The small-business guide to sustainability.

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Think globally, act locally.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (agenda) is a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people, animals and the earth. Central to the agenda, are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action to all countries. These goals recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)


I’m a small-business owner, this has nothing to do with me!

According to the SME Climate Impact Report, South African SMEs are responsible for 14% of direct non-household greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but this footprint climbs to 29% of emissions when their supply chains are considered.

That’s a significant carbon footprint and without the commitment of small businesses, it’s unlikely that South Africa will achieve its 2030 SDG goals.

About 90% of SMEs cited the following as barriers to taking sustainable action: cash‑flow constraints, difficulty navigating government policies, measuring impact, and influencing their suppliers to become more sustainable.

What is a green business?

A green business prioritises sustainability and environmental conservation in its business model. They seek to:

  • reduce their negative environmental impact as a business; and/or
  • offer green alternatives as the main part of their product mix; and/or
  • support green initiatives through local partnerships and carbon offsets.


What's in the Small Business Sustainability Guide?

The following articles are intended to help you take action in a simple way, and without costing the earth!

5 benefits of embracing sustainable development goals.

 5 steps to sustainability for your small business

What is a carbon footprint?

Going digital, going green infographic

Green funding options

Further reading



5 benefits of embracing sustainable development goals.


If you believe that anything you do is just a drop in the ocean, remember that your investment in sustainability is about the future of your business, family, community and, yes, the earth.

1 Increase profitability and growth prospects.

There’s a growing market for sustainable goods and services. The Business and Sustainable Development Commission has estimated that meeting the sustainable development goals could add $12 trillion and 380 million jobs to the global economy by 2030.

2 Improve your attractiveness as a business and as an employer.

Consumers and employees are becoming increasingly demanding concerning sustainability. Taking a responsible and responsive approach to the needs of your local community and the environment strengthens your brand positioning. According to The Global Sustainability Study 2021 (, globally, 85% of consumers have indicated that they have shifted their purchasing behaviour towards being more sustainable.

3 Save money.

Improved energy and water efficiency, along with waste reduction, are not just good for the planet. They are also good for profitability.

4 Improve team health and morale.

A caring company that works towards a greener, healthier environment (local and macro) will benefit from a motivated and productive workforce.

5 Improve your procurement readiness.

Larger organisations are increasingly requiring their suppliers to comply with, or contribute to, their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. As a small business, you may need to prove your sustainability credentials to retain or win future contracts.

The three pillars of ESG.

  • Environmental– An organisation’s impact on the planet.
  • Social– The impact an organisation has on people, including employees, consumers and the community.
  • Governance– Is an organisation governed transparently? Does it report honestly and clearly on its activities?


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5 steps to sustainability for your small business


A good sustainability plan helps you recognise where you can balance operational needs with sustainability and where savings can be made. Firstly identify the low-hanging fruit … the small things that can be implemented easily with little to no cost, then tackle the bigger changes that need to be managed in the same way as any other project.

What is a business sustainability plan?

A business sustainability plan defines the goals and the actions needed to create business, social and environmental sustainability. Let's get started ...

1 Learn and educate.

How to balance the 3 'P's: profits, people and planet.

It’s a mammoth task to try to learn about concepts such as climate change, carbon footprint, fair trade, sustainable cities and more, while still trying to run a business. 

Start with your immediate business environment and see what you can do. Consider what impact your business may be having on your community and if it is possible to do better. Small things can make a big difference. Think of plastic straws – five years ago they were commonplace, and today most establishments offer compostable alternatives.

Involve your employees in discussions about how and where changes can be made. Ask your community what they need (eg clean-ups, greening, beautification or sponsorships) and how you can help them to make it happen.

  • How do we treat our employees, our customers and our suppliers fairly and take reasonable care to protect their well-being?
  • How do we minimise the possible negative environmental impact our business processes and products have on our carbon footprint?

Consistently educate and engage with your employees and customers about your sustainability efforts and why you are doing certain things. Stakeholder buy-in is key to success.

2 Picture it!

Create a vision of what a sustainable small business in your industry would look like. Draw it. Talk about it. And find out what is holding you back.  Just because it seems unrealistic, it shouldn’t stop us from trying.

'Impossible only means that you haven’t found the solution yet.' – Anonymous

Choose a few SDGs that are important to you and your employees and focus on where you can make a difference. Communicate clearly and often about the why, the what and the how. 

