Sustainable business practices have a prominent place in our modern world. Whether it’s reducing CO2 emissions, creating low-impact products, or implementing greener processes, businesses are making sustainability a priority.
However, as nice as these business practices are, there are more efforts that companies can be making to offer their consumers or clients ways to participate in sustainable action as well. This is a concept called inclusive sustainability.
But before reading on, I have to be explicitly clear: this article is designed for those with the full intention of being sustainable because they can, not because they have to. It is not for those who are looking for quick marketing tactics or “greenwashing” strategies, but also not for those who are selling something green just because they care about or think consumers should want green things. Instead, this is for those companies who have a product or service that serves a purpose and provides a real value to consumers, but then has a layer of sustainability to it.
What is inclusive sustainability?
Inclusive sustainability is a business practice that naturally allows all consumers to be invited to perform eco-conscious behaviors, whether it’s purchasing a product or service, or participating in and supporting a movement.
Instead of focusing on environmental issues that disproportionately affect wealthy individuals or corporations, inclusive sustainability focuses on issues that impact a broader audience, including those who are socioeconomically less well-off. The goal of inclusive sustainability is to create a healthier planet and society that is more equitable and accessible to all people.
Inclusive sustainability, therefore, makes climate action easier on all consumers. In the past, people who are less educated or socioeconomically less well-off have been barred from products and services deemed as “sustainable.” Instead, with inclusive sustainability, consumers are welcomed and encouraged to behave eco-consciously, whether they realize it or not.
What do I mean by that? The idea of being inclusive stems from design practices that make sustainability an inherent part of your business model without depending on it.
To clarify what inclusive sustainability looks like, here is an example:
RE.STATEMENT, the online marketplace of eco-friendly, upcycled clothing, understands and meets the typical buyer’s need for finding unique clothes and serving as an alternative for fast fashion.
By not judging or gatekeeping buyers from shopping because of their past purchasing behaviors, RE.STATEMENT’s sustainable business practice is in its business model: unique, exciting, and new clothing collections, but created from used or unwanted materials. Therefore, it welcomes all buyers in and gives them no excuse to not shop sustainability.
Instead of preaching eco-friendly values that every company already does or that every consumer is already tired of hearing, RE.STATEMENT lets the value of their fashion speak for itself. And only when consumers express interest in learning about sustainability measures, RE.STATEMENT then fills them in on what their impact efforts are. They educate the curious, not preach to the choir.
How inclusive sustainability leads to environmental action that lasts
The best sustainable action is one that is consistent and can last for a long time.
It’s similar to living a healthy, balanced lifestyle vs. crash dieting. Like crash dieting, aiming to be a perfect, totally eco-friendly shopper overnight, only to have it last for a week, is not going to be sustainable. And definitely not sustainable as someone who does what they can to be a conscious consumer for as much of their life as they can. The first step into inclusive sustainability is understanding that.
When sustainable business practices go beyond compliance and become part of the fabric of how a company operates, they are much more likely to persist in the long term. Inclusive firms are more likely to integrate sustainable practices into their operations by reducing emissions and using sustainable materials within the company, but also design ways to market to consumers who can be nudged into being more green.
A big part of inclusive sustainability theory is that no one truly wants to harm the planet, but they might just have other priorities ahead of wanting to help the planet. It is then up to organizations and environmental advocates to encourage consumers into being incrementally more eco-conscious by offering them green options for what they need or want that are easier to choose and access.
By making it easier to consciously or subconsciously make better decisions that create a better impact on the planet, companies can encourage consumer behavior that will last for individuals and grow to reach others who will join the movement too.
How can your business adopt inclusive sustainability?
A great next step for the adoption of inclusive sustainability is making sure that your value proposition provides something more tangible than just the idea of wanting to be green. If you are making water bottles, you can’t just say they’re made of eco-friendly materials; they need to be the most creatively functional or aesthetically beautiful water bottles in the world.
Once you have ensured that you provide value to consumers, start with a foundation of inclusive design practices within your organization. This might mean creating a cross-functional team that focuses exclusively on inclusive design. Or, you can begin with a more modest initiative that incorporates sustainable design into your operations and marketing initiatives to develop ways that nudge employees and consumers to behave more sustainably.
The best way to begin building your inclusive sustainability practices is to engage in a process of continuous improvement. This action leads to continuous feedback, which is a key mechanism for learning and improving. As your business grows, you can use this feedback to continue to improve your practices.
Businesses looking to sustain themselves in the long term must shift their focus from short-term financial goals or one-off marketing tactics, to a more sustainable path that addresses broader social issues. This is how you develop a customer base that actually lasts and gets you far enough to create the impact you want. Inclusive sustainability is the best way to do this.
By providing inclusive and accessible products or services to all groups of consumers and making it easier for them to choose you, you’ll not only create better experiences for your consumers, but also be around in the long run to scale up the impact you can make on the planet. In the end, inclusive sustainability makes it easier, not harder to help protect the environment.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
Hannah M. Le is the founder of RE.STATEMENT, the online marketplace for upcycled clothing. Inspired by the scraps of fabric saved from her mom’s alterations shop, fashion design was the first job she ever wanted, until she discovered how much of a fiend she is at applying behavioral economics to product development and social impact startups.