10 Steps to Develop Your 2024 Sustainability Plan
As we continue to work with an ever-growing community of conscious, independent eCommerce brands, we recognize that many have spent the past several years in survival mode - and are still looking for a path forward that balances sustainability with business success.
EcoEnclose is navigating all of these same headwinds alongside the businesses we serve. We know firsthand that with all of this happening around us, it would be easy to throw in the towel and decide that 2024 is not the right year to invest in sustainability priorities. It would be understandable for us to batten down the hatches through the holidays and beyond, focusing every dollar on cutting costs and finding new customers.
But that’s not the game any of us are in. EcoEnclose aims to make eCommerce a positive force for the planet and the people who live here. 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 more ethically and sustainably.
We know our brands are looking ahead to 2024 and determining how to best set sustainability goals to move the needle in the face of changing regulations, economic uncertainty, and tightening budgets. If that sounds like you and your company, this guide is written for you.
Here, we share ten steps that walk you through the process of creating your sustainability plan for 2024 - framed within the context of the unique times we find ourselves in.
In an era marked by economic turbulence and a pressing need for environmental action, the path for conscious, independent eCommerce brands has been marked by relentless challenges. We’ve seen many brands pushed to their limits, both economically and personally.
Amid this whirlwind, EcoEnclose intimately understands the struggles that these brands face. We’ve weathered many of the same storms ourselves. With so many forces, the temptation to play it safe, cut corners, and chase quick wins can be strong. But that isn’t the playbook we’re following.
EcoEnclose champions a powerful vision: to turn eCommerce into a force for good for the planet and the people who live here - and we feel privileged to work with a community of EcoAllies who share that goal. As we come together with an ever-growing number of changemakers, we’re striving to help each find a unique strategy that harmonizes sustainability with business resilience. The past few years' events have only highlighted the importance of this effort.
Now, here we are in 2024. Economic uncertainties persist, but there's a whisper of optimism for a turnaround by year-end. However, it's not just about economic shifts; it's also an election year that will likely highlight the limitations of relying solely on politics to combat climate change.
EcoEnclose is here to partner with brands that recognize the time to act is now. The last 18 months have served as a stark reminder that climate change isn't a distant threat; it's knocking on our door, demanding immediate action. Our quest must not merely be about mitigating the damage or minimizing negative impacts; it's about taking a bold leap toward regenerative solutions, innovative approaches, and steps that reverse climate change itself.
This guide isn't just another set of instructions. It's a roadmap to give brands hungry for action a head start in making significant progress. Here, we outline ten pivotal steps explicitly designed to help craft a robust sustainability roadmap for 2024, grounded in the urgency of our times.
Whether your business is large or small, new or seasoned, you can have a powerful influence for good. And through it all, EcoEnclose is ready to help. We encourage you to use this guide as an actionable resource - and to reach out to us directly if you could benefit from greater support.
Step 1: Determine who’s involved.
Who you involve in your planning process will depend on the size and structure of your business.
Are you a business of one? If you’re your business's owner and sole operator, you may prefer to develop your brand’s environmental goals and plans solo. If you want input or support from others, consider including eco-minded friends, loyal customers, manufacturing partners, or life partners as you create your game plan.
Are you running a small, scrappy team? Meet with your whole team to hear their input. Each team member will have different insights based on their roles and experience, which can help you form a plan uniquely suited to your brand. You may also decide to form a plan and refine it based on your team’s feedback.
Are you a changemaker within a larger organization? For those working within larger companies, pushing your team toward greater eco-innovation can be challenging. Being thoughtful about who you involve and how you involve them can set you up for maximum success and help you begin to make progress on your ultimate sustainability vision.
You’ll want to consider the following:
- Who are the key decision-makers?
- Who is likely managing the execution of whatever decisions come from this process?
- Who can bring great perspectives and passion to the process? (i.e., Sourcing, manufacturing, marketing, or customer service?)