Involve your employees in coming up with a slogan or image that encapsulates what you aim to achieve and post it in bathrooms, kitchens and workspaces as well as on social media. When we make a promise in public, we’re more likely to stick to it!

Top tip: While printing posters is not strictly a 'green' activity, consider how many of your employees are online and how best to communicate the message.

3 Assess where you can improve.

It’s time to look in the mirror. Local regulations, industry standards and common sense all help to set the standards by which we can judge our own sustainability practices. At a minimum, your business should be compliant with any laws or standards already in place.

If you operate in an industry that is not typically seen as being sustainable, there are still things you can do, such as offering and encouraging customers to choose more sustainable alternatives or implementing simple operational changes that save energy and reduce waste.

Identify what can be changed, set targets and act!

4 Be creative.

If you want to meaningfully reduce waste and energy consumption, you need to problem-solve. Innovation ranges from finding cheaper and better ways of doing things to the adoption of complex new technologies.

Cultivate an attitude of ‘let’s do it differently, let’s do it better’.

5 Action it

  • Update or create policies to account for the emphasis on sustainability.
  • Develop processes, standards and checklists to ensure that changes are implemented for the right reasons, in the right way, by the right people at the right time.
  • Create SMARTARgoals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-limited, action-driven, and reviewable) and track the progress of your changes. This could be as simple as comparing energy bills or the amount of waste sent to landfills.
  • Allocate responsibilities and empower champions within your team.
  • Get feedback from all stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers and your community) to assess the cost against the benefit and to troubleshoot.
  • Record and communicate your progress. Keep it visible and top of mind.
  • Celebrate successes and reward individuals or teams that go out of their way.

What is a carbon footprint?


A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. Globally, the average carbon footprint per person is about 4 tons. To have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tons by 2050.

  • Carbon reduction is the process whereby a business directly reduces its greenhouse gas emissions through efficiencies in the production process.
  • Carbon offset is effectively a trade-off, where companies get credit for funding external projects that reduce emissions. NPOs or Socio-Economic Development businesses benefit from the funding and you get to offset the unavoidable carbon emissions involved in your business. E.g. eCommerce businesses typically seek to carbon offset their delivery carbon emissions.

It’s important to remember that carbon offsetting is not a get-out-of-jail card. It is meant to offset the carbon emissions that your business cannot avoid. It’s not meant as absolution for a failure to take basic measures to reduce your carbon footprint, such as unnecessary flights.

Offset schemes vary widely in terms of cost, although a typical fee would be around R200 for each ton of CO2 offset. You can, of course simply give directly to a project or NPO in your community if you don’t need to prove your credits as a supplier.

The point is that there are many inexpensive ways to reduce emissions and to offset where you can’

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Going digital, going green.


Download PDF version to share with your employees and colleagues

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Green funding options




Expand business, sustainability, with us. Those at the helm of successful corporations know how to make crucial connections at crucial times. The intricate solutions in corporate investment banking needs a partner who sees the bigger picture for both your business and society. We do. Explore sustainable business growth with the expertise of Nedbank CIB. 

Find out more here




The Government of South Africa through the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has set up a Green Fund to support the transition to a low-carbon, resource efficient and climate-resilient development path delivering high-impact economic, environmental and social benefits. The allocation of R800m represents the initial resources available for disbursement by the Green Fund. The DEA has appointed the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) as the implementing agent of the Green Fund. 

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Business Partners Limited

The core of our focus is providing you with finance for your formal business. We structure unique, individualised financing solutions using shareholder loans, equity, royalties and term loans – or any combination of these. We pride ourselves on having developed a range of finance products offering maximum flexibility to suit your specific needs.

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Doing business in a carbon-constrained world. The transition to a greener economy requires new approaches to finance and funding. Brundtland has been at the forefront of this fast developing and innovative field. Based on a wealth of international experience, we assist developers of greenhouse gas mitigation projects with the realisation of additional revenue streams from within the carbon financing environment.

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We give SMMEs wings to fly. We assist Southern Africa's SMMEs who are manufacturing locally and have great export potential. We can unlock various sources of funding for SMMEs at various stages of their business cycle, via our strategic partnership with Impact Investment/

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SME South Africa

One of the key ways that the South African government drives the growth and sustainability of small businesses is by providing development funding. This is because the SME sector is of great importance as it contributes to job creation and is an engine of growth for the economy.

In recognition of the role small businesses play, the government has prioritised the promotion and development of small businesses in an effort to reduce the SME failure rate and to help small businesses to grow.

Find out more here

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Further reading



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