Sustainability Roadmap for Startups - Green Plus

Sustainability Roadmap for Startups - Green Plus

© 2011 The Institute for Sustainable Development ( May be reproduced for noncommercial

personal or educational use only; additional permission is required for any other purpose.


As a startup, you have many immediate needs to address, and focusing on sustainability in the early

days can feel like a luxury. That’s why we created a roadmap of near term low-hanging fruit,

intermediate, and advanced practices to get you moving today and give you a long term vision to aim

for as your startup grows and matures.

Sustainability involves a series of small steps, which together add up to:

Cost savings

Talent attraction and retention

Employee productivity

Enhanced culture

Enhanced reputation

Reduced risk factors

Healthier local environment

More prosperous community

Implementing these practices may also qualify your organization to become a Green Plus Mover or

Certified Green Plus. Not all practices will be relevant to your startup, so identify the practices that are

the best fit for you. As you determine which practices are the best fit, consider factors such as:

Your industry, business model, and competitors

o strategies for differentiation, opportunities for cost savings, reduction of risk factors

What most concerns external stakeholders

What is most exciting, motivating, and important to you and your employees

We’ve compiled an exhaustive list to give you a complete roadmap for what’s possible. But we

encourage you to start small and easy and build over time. It is widely held that sustainability is now a

business imperative, so you position your organization well for the future by getting started today.

Today, Go After Low

Hanging Fruit

Begin to Plan for

Intermediate Practices

In the Long Term, Excel

with Advanced Goals


Near Term Low-Hanging Fruit Practices


Plan & Document

‣ Take the time to develop the critical planning documents. You can’t be sustainable if you’re not in

business. These documents help you reduce risk, streamline execution, and test assumptions:



business plan

marketing plan

‣ Set the tone for sustainability now. Make an explicit commitment to one or more of the following into

your written mission, vision, or values statements.




Manage Finances

positive social or community impact

environmental stewardship


‣ Start off on the right foot with financial management. Try the following:




Engage Stakeholders

put a system (paper or software) in place for record keeping of financial data

use Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP) in accounting

set and update a monthly budget that includes cash flow projections

‣ Put organizational structure in place around sustainability. Convene a Green Team or Sustainability

Committee to meet on an ongoing basis to discuss and plan sustainability-related activities. It’s okay to

start small - one or just a handful of employees meeting once a month.

Manage Sustainability

‣ Estimate and track the financial impacts of any of the environmental sustainability-related activities you

can quantify, such as savings and payback periods. Being disciplined about estimating and tracking

impacts will help you make a business case for sustainability improvements now and in the future.

‣ Begin researching cost competitive office supplies made from sustainable or renewable materials.

Develop relationships with local and sustainable vendors.

‣ Carpool or use less energy-intensive means of travel when you can. Try the bus or train if you can on

occasion. Try walking or biking to work.

‣ Before you get too far along, familiarize your organization with how NOT to communicate your

“greenness.” Read the FTC’s Green Guides for environmental marketing and the Seven Sins of



Raise Awareness

‣ Send your startup’s leadership to participate in sustainability-focused seminars or trainings at least

once this year. Such events are helpful for networking and gaining awareness at the executive level.

‣ Devote a lunch, training, or meeting time to discuss a topic of sustainability as an organization this year.

‣ Think of ways you can encourage simple positive practices around the office. For example, signs,

bulletin boards, and newsletters can all be useful channels. As a startup, simple messages such as how

to recycle, or encouragement around healthy living habits can help build a cultural awareness of

sustainable practices.


Select a Site

‣ In the early days of your startup, you probably haven’t finalized a location for your office. Consider

location factors such as proximity to affordable housing and access to public transit, trails, restaurants

and other amenities. Shorter commute times and convenient options for transit and dining will help

improve the quality of life for employees while reducing traffic and fuel consumption. The average

American commute is 16 miles each way. Try to select an office location that will beat that.

Be Energy Wise

‣ Ask your landlord if you can have a copy of your electricity and/or gas bill. It may be included in your

rent or be difficult to isolate your energy use if you share space with others, but do what you can to

become informed about how you use energy. Track your monthly electricity and/or gas consumption

on a spreadsheet. If your landlord is unwilling to share information, often the act of asking sends a signal

that this knowledge is important to tenants and may open the door to more information in the future.