Once you identify who should be involved, engage them to determine their interest and how they can participate. Let them know the role they should expect to play, whether they’ll join in every step, who will make decisions, and so forth.
Now that your planning team is assembled, you can move on to the next step.
Step 2: Understand key issues.
When it comes to sustainability, many worldwide - particularly businesses - focus first and foremost on carbon and climate change.
However, the environmental movement includes many evolving and increasingly complex issues. These issues affect everyone, including businesses, and it’s worth considering the broader picture while making your sustainability plan.
As you review, don’t get caught up thinking you need to understand each issue fully or set goals around every area.
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 immediate issue. For example, many brands we work with set goals around transparency and data-sharing, a step that can contribute to improving sustainability impact in many other areas over time.
That being said, brands will set much more thoughtful, grounded, and nuanced visions with a general understanding of our planet's broadest issues.
Below are some pressing issues and trends you may want to consider as you make your goals.
For more in-depth research, we encourage you to check out the Nine Planetary Boundaries framework, an approach that nicely illustrates different ecological challenges.
A deeper review of environmental issues.
Acceleration of Climate Issues and The Risks To Your Business
While reviewing the issues below, remember that most - if not all - of these trends are accelerating more rapidly as time passes, making it critical for businesses in every sector to address the climate in their planning.
This is because the acceleration of climate issues creates serious challenges that impact businesses across industries all around the world. As damages create a ripple effect, many are concerned that we are “running out of road” to shift toward improved environmental stewardship.
The heightened pace of climate change manifests through various environmental shifts, including rising temperatures, extreme weather events, sea-level rise, biodiversity loss, and altered precipitation patterns. These changes directly affect businesses, influencing operations, supply chains, consumer behavior, and overall sustainability strategies.
One of the primary ways accelerated climate change impacts businesses is through physical risks. Extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires threaten business infrastructure, supply chains, and production facilities. These events lead to secondary impacts like delayed operations, damaged assets, increased downtime, financial losses, and supply chain interruptions. This affects all industries, but particularly businesses reliant on agriculture or tourism.
In this time of rapid change, businesses must reassess risk management strategies, invest in resilient infrastructure, adopt sustainable practices, and innovate to minimize environmental impacts. Brands that proactively address these challenges by integrating climate-conscious strategies into their operations stand better positioned to mitigate risks, capitalize on emerging opportunities, and foster long-term sustainability.
New Environmental Legislation and Compliance Needs
Increased environmental legislation and sustainability requirements are growing worldwide. These policies are being passed at national, state, city, or retailer levels.
Legislation or policies often focus on emissions reduction, waste management, plastic use, or reporting requirements. One common form of legislation is bans on higher-risk materials like single-use plastic (i.e., bags or utensils), PFAs, PVC, and polystyrene.
Another type of policy that is gaining traction is EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) legislation. Many European countries and some US states already have these laws, requiring businesses to register, track, and manage waste from their products and packaging.
We’re also seeing more legislation on the horizon, from stricter regulation of environmental claims to packaging compliance guidelines. We encourage all brands to stay on top of current and upcoming legislation and stay compliant. Learn more in our regularly updated guides:
Political and Economic Uncertainty
Political and economic uncertainties significantly affect how businesses keep up with sustainable practices today. The changing policies and priorities in politics we’re experiencing directly impact how companies plan for long-term sustainability. When leaders change, or governments shift their focus, environmental rules and incentives can quickly change, making it hard for businesses to adjust.
In the same way, today’s economic uncertainties, like unstable markets or trade disruptions, create challenges for companies trying to invest in eco-friendly practices. Businesses often prioritize short-term financial goals instead of investing in sustainable initiatives, affecting their ability to fund green technologies and processes.
This volatility causes some hesitation among businesses to commit to sustainability fully. Worries about making profits, staying competitive, and recovering investments in uncertain times can lead companies to delay or reduce their efforts toward eco-conscious changes.
