- Can you take on strategies that may require upfront costs but have a relatively quick return on investment? For example, installing solar panels typically requires some upfront costs, but through government tax credits and reduced energy bills, you may find that by the end of the first year, you’ve saved enough money on your energy bill to recoup that initial investment. Similarly, infrastructure investments like low-flow faucets and LED lighting can quickly pay for themselves with reduced utility bills.
- Could you take on sustainability initiatives that may increase your cost structure but can lead to increased prices? For example, replacing your conventional cotton with organic cotton will be more expensive, but you may be able to charge more for these and generate the same if not a higher profit margin.
Are you in a financial position to take on environmental opportunities that may cost money, but are essential for you personally and to the mission of your business? For example, you may decide to eliminate all solvents in your ink. This step may be challenging to convert into higher-priced products, but you may decide that the improved well-being of your team and the planet are worth this investment.
Step 4 In Action: Company X
While my 2022 holiday sales were down about 25% compared to the previous year, my business just slightly exceeded my forecasted sales, and we ended 2022 in the black.
I’m nervous about Q1 of 2022, given all that the news tells me about the economy. With that in mind, I plan for Q1’s sales to be 20% below my November and December sales, but I will not be reducing my pricing or running sales.
Forecasting my business with those sales means I have to cut about $2,000 monthly from my expenses to stay in the black. I would like to cut an additional $1,000 - $2,000 (for a total of $4,000 per month in reduced expenses) to give myself a bit of a cushion. I plan to do this by:
- Ending my monthly subscription to the shared workplace I love but can do without for some time.
- Pausing a handful of technology subscriptions that are helpful but not mission-critical.
- Taking on the weekend shift on our floor to print orders instead of having contract workers take on this shift.
Given this, I want to spend the first half of 2023 focused on:
- Taking on any sustainability investments that can help me immediately cut my costs.
- Taking on sustainability investments that don’t cost more than $250/month but can help make tangible progress toward my ultimate vision.
- Experimenting with one sustainability initiative that may cost money but will be something I can charge higher prices for to maintain margins.
Ready to craft your 2023 strategic plan? Download our fillable presentation and planning template here.
Step 5: Set your big goals for the month, quarter, or year.
Using the insights and output from steps 1 through 4, narrow down one or two big goals.
Depending on the goal and your general business outlook, decide if you want to set a big sustainability goal for a shorter time frame or the entire year. If the goal you set is meaty, complicated, and time-consuming to execute, then a year may be required. If the goal you set is fairly straightforward or if you want to make some progress early on while simultaneously seeing how your sales fare in 2023 before deciding if you want to take on more aggressive eco goals, then establishing a major priority for the month or quarter is likely best.
There is no exact science that will make it clear what to pursue!
You’ll want to triangulate what goal areas are most feasible for you to tackle operationally and financially and which are the biggest opportunities to achieve your long-term sustainability vision. You may also let these decisions be influenced by what will energize you and your team the most.
Don’t stress about getting this “perfectly right.” And if you find you are stressed about whether it is perfect, set your goal for the first month of the year so you don’t feel locked into a direction you’re not quite sure about.
Step 5 In Action: Company X
I want 2023 to be the year I review all of the materials the apparel I print on is made of. My vision is that by the end of the year I will have assessed the environmental and ethical challenges of each type of fabric I work with, have developed a framework for finding and deciding on better alternatives, have established a prioritized list of options to move to, and understand how these swaps will impact my cost structure. I will have made at least three tangible swaps to material that isn’t living up to my sustainability and ethical ideals.
While 90% of what I sell is made with cotton, polyester, or a cotton/polyester blend (so the obvious place to start would be on these), I will spend the two months focused on my acrylic fabrics instead.
I feel more comfortable taking risks with this line because this is a relatively small part of my business. I can try more sustainable fabrics, test whether or not my customers would be willing to spend more for better alternatives, and learn how well the alternatives print on my equipment. If customers aren’t willing to spend more, then the increased costs of doing something more sustainable here are unlikely to be more than $250 / month (which is my threshold for what I’m able to spend at the moment).
Therefore, in January and February, I am committing to swapping my current acrylic line with a material that brings me closer to my ultimate sustainability vision. What I imagine that project would entail is:
- Fully understanding the environmental and ethical challenges associated with my acrylic apparel and accessories.
- Researching what options I can move to that are less resource intensive or polluting to produce, have no ethical concerns in production, and that do not create the same downstream pollution and waste as acrylic.
- Assess the printability and cost implications of these different alternatives.
