How to create a sustainable workplace part 2: business activities

Building a sustainable business doesn't need to cost the earth to help the planet. Read our guide to making your business activities more sustainable.

Building a sustainable business – even as a start-up – needn’t cost the earth to help the planet. While there are many employee incentives such as cycling schemes or workplace upgrades such as LED lighting, sustainability can also play a central role in your business operations.


A large part of a business’s environmental impact stems from its operations. Where and how you source raw materials, to how you pack and ship products to customers, can add to your carbon footprint. As a start-up business owner, you’re in a great position to embed net zero, sustainability and carbon neutrality at the heart of your business from the off. As your business grows, those good environmental habits will scale too.

The benefits of being a greener business are valuable. Going green makes sound commercial sense, from appealing to more environmentally aware customers who are increasingly choosy about where they shop to saving money through less wasteful and more efficient production processes. According to a report by Deloitte, 61% of consumers are actively looking for ways to cut back on plastic use. The same report found that one in three shoppers stopped buying from brands if they had ethical or environmental concerns about them.

Want to learn more about sustainability and start-ups?

Discover more about how to embrace a holistic and ecological world view with our free Understanding the environment: A systems approach course. As part of our Learn with Start Up Loans partnership with The Open University, our online course is free to join, delivered by experts and includes a free statement of participation on completion.

If you’re looking to launch and grow a business that puts sustainability at the heart of its operations, we’ve rounded up some inspirational sustainable ideas you can investigate to see if they can help your business on the drive to net zero.

Find out more about how to make your business premises more sustainable in part one, and learn how to nudge staff behaviours towards more sustainable working in part three.

1. Measure your impact

Examine every aspect of your business operations, from the raw materials it sources to how products are manufactured and delivered to customers. For each stage, make a list of materials, energy supplies and usage, noting sustainability concerns such as how they are supplied and how waste is handled.

2. Plan for sustainability

Create a sustainability action plan. Look at each stage of your business operations and decide how you can make operations more sustainable. This can be identifying green energy suppliers or finding ways to reduce or recycle more of the waste your business produces. Divide the plan into different priorities, such as cost-effective and easy-to-implement changes, and put in some deadlines for when you want to have made the sustainable changes.

3. Source sustainably

Work with suppliers who support your sustainable vision. This means when choosing a supplier, ask lots of questions and get evidence about their social, ethical and environmental commitments concerning how they produce the materials your business will be buying. For example, ask about how they handle and recycle water during the manufacturing process and the types of materials used, such as biodegradables including corn starch, bagasse paper and mycelium.

4. Create an environmental supply chain

Transporting raw materials and goods from suppliers over long distances can prove problematic for the environment. Choose local suppliers as much as possible as long as they meet your sustainability requirements, and keep deliveries to a minimum. Some suppliers utilise electric vehicles for deliveries or offset journey miles with carbon offsetting schemes such as tree planting.

Discover more about creating a sustainable and ethical supply chain.

5. Use eco-friendly packaging

Sustainable packaging is high on customer must-haves when it comes to assessing the green credentials of a business, according to a report by McKinsey. As a minimum, look for ways to reduce or remove unnecessary packaging. Lighter-weight materials reduce delivery costs and require less energy to distribute.

Ideally, keep the packaging to one type of material, such as cardboard. Mixing plastics, cardboard and paper makes it more difficult for materials to be separated for recycling. If using cardboard boxes with printed designs, look for a supplier that uses water-based ink rather than toxic chemicals. Ideally, packaging should be made of 100% recycled or raw materials, with plant-based packaging made from substances such as mushrooms, wool and seaweed gaining popularity.

6. Choose green shipping alternatives

As well as packaging, shipping products to customers can clock up carbon miles. Look for shipping and courier businesses that aim to be carbon neutral or offset carbon emissions through tree planting.

If possible, ship smart. Only arrange for a courier to pick up from your business when you have a batch of deliveries ready, cutting down on wasted journeys. Offer customers a choice of delivery drop-offs, such as smart lockers or picking up from local collection points. This allows drivers to drop off several parcels in one location, cutting down on journeys.

Electric vehicles and cycle couriers are a good bet, too. Some businesses are investing in electric vans, especially for local deliveries to customers, and electric vehicles not only reduce emissions but can save your business fuel costs.

The government provides a grant of up to £2,500 when purchasing an electric vehicle such as a van, taxi or truck.

7. Improve waste management

Avoid the temptation to chuck rubbish into bins ready for disposal, and don’t limit your sustainability activities to simply placing recycling bins throughout your workplace premises.

Look at all the waste your business generates and put in place plans to reuse as much of it as possible, such as in packaging, or find local recycling facilities that can handle your waste and recycle it effectively. Some waste products, such as chemicals, oils, rigid plastics and food waste, may need to go to specialist recycling facilities to be effectively handled.

Think twice before upgrading machinery and equipment unless it proves to be more energy efficient. Look to repair workplace fittings and fixtures such as desks and office chairs rather than replace them. If you must upgrade, sell or donate old furniture and equipment to charities and other local businesses that can reuse them.

8. Join a certification programme

With more customers choosing sustainable businesses, it can be a good idea to show your green credentials. Environmental standards such as B Corp, GRI and ISO 14001 aren’t the preserve of large businesses. Smaller companies can apply for the schemes too. A successful application means implementing an environmental management system and recording and auditing how compliant your business is to environmental standards.

Learn with Start Up Loans and help your business get off the ground.

Thinking of starting a business? Check out our free online courses in partnership with The Open University on sustainability in the workplace.

Our free Learn with Start Up Loans courses include:

Plus free courses on climate and sustainability, teamwork, entrepreneurship, mental health and wellbeing.

Disclaimer: While we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

Feeling Inspired?

Register