However, despite these challenges, we encourage forward-thinking businesses to see sustainability as a way to build resilience. By making sustainable practices a fundamental part of operations, brands can set themselves up for greater success, enhanced adaptability, and a greater positive impact, even in uncertain times.
Artificial Intelligence and Its Role In Sustainability
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has emerged as a powerful tool that can be used to enhance sustainable business practices across sectors. AI technologies offer innovative solutions to address environmental challenges, optimize operations, and foster more sustainable processes. The accessibility of AI can make it easier for smaller businesses to tackle higher-level data and optimization even without a large team.
One exciting potential use of AI is optimizing resource utilization and reducing waste. Through predictive analytics and machine learning algorithms, AI enables companies to forecast energy consumption, optimize logistics, and manage resources more efficiently. For instance, in agriculture, AI-powered systems help monitor crop health, optimize irrigation, and minimize the use of pesticides, contributing to sustainable farming practices.
AI can also aid in developing eco-friendly products and services by assisting in the research, design, and development phases. By analyzing vast amounts of data, AI helps identify opportunities for product innovation and sustainability improvements.
AI can be a powerful catalyst for sustainable business practices, offering more accessible avenues for efficiency, innovation, and eco-conscious decision-making across diverse industries. Brands of all sizes can look for ways to integrate AI into their sustainability planning to streamline processes and increase their impact.
Carbon Emissions and Climate Change
Many argue that emissions and the resulting warming climate are the most pervasive and critical issues in the environmental movement.
Some brands will make it their main sustainability priority to reduce carbon emissions and help reverse climate change. This is usually done with policies or visions that minimize or even sequester emissions to become a long-term carbon-negative operation.
Businesses focusing on carbon and climate change would choose energy sources, materials, partners, operational strategies, and transportation methods specifically aimed at reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Other strategies to decrease emissions include purchasing renewable energy, shipping rail instead of freight, eliminating air/expedited shipping, and making raw supplies lighter and thinner.
Decline of Freshwater Supply
Water scarcity is another critical part of the environmental movement. This challenge is heightened because only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater, of which two-thirds is unavailable.
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 producing industrial crops such as grains, cotton, or viscose or that have water-intensive agricultural processes, will prioritize operating their business to reduce their use of freshwater and minimize water pollution. Other brands may set water conservation goals centered on improving efficiency at facilities or in manufacturing practices.
Every second, a football field’s worth of forestland is destroyed. This adds up to an estimated 12 million hectares of forests lost annually due to logging, conversion of forests to agricultural land, and wildfires.
This shocking number doesn’t even consider the forest degradation that happens when a forest still exists but is so degraded that it can no longer function well and adequately support biodiversity or human populations.
Forest degradation is more challenging 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.
Another way that brands can address this issue is by exploring eco-friendlier inputs like recycled content, regenerative crops, or next-gen tree-free fibers.
The WWF’s Living Planet Report 2022 found that wildlife populations have declined by an average of 69% in the past 50 years. Human activities are driving much of this decimation, with several significant contributors.
Land use change for large-scale agricultural production drives an estimated 40% of biodiversity decline globally. Overexploitation, such as logging and fishing, causes another 26.7%. Climate change is estimated to account for 18.7%. The introduction of invasive alien species is estimated to account for 14.7%. Unfortunately, the rate of decline is increasing over time.
Brands and nations alike 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 operate in a way that restores wildlife and improves biodiversity. One more recent tool is a “ Biodiversity Footprint,” which can give individuals and organizations insight into how their activities impact the health of diverse species.
According to National Geographic and many other sources, about 8 million tons of plastic waste from coastal nations escape into the oceans every year. An estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris are already in the sea, and the waste keeps pouring in.
Plastic generally does not biodegrade in a marine environment, even the vast majority of plastics and bioplastics labeled as “biodegradable.” This means all that litter remains and will remain for many generations unless it is actively removed.