‣ Buy ENERGY STAR appliances. These use energy more efficiently than standard appliances, saving you

money in the long run.

‣ Maximize natural light in your space. Not only is daylight good for human health and well-being, it

comes at no charge.

‣ Use LED or CFL bulbs if you can. Although they cost a bit more up front, these bulbs have a longer life

than incandescent bulbs and use significantly less energy, which equates to savings. If you need to

dispose of a CFL, note that it contains a small amount of mercury; search online for the best way to

responsibly get rid of it.

‣ Sometimes overhead lighting is inefficient based on your use of a space. Consider task lighting options,

where localizing lighting where it is most needed (i.e. through lamps or lower fixtures) can save energy.

‣ Look into getting a programmable thermostat. You can program these to turn on heating and cooling

only during typical office hours. Since heating and cooling is typically the largest energy load, this

equates to real savings. Also, keep in mind that programmable thermostats are only useful if you know

how to set and use them. Look for user-friendly options and read the manual.


Be Water Wise

‣ Install sink aerators. These cost about $1 and slow the flow of water. If you have showers at work, look

into low flow shower heads. In the vast majority of cases, the difference in water flow is unnoticeable.

Get Around Sustainably

‣ Share information about alternative transportation options, such as brochures for local transit options

(if there are any). Help employees map out their locations to facilitate matchmaking for possible

carpooling. Share information about bike safety. Designate a bike/walk/carpool to work day or week and

celebrate with food or coffee when employees arrive.

‣ If you use vehicles in your work, make sure to get regular tune ups, keep tires properly inflated and use

the manufacturer’s recommended grade of motor oil to ensure optimal fuel economy.

Be Waste Wise

‣ Perform a solid waste audit. Although it sounds complex (and can be for a large organization), a waste

audit is essentially an accounting of what goes in trash and recycling. Find instructions for performing a

waste audit on the Green Plus site or by searching online.

‣ Set up a recycling system for: paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal. In the early days, this might

entail a supportive employee dropping off recyclables at the municipal dump.

‣ Thrift is a useful value for businesses, and reuse is a way to cut down on purchases, save money, and

extract as much use as possible out of resources. Use the second side of scrap paper for note taking –

set up a scrap bin next to the printer or other office supplies for employees to take as they need. Recycle

the paper once it’s fully used. Choose washable plates, mugs, glasses and flatware over disposables.

Such supplies can be purchased at thrift stores (although they may not match) for a deal. Look for used

furniture, which is also cheaper.

‣ Share documents electronically rather than printing them whenever possible. If you have documents

you need to share with customers, include an option to receive them electronically, which can

drastically cut down on paper use.

‣ If there are hazardous materials or other chemicals that may threaten human, plant, or animal health in

your facility, first try to reduce usage. If that’s not possible, educate yourself about proper storage and

disposal of hazardous materials and share this knowledge with employees. Such steps can reduce

regulatory risks, pollution, and adverse health impacts.

Purchase Sustainably

‣ Purchase office paper made with recycled content. This paper is usually marked with a certain

percentage of “post-consumer recycled” content, such as 20%, 30% or 100%. This paper is near cost

parity with regular paper and supports a market for recycling of a major natural resource – trees.

‣ If you clean your own office, use non-toxic products. There are a variety of cleaning products made

from non-toxic chemicals and in some cases you can make your own from items you can find in a

kitchen. If you have a cleaning service, inquire whether they can use non-toxic supplies in your office.


‣ Seek out unbleached and chlorine-free paper products, such as paper towels, toilet paper, tissues,

coffee filters, envelopes and the like.


Help Employees Be Effective

‣ It’s certainly important to have shared, face time in the office as startup. If possible, however, offering

telecommuting options can lend flexibility to employees, save them money on fuel, and reduce traffic

and emissions. Many employers offer “flex time,” which means the work day can begin and end at

different times.

‣ Culture is a critical component of any new venture. Set norms for team spirit. Try having an annual staff

and family gathering. Openly recognize employees for their personal and professional successes.

Celebrate staff birthdays or other special days.

‣ Make sure your work environment meets all safety code requirements. The U.S. Small Business

Administration website ( has guidance around safety if you search on the website for “safety.”

‣ Invest in indoor plants around the office. Not only are they nice to look at, they also help improve

indoor air quality, which can increase productivity.