- Experiment with 1-2 alternatives.
- Market them to my customers and assess willingness to pay more (if needed) to keep the same margin.
- Decide on a long-term solution to pursue.
Step 6: Set smaller goals.
When you did your audit in Step 3, you likely came up with dozens of immediate opportunities to run your business sustainability and in ways that bring you closer to your stated vision. While you want to focus on your big goal and don’t want to take on too much in any given period, you can also accomplish quite a few small things alongside your one large, more intense goal outlined in Step 5.
Here, you list and plan for those smaller priorities and decide what you want to accomplish in shorter-term periods.
This can include everything from instituting a policy to unplug all electronics every evening to moving team members to four-day work weeks that reduce one day’s worth of commuting each week. Don’t take on more than you and your company can handle in a given month - you want to avoid making this feel overwhelming, and you don’t want to set yourself up for discouragement if you only make a small dent in a laundry list of action items you’ve lined up.
Step 6 In Action: Company X
In addition to finding eco-friendlier alternatives to acrylic, I also want to tackle the following during January and February:
- Replace the team’s collective Keurig with a traditional coffee maker which will reduce waste and save money long-term.
- Install low-flow faucets in all restrooms and break areas, but keep standard faucets in production sink.
- Set up bi-weekly time blocks to assess inventory and place orders to minimize the need for express shipping of raw materials.
- Stop purchasing kitchen disposables; replace them with reusable options and share protocols to keep them washed and ready to use every day.
- Order recycled versions of my packaging and marketing material each time I replenish this stock.
Step 7: Establish a quarter-over-quarter or month-over-month gameplan.
Whether you’ve set up monthly, quarterly or annual big and small goals in Steps 5 and 6, you still want to craft a general roadmap for your entire year. This will be something you revisit at the end of each month to help you assess your progress, adjust your trajectory if needed, and keep track of priorities you know you want to tackle in the future.
The game plan does not need to be well fleshed out. Nor does it need to be set in stone!
Step 7 In Action: Company X
Step 8: Execute, measure, communicate, and celebrate - rinse + repeat.
Build the sustainability plan into your monthly and weekly plan and action items. If a broader team executes this work, work with them to ensure each task gets completed by the stated deadline.
Then execute, or ensure others in charge will execute.
Consider setting up weekly communication points to help manage sustainability improvement progress - either a meeting or a short email, where status updates are shared, and questions are discussed.
At the end of every month, reflect by yourself or meet as a team to identify:
- Where you’ve made progress and achieved success.
- Where you’ve stalled and why, whether to continue working on stalled projects.
- What big goals and priorities you want to adjust or set for the following period.
If you’ve achieved some successes, this is an excellent time to:
Get a sense of the quantitative impact of those changes.
While a full-on life cycle analysis will be complex for many brands, some studies can often give you a general assessment of the positive impact. For example, reports already exist that showcase the amount of water saved when moving from traditional to organic cotton or the amount of waste reduced when moving from a K cup to a standard coffee cup. This can give you a reasonable baseline to estimate savings and positive impact.
If you decide to transition your packaging to more sustainable, recycled options, EcoEnclose’s Sustainability Calculator makes it easy to assess the carbon, water, and resource savings these choices generate.
Showcase your positive progress with your customers, team members, and the broader community.
Most of our brands commit to sustainability to support their passion. Still, sharing your changes with your customers is always a win - it helps strengthen your brand, builds loyalty, and educates consumers to make them more conscious shoppers.
Check out EcoEnclose’s Marketing Assets to Tell Your Brand’s Sustainable Packaging Story for guidance on marketing your packaging investments to your customers.
Is anyone else out there exhausted by the plethora of brands that tell you what their aggressive sustainability goals are, only to find that, five years later, they haven’t kept communicating about them? If they do, it is only to share that they haven’t made the progress they had hoped?
For this reason, we generally recommend keeping your goals internal but being proactive about sharing your successes. No one needs to know that a company is planning to rethink its use of acrylic or conventional cotton. But, once you are ready to release new, more sustainable product lines or packaging, it is a great time to showcase these changes with your customers. Help them understand why you made these improvements, their impact on the planet, and what kind of feedback you want from them. Not only does this help you gain some marketing ROI on your eco investments, but you also help your consumers become more informed - in general - as shoppers.
Connect With Us
Did you follow any or all of the steps shared here? If so, we’d love your feedback! Email email@example.com anytime and let us know if this resource was valuable for you and if / how you incorporated this guidance into your 2023 planning.