Eco Assist: Your Questions Answered

Throughout March, The Metropreneur has focused on local organizations that offer programs designed to help businesses be more environmentally friendly, businesses with exceptional green policies, and businesses that offer green products or services.

Sara Rampersaud is the president and CEO of Eco Assist Consulting, a Central Ohio firm founded on the belief that every business, community, and individual has the potential to become a leader in sustainability. So who better to be the subject of our “Frequently Asked Questions” feature this month?

Herewith, the Columbus State graduate shares the questions she is asked most about sustainability− and her answers, of course.

1. How did you get started in this line of work?

It started with shampoo. I have been involved in issues relating to sustainability for about 10 years, but after my kids were born, I became more aware of the direct relationship between my family’s health and the environment. That turned intangible threats, like the link between my kids shampoo and hormone disruption, into very real problems that affected my family.

After becoming frustrated trying to understand and navigate the sea of eco-labels, I founded a website whose mission it was to highlight responsible companies and products while verifying, to the extent possible, “sustainability” claims. While that is still a passion of mine, my focus is now with Eco Assist Consulting. I love my work and the people I get to work with.

2. What is sustainability?

This is always a tough question to answer. There is no single definition of sustainability but in general we’re talking about the need to balance economic, environmental and social wellbeing. Businesses often refer to it as “the triple bottom line.” Unfortunately, sustainability is often thought of as a means to simply lessen environmental impacts. But a really great “green” product isn’t very impactful if nobody buys it and a business that invests large amounts of money into dead-end projects isn’t financially sustainable. We’re really aiming to optimize all three priorities −people, planet, and profit− instead of trading one against another.

3. Isn’t this just another trend?

When social media emerged, it was largely believed to be some kind of passing fad, yet in the span of a few short years it fundamentally altered the way we do business. Companies who fail to respond quickly enough to changing technology, markets, and business models tend to stifle where they could be innovating. Scott Lee, CEO of Wal-Mart, has called sustainability the “greatest opportunity of the 21st century.” The forces driving this shift aren’t going away and they’re impacting the way business creates value, regardless of size or industry.

Today, some of the largest corporations in history are evaluating their entire supply chains, creating C-suite positions for sustainability officers, and giving more shelf space to those with superior environmental or social performance. I think it begs the question: “Why?”

I don’t think it’s likely they had a sudden attack of conscience; they’re doing it because they have to if they want to remain relevant, leading companies. The ripple effect from this example alone is sweeping.

Businesses today have the option of becoming a first mover or trying to play catch-up when their competitors already have.

4. Isn’t it only for big businesses?

Absolutely not. As it turns out, small and medium enterprises are in many ways ideally positioned to plan for sustainability. A small business can make decisions quickly, test new ideas and scale good ones quickly and, maybe more importantly, they have a closer connection to their customers, meaning they can anticipate and respond to changing demand faster.

I know for a fact that Ohio entrepreneurs and small business owners are can-do, solution-oriented people that strive to be on the cutting edge. Whether you’re in information technology or landscaping, in the end, it’s about strategically positioning your company to grow profits now and meet emerging demand so that it can be viable in the long term.

I like the analogy of sustainability as a wide-angle lens; it allows you to see further than you did before so you can anticipate and respond to new opportunities and threats. Who doesn’t want that? This is just an intrinsic part of a healthy business model.

5. Isn’t pursuing sustainability expensive?

That’s like asking whether or not it’s expensive to buy a car; it depends. The key is knowing where you have the most to save, the most to make, and moving forward with investments that fit your needs. There may be some upfront investments and yet that was probably the case with the furniture in your waiting room, the business laptop, or any of the other business investments you’ve made to date.

Smart investments can have immediate financial payback or less quantifiable, yet exceedingly positive, non-financial returns. Small businesses like Betty’s Family of Restaurants and Pattycake Bakery are just a few small businesses proving this.

Pattycake Bakery uses the best all-natural ingredients to make its baked goods and is doing it because better inputs yield better products. It’s well known for having yummy, healthful, and guilt-free goodies, and it’s become the go-to bakery for Columbus’ emerging health-conscious consumer.

Betty’s Family of Restaurants received a full-page write up in The Dispatch and several other publications for its zero waste goals last year− better marketing than any ad space they could have purchased, for sure.

That said, there is such a thing as being too far ahead of the curve, where investments in new technology or processes may not yield an acceptable return on investment. So I think it’s a good idea to run ideas through a quick prioritization checklist during the brainstorming session. These are adapted from The Natural Step Framework:

•       Is this action moving us toward or away from our sustainability goals/vision?
•       Does this action provide a stepping stone, i.e. a “flexible platform,” for future improvements or is it ultimately a dead-end solution?
•       Will this action offer an adequate return on investment− financial, social or otherwise?

6. What is one thing every business can do today?

Start a conversation. What does sustainability mean to your company and how will you define it? Many companies form their own definition or set of guiding principles that make sustainability a clearer goal. One of the biggest challenges businesses face is simply getting everyone on the same page. Without this shared language or general understanding from the beginning, it can be easy to get off target and lose people’s interest.

Think of this process as if you were creating a roadmap; you need to know where you’re going so you can eventually get there.

To learn more about Eco Assist Consulting, visit EcoAssistConsulting.com.