Marine plastic creates 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 also at risk, as microplastics are now found in our water supply and food that people commonly consume.
Additionally, the majority of plastic is produced by climate-impacting fossil fuels. Even plastic that isn’t made from fossil fuels, such as PLA and other bioplastics, is produced by intensive agriculture, which relies heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides that pollute our soil and waterways.
Many brands, seeing the effect of plastic pollution, have responded by setting goals to minimize their use of plastic in their products, packaging, and facilities.
According to the EPA’s 2018 research, the average person in the U.S. produces 4.9 pounds of trash daily. In the same year, the EPA reported that
- 292.4 million tons of waste were generated
- 69 million tons were recycled
- 25 million tons were composted
- 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 significant issues that have cascading effects.
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 out of reach. Every time an aluminum can goes to the landfill, all raw materials are wasted rather than being remanufactured into new aluminum material. This remanufacturing process would ensure the materials are reused and offset the need for new raw materials.
Landfills are a significant environmental justice issue, creating 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’s important to note that waste is the environmental issue that a brand’s end consumers will experience most directly and viscerally. Due to the significant ecological risks linked with poorly handled waste, consumers tend to be more attuned to this issue compared to others.
Consequently, many brands prioritize setting goals related to waste management.
These goals vary widely, encompassing initiatives such as setting a zero-waste goal to keep all products and packaging out of landfills. Additionally, brands may enhance circularity by maximizing recycled content and recyclability up to 100%. Other strategies involve the implementation of re-commerce approaches, such as 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. But this trend isn’t isolated to the American Midwest. Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. Even 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 global spread of cities and roads is simply sealing soil out of reach beneath a layer of concrete.
These issues significantly impact humanity, biodiversity, and climate more broadly. Declining soil health 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, leading 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 the world’s most significant health problems. 7.8% of global deaths are attributed to outdoor air pollution - with numbers as high as 10% in countries like India or China.
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 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 rarely see brands set concrete, high-level air or water pollution goals. Still, these issues are essential to consider environmentally and ethically as you make sustainability plans.
Step 3: Define your long-term sustainability vision and mission.
Here’s where you think big and long-term about your brand’s overall approach to sustainability.
First, review the abovementioned issues and consider which you’ll include in your plan.
Once your head is 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. Instead, create a mission statement that sets an overarching vision and leaves room for expansion and growth. Your big-picture goal should have an impact that inspires you!
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 3 In Action: Company XYZ
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 environmental impact by rethinking key aspects of how I operate.
The textiles I use have the most significant negative impact on the planet and, as such, will be where I focus our sustainability vision.
Currently, my business works mainly 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 supply chain are treated with dignity and paid fair wages.
- Is grown and produced to minimize carbon emissions, soil degradation, and water pollution (optimally, it is net neutral or even net positive for the planet).
- Is designed and supported such that the waste and pollution it creates 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 essential 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 2024 sustainability strategy? Download our fillable presentation and planning template here.
With your big-picture, long-term vision in mind, it’s time to look at where your business is right now.
A Note on the GHG Protocol and Carbon Emissions Approach to Sustainability Goal Setting
This guide was written primarily for small to mid-sized, independent businesses with limited resources.
While we hope any professional interested in sustainability can benefit from this step-by-step process, we also recognize that the largest brands in the world will take a very different approach - one that is too complex and too reliant on quantitative analysis for brands with fewer resources.
Fortune 500 brands typically have established climate goals, primarily around minimizing carbon emissions (and some with goals that extend into circularity, pollution reduction, and ethical treatment of people).
These brands generally rely on the GHG Protocol, the leading provider of standards, guidance, tools, and training for businesses and governments in measuring and managing climate-warming emissions. GHG Protocol has set standards of global warming potential (GWP-100) for each greenhouse gas emission, has developed a series of calculators that businesses can use to calculate their emissions and impact on global warming, and has instituted the concept of Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 emissions.