Engage Your Community

‣ Work time is precious for startups, but so is setting a good course for culture and community

responsibility. Try participating in one employee volunteer event this year. If it’s not possible to leave

the office, consider hosting a cause-related event at the office during regular office hours, such as

donating services, products, or revenues to a community organization.

Engaging community organizations not only lends extra resources to good causes, it can build a sense of

team spirit and raise awareness for your organization in the community.


Make a Plan – Beginning Steps

Selected Sustainability Step



Goal Completion



Longer Term, Intermediate Practices


Plan & Document

‣ Develop additional planning documents to further to streamline operations and execution:




a multi-year strategic plan

job descriptions

structured work plans for employees

‣ Track employee metrics that will help you manage risk and culture:






Manage Finances

number of injuries/safety-related incidents



employee satisfaction

employee promotions

‣ Begin implementing more advanced financial practices to gain a strong grasp of finances:






Engage Stakeholders

review the previous year’s fiscal performance and deviations from budget

prepare a yearly operating budget projecting expenses and revenues before each new fiscal year

put a system in place to track accounts payable and accounts receivable

prepare a Balance Sheet financial statement

prepare a Profit and Loss financial statement

‣ Open lines of communication to gather feedback from external stakeholders like suppliers, business

partners, industry groups, customers, the government, and community members. Consider methods

such as surveys, suggestion boxes, online forums or annual meetings to develop an ongoing line of

communication. You might just gain insights that help you perform better and become more successful.

‣ Collaborate with external stakeholders to reduce your organization’s environmental impact or increase

its social/community impact. You might be surprised what you’re able to achieve by listening and


Manage Sustainability

‣ Develop a written sustainability plan outlining what you hope to achieve with regard to sustainability

outcomes (e.g. energy, waste, community impact), how you’ll know if you’ve succeeded, and a timeline

for the activities.

‣ Define a written purchasing policy to make commitments to certain kinds of products or services,

vendors, or practices when feasible. Consider the following qualities/practices:


local vendors







vendors whose businesses are owned by women, minorities, or individuals from economicallydisadvantaged


environmentally-friendly products or services

people/community-friendly products or services (e.g. Fair Trade)

bulk purchasing or products with minimal packaging

ground transportation over air for delivery

‣ Draft a written travel policy with a commitment to minimize environmental impacts when feasible.

Raise Awareness

‣ Write an internally-focused communications plan for how you plan to communicate sustainability to

employees. Consider developing a formal training plan to educate employees about sustainability and

foster a shared understanding.

‣ Begin transparently incorporating your sustainability initiatives/activities/goals in your

communications – website and printed materials. These serve as a signal to others (potential employees

included) of your commitment and are educational.


Be Energy Wise

‣ Set energy usage targets for the coming year.

‣ Conduct an energy audit of your facilities. Energy audits are a major driver of sustainability-related cost

savings and should be pursued before options such as installing renewable energy production.

‣ Your energy audit will likely uncover a list of energy efficiency measures. Also consider simple energy

efficiency measures, such as: sleep modes on equipment, after-hours timers for equipment, lighting

occupancy sensors, double-paned windows, and sealing air leaks around doors and windows.

‣ Consider purchasing renewable energy credits or carbon offsets to help offset emissions from business

activities, such as events, travel, or day-to-day operations. This step demonstrates your commitment to

sustainability, while helping to fund renewable energy projects.

Be Water Wise

‣ Install low flow toilets/urinals. If it’s not possible to replace the entire commode, there are several

after-market options that can be added to existing toilets to reduce water consumption. Search online

for options.

‣ If you have landscaping at your office, take steps to reduce outdoor water usage. Add compost and

mulch to soil to increase moisture retention. Use native or drought tolerant plants that require less


‣ Reduce the use of chemicals or fertilizers used in landscaping. Doing so lessens the pollution that flows

into waterways that threatens populations of fish and other wildlife.


Get Around Sustainably

‣ If you use vehicles in your work, consider investing in fuel efficient or low emissions cars or trucks.

Such vehicles also signal a commitment to sustainability to customers.