Scope 1 emissions refer to emissions that a business owns or controls directly. The most common example is if a business owns a fleet of vehicles, then the fuel burned when those vehicles are driving would be considered Scope 1 emissions.
Scope 2 emissions are driven by the energy a business purchases and use. Scope 2 emissions are (unlike Scope 1) considered indirect; however, businesses can often influence them fairly directly through installing solar panels, reducing the amount of energy needed, and purchasing renewable energy sources (versus fossil fuels).
Scope 3 emissions encompass emissions not produced by the company itself, but by those it’s indirectly responsible for across its value chain. The carbon footprint of extracting and producing all of the raw materials used by a business, the logistics of those raw materials, the shipping of finished goods, and the disposal of finished goods by end consumers are all examples of Scope 3 emissions. The Scope 3 bucket was created mainly because these are extremely difficult to measure (and, some would argue, difficult to influence).
The GHG Protocol and its standards have tremendously impacted large-scale private-sector businesses. That said, we don’t feel this is the right approach for the vast majority of companies who are attempting to set sustainability goals and create an environmental strategic plan for a variety of reasons:
- Engaging in GHG Protocol level assessment of one’s business in a meaningful way is very resource intensive. For most businesses, especially the D2C businesses we serve, 90%+ of an entity’s carbon impact is driven by Scope 3 emissions. Figuring out Scope 3 emissions often requires teams dedicated to gathering and plugging in data, auditing paperwork, and verifying results. This is cost-prohibitive for all but the largest businesses.
- GHG Protocol inadvertently creates a mentality that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t influence it.” (And, by extension, if you can’t measure it, you don’t have a positive impact). Its approach also suggests that businesses aren’t in a position to influence Scope 3 emissions. We fundamentally disagree with this thinking. First, many aspects of sustainability are common sense at some level. Second, businesses have tremendous control over their Scope 3 emissions by making different decisions about their partners across their value chain and educating and incentivizing their customer base. For example, using recycled content significantly reduces carbon emissions, even if a brand can’t calculate the exact carbon footprint of a virgin vs recycled option. Once this reality is agreed upon, the company can significantly reduce its emissions by sourcing different materials. This is a net positive for the environment, even though the company may not be able to create a public-facing, quantifiable report of exactly how many pounds of emissions were saved.
- Finally, we are very sensitive to the fact that many environmental consequences of the private sector are unrelated to carbon emissions. Examples include biodiversity loss, deforestation, ocean plastic pollution, freshwater use, etc. A pure emissions-based lens sometimes leads to choices that may go against the business's goal. Additionally, we recognize that the calculation of emissions is manufactured. Industry and analysts have determined things like system boundaries and GWP-horizon - issues that are hotly debated among the environmental community and should not be considered a perfect science. We have a lot of respect for carbon emissions calculations and life cycle analyses but are simultaneously always aware of their limitations.
These are just a few reasons we recognize and respect the GHG Protocol’s approach to measuring emissions and setting goals to reduce them, but we don’t recommend this method for most eCommerce brands we serve.
Our suggested approach requires less quantification and less data gathering - but aims to make the setting and pursuing ambitious sustainability goals far more feasible for most brands.
Step 4: Conduct an internal audit.
In this next step, we encourage you to do an in-depth business audit.
Get as specific as possible in your circumstances.
The reality is that most businesses don’t have the capacity or resources to conduct detailed quantitative assessments. However, it’s also true that much can still be determined based on secondary research and your knowledge of your operations. So, if you’re a smaller business, don’t be discouraged by limitations in your auditing process. Instead, use the tools you have to get an accurate picture of where your business stands regarding sustainability.
Conducting an audit involves outlining every aspect of your business that impacts the planet. We’ve divided this into three major sections: Operations and Production, Compliance, and Potential Innovations.
Auditing Your Operations and Production
In this step, we’re looking at the impact of your business operations and production (i.e., supply chain, manufacturing, shipping, etc.). What you assess and measure will depend on your business type. For example, you might break down each item in your product line, different components of your packaging, or raw materials you use in manufacturing.
For each component, consider and record:
- What you are currently doing
- What your long-term vision would direct you to do in the future
- How well your current approaches align with this long-term vision
- Your opportunity for improvement.
Next, take a look at the quantitative metrics of your business (you can likely get access to your Scope 1 and 2 emissions no matter your business size). For most brands, closely examining your operations and records to find the relevant numbers will give you a solid starting point. This baseline is essential to tracking and measuring your progress - and prepares you for increased reporting requirements that may be part of upcoming legislation.
Emissions from your production, facilities, transportation, etc. Typically measured in kilotons.
Energy used in making your products, running facilities, etc. Typically measured in kWh.
Water used in operations or production, effects on water quality, water pollutants, etc.
Current sources of waste, such as excess product, packaging, raw materials, or other resources.
Waste you have already reduced in your operations, i.e. in production, processing, etc., through redesign or recycling.
Volumes, types, and materials of packaging used, as well as locations shipped to. (Required for most EPR legislation.)
Maintain a current record of suppliers or other partners that impact your business’s overall sustainability progress.
List of materials used in your products and packaging, ideally including sourcing information. Documents like Bills of Materials can help.
Depending on the size and complexity of the team you’ve assembled for this project, you might divide the assessment of components into different individuals or departments.
Auditing for Compliance
Additional sustainability and EPR requirements have come into play over the past few years, with more on the horizon. As you look closer at your business, consider what parts of your operation may be affected by sustainability policies, guidelines, or legislation.
A few areas of your business that may be affected by compliance issues include:
- Packaging materials
- Plastic use
- Chemical use
- End-of-life for products and packaging
- Data collection and reporting
By taking the time to audit your business, collect data, and consider room for improvement, you’re already well along the path to navigating compliance successfully. And if you’re uncertain about where to begin regarding compliance, we’re here to help.
To help you stay on top of these evolving requirements, we’ve created several guides:
- Guide to EPR and Sustainable Packaging Legislation
- Guide to Packaging Compliance and Legislation
- Guide to Thin Film Recycling and How2Recycle Certification
- Guide to Retailer Sustainability Policies
Auditing for Innovation Opportunities
While much of the work around sustainability relates to auditing your negative impact to minimize it, there are also opportunities to propel positive impact and change. We’ve found that forward-thinking, independently owned brands are typically the ones most likely to be the early adopters that catalyze the market adoption of the most cutting-edge sustainable technologies. Could this be you in 2024?
Much of the progress in sustainability is thanks to businesses willing to take a risk on emerging technologies - helping to test, refine, and bring them to the wider market.
Look for opportunities in your business where you can integrate emerging technologies with high potential.
For example, you may decide to innovate your:
- Packaging: Piloting emerging next-gen materials or techniques
- Products: Creating a radically different product that fills a need more sustainably
- Operations: Streamlining or altering processes to minimize your footprint
- Services: Taking a fresh approach that reduces waste or maximizes positive impact
Here’s an example of a simple yet actionable internal audit.
Step 4 In Action: Company XYZ
Here is a work-in-progress example of what an audit might look like for Company XYZ.
Ready to craft your 2024 sustainability strategy? Download our fillable presentation and planning template here.
Step 5: Align your sustainability priorities with your forecast and budget.
Our current economic climate makes most businesses unlikely to take risks or pursue steps that could decrease margins by increasing costs or decreasing revenue/pricing. However, these constraints don’t mean you should put off your sustainability priorities in 2024.
To successfully pursue eco-initiatives in a year likely to bring continued uncertainty, first take a thorough and honest look at your forecast, financials, cash flow, and budget for the next 12 months. Then, include the right team members in this discussion to ensure you see the whole picture.
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. As consumers have become more discount-conscious, we recognize that some brands have had to run more aggressive discounting strategies that lead to smaller margins. This must be taken into account when considering sustainability moves that impact cost.
- What are your current inventory levels of products, packaging, and other supplies? Are you sitting on more than you usually would? If so, is that 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 have an opportunity to increase your budget for certain expenses. If not, it may mean you are entering a period requiring 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 2024. 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. Still, through government tax credits and reduced energy bills, you may find that you’ve saved enough money on your energy bill by the end of the first year 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 can 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 to your personal or business values? 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 is worth this investment.
Once you’ve completed a realistic review of your financial outlook for the year, you can select sustainability goals that align with your budget and forecast.
Here’s another example of what this could look like for a small business.
Step 5 In Action: Company XYZ
While my 2023 holiday sales were down about 25% compared to the previous year, my business just slightly exceeded my forecasted sales, and we ended 2023 in the black.
I’m nervous about Q1 of 2024, 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 reduce my pricing or running sales.
Forecasting my business with those sales means cutting 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, which 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 2024 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 2024 sustainability strategy? Download our fillable presentation and planning template here.
Step 6: Think expansively about the impact you can have this year.
The previous step aims to help ground your goals in reality. This step will help you expand your vision and imagine what could be possible.
Many brands limit themselves by thinking small, staying in their comfort zones, or even devaluing the difference they can make. Instead, think about what you could achieve if you push the bounds of what you think is possible.
Ask yourself: could you make a significant move to be more sustainable this year?
Here are some ideas to spark your imagination:
- Go 100% plastic-free
- Launch a certified regenerative product line
- Achieve zero-waste manufacturing
- Optimize my products for easier repair or reuse
- Create a community outreach program to promote sustainability education and engagement
- Eliminate all non-organic cotton and all virgin polyester from my business
- Become an early adopter of emerging sustainable materials - such as seaweed packaging or textiles made from recycled textiles
You don’t necessarily have to achieve everything you imagine in this step. However, letting yourself think expansively and dream bigger can open your mind to possibilities you hadn’t considered before. You may come upon new insights, direction for goals, or renewed motivation.
If you come up with an idea that feels exciting, energizing, and inspiring (and maybe a little intimidating), keep that vision in mind as you set specific goals.
Step 7: Set your big goals for the month, quarter, or year.
Using your thoughts, data, and output from steps 1-6, narrow your focus to 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.
You may want to set a goal for the entire year if: your goal is meaty, complicated, or time-consuming to execute - or if you’re working with limited resources that require narrowed focus.
You may want to set a major priority for the month or quarter if: your goal is fairly straightforward, you want to achieve multiple initiatives within the year, or you want to see how your 2024 sales fare before taking on more aggressive eco goals.
There’s no exact science to deciding what direction you should take for your brand. Consider everything you’ve learned so far and make a decision that feels right. If you’re setting goals along with people inside your business, consider their input as you set priorities. If you’re working solo, you may want to brainstorm with a trusted friend or colleague.
Whether you’re planning alone or with a team, ask questions like the following as you set your “North Star” goal:
- What goal areas are most feasible for you to tackle operationally?
- What goals fit into your current budget and forecasts?
- Which areas present the biggest opportunities to achieve your long-term sustainability vision?
- What goal areas energize you/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. You'll feel more confident about progressing once you experiment and see some progress.
Step 7 In Action: Company XYZ
I want 2024 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 materials that do not meet my sustainability and ethical ideals.
While 90% of what I sell is made with cotton, polyester, or a cotton/polyester blend (so the place to start would be on these), I will focus the two months on my acrylic fabrics instead.
I am more comfortable taking risks with this line because this is a 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 other options print on my equipment. If customers aren’t willing to spend more, the increased costs of doing something more sustainable here are unlikely to be more than $250 / month (my threshold for what I can spend now).
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 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 their willingness to pay more (if needed) to keep the same margin.
- Decide on a long-term solution to pursue.
Step 8: Set smaller goals and targets.
When you did your audit in Step 4, you likely came up with dozens of immediate opportunities to run your business sustainably 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 main goal from Step 7.
Here, you list and plan for those smaller priorities and decide what you want to accomplish in shorter-term periods.
This can include goals or targets like:
- Instituting a policy to unplug all electronics every evening
- Moving team members to four-day workweeks to reduce commuting
- Switching break room supplies from single-use to reusable
- Placing appropriate waste bins (i.e., general recycling, thin film recycling, landfill, compost) in your facility
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. Instead, choose an achievable number of initiatives that will help you begin to see an impact and build momentum!
Step 8 In Action: Company XYZ
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 to reduce waste and save money in the long term.
- Install low-flow faucets in all restrooms and break areas, but keep standard faucets in the 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 9: Establish a quarter-over-quarter or month-over-month game plan.
Whether you’ve set up monthly, quarterly, or annual big and small goals in Steps 7 and 8, you still want to craft a general roadmap for your entire year. You revisit this 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! The goal here is to give you a basic idea of how you’ll work towards your goals. That way, you’ll better be able to see when you’re on track and spot bottlenecks as they arise.
Set a recurring appointment in your calendar to review your goals and check in with involved parties regularly - at least monthly - so you can stay current on your progress toward your sustainability targets.
Step 9 In Action: Company XYZ
Step 10: Execute, track, measure, communicate, celebrate - then rinse & repeat.
Our final step is cyclical - you’ll continue working through these steps as you work on your sustainability goals and targets, refining your strategy over time.
Here are the four phases of this cycle:
- Plan and execute
- Track and measure
- Communicate and celebrate
- Rinse and repeat
Plan and Execute
So far, you’ve created your sustainability plan. Now, it’s time to execute it. Build the sustainability plan into your monthly and weekly plan and action items. If a broader team executes this work, work with them to complete each task 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
- How you’ll execute these plans or targets moving forward
Track and Measure
Developing a consistent, comprehensive system to track and measure progress is critical for effective sustainability management.
The two main questions you’ll need to answer are:
- What will I track? (i.e., What data will I collect and compare?)
- How will I track it? (i.e., What systems will I use to organize data?)
First, you’ll want to track your highest-level outcomes like energy, water, and material use, waste generation and reduction, and carbon footprint (if tracking CO2 emissions is feasible and helpful for your business).
In addition, we recommend you track second-tier outcomes that stem from your other sustainability tactics and goals - such as material swaps, process updates, or supply chain achievements.
You can track your progress in a variety of ways. The method or methods you choose will depend on your business or team size, the complexity of your data and goals, and your personal preferences.
Tracking methods include:
- Spreadsheets (i.e., Google Sheets, Excel, Numbers)
- Project Management Tool (i.e., Notion, Trello, Asana)
- Sustainability Reporting Tool (i.e., Greenly, Green Places, Novisto)
Once you’ve decided what and how to track, update your records consistently, and compare them to your baselines to measure your progress toward targets.
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.
Communicate and Celebrate
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? Or that 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. For example, if your company plans to rethink its use of acrylic or conventional cotton, you don’t need to share this goal externally. 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.
As you achieve goals, share your positive sustainability progress with your customers, team members, and the broader community through social media, email campaigns, your website, or in-person contact.
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.
Be sure to help customers understand why you made these improvements, how they impact 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 it also helps your consumers become more informed - in general - as 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.
Rinse and Repeat
Few things in life are as satisfying as progressing toward a meaningful goal. But, like every significant goal, achieving greater sustainability requires time, patience, and determination.
This is why it’s important to continue through the cycle of planning, executing, tracking, measuring, communicating, celebrating, and then plan again.
Every time you move through the cycle, you’ll identify more bottlenecks and holdups preventing you from progressing.
Connect With Us
Did you follow any or all of the steps shared here? If so, we’d love your feedback! Email firstname.lastname@example.org anytime and let us know if this resource was valuable for you and if / how you incorporated this guidance into your 2024 planning.