Be Waste Wise

‣ Adopt green printing practices. Make the default setting on printers duplex, or double-sided. Use

recycled printer cartridges rather than new ones if you can. Use soy-based or low VOC printer inks

whenever possible. Educate employees

Purchase Sustainably

‣ Use office supplies (pens, notebooks, etc.) made from recycled/sustainable/renewable materials. If

you feel that you need to invest in new office furniture, seek furniture made from

recycled/sustainable/renewable sources or materials.


Help Employees Be Effective

‣ Put in place formal, written human resource policies, including equal opportunity hiring,

discrimination/harassment and a code of ethics/conduct.

‣ As a startup, most things are done on the fly. As you mature, give yourself a break and put formal

employee processes in place. Develop a written checklist for new employee orientation, a standard

process for employee mentorship, and a process for mediating employee grievances.

‣ Help ensure that employees set goals and are given feedback to continuously improve. Develop an

annual (at least) performance evaluation for all employees. During this time, provide written guidance

for career development, share peer/subordinate input, and have employees complete a selfassessment.

Make evaluations forward-looking as well, including employee goals, organizational goals,

and sustainability goals.

‣ Talented employees may go through different seasons of life over the course of their employment.

Providing part-time and flexible work options can help you retain talent and open the door to

continuing education to strengthen your workforce.

‣ Encourage a culture of going the extra mile. Consider setting up a program where employees can

nominate other employees for special recognition or bonuses for excellent contributions. Such

incentives can motivate employees to go the extra mile and build a sense of shared purpose.

‣ Review compensation. Seek to compensate all full-time, part-time, and temporary workers (excluding

interns) at a rate of at least twice the state minimum wage. This level of compensation can help

employees afford basic necessities.

‣ When feasible, offer employer-sponsored health care to employees. There are multiple levels of

support employers can provide, from 0% to 100%. Because enrollment happens as a group, employers

are typically able to attain health care rates that are more competitive than individual coverage, making


health insurance more affordable. Healthy employees are likely to be more productive and less likely to

miss work, so there is a payoff to your workforce as well.

‣ Employers can also offer the option for dependents of employees to enroll in an employer-sponsored

healthcare plan which can be a huge benefit and stress-reliever to employees as well. Good benefits

contribute to employee loyalty and can reduce employee turnover and attract talented workers.

‣ Life events such as pregnancies, adoptions, and personal and family health emergencies happen. If your

organization has 50 or more employees, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires that you

provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. However, even if your organization is smaller,

providing unpaid or paid job-protected leave in the case of such events or emergencies is a great way

to support and retain employees.

Startups usually require more sweat equity than mature businesses – time invested by employees to get

ventures off the ground. However, burnout is a real threat to sustainable operations. When you can,

offer employees weekends or two days off per week and encourage them to relax.

Engage Your Community

‣ Track key community engagement measures, such as:




Total hours volunteered by employees

Total financial charitable contributions made

Total-in kind donations made

‣ As you consider starting charitable giving practices as an organization, think about allowing employees

to help shape which organizations are beneficiaries of philanthropy. You can do one-time donations

and volunteer support, or develop a committed partnership with a community organization.

As you select causes to support, think strategically. Does your organization have a strong interest or core

competency in an area that could benefit a community organization For example, Coca-Cola has

invested in water issues throughout the world, partnering with NGOs. As a consumer of water in the

bottling process, Coca-Cola is familiar with water issues, and by partnering with local NGOs to ensure

there is a sustainable, clean water supply, they are also contributing to the sustainability of their


‣ Aside from volunteering and pure charitable donations, consider sponsoring community/charitable

events. Providing such support is helpful for the community organizations and can also get exposure for

your organization.

‣ Encourage the leadership at your company to get involved in community organizations and

government. Serving on a board or committee of a nonprofit organization or in a leadership role in the

local government or schools is a great way to give back to the community and can also helpful for



Make a Plan – Intermediate Steps

Sustainability Step



Goal Completion



Long Term, Advanced Practices

NOTE: This section includes “bonus” practices – practices that are more advanced or resource intensive. Some may be

entirely within reach today, depending on your startup.


Plan & Document

‣ Prepare for various risk scenarios and plan for the future. Develop a risk management and succession


‣ Develop a written marketing plan for communicating sustainability practices externally.

‣ Get organized. Put all sustainability-related documents, policies, procedures and the like in a binder or

digital repository. Having everything in one place helps pass on institutional knowledge.

Manage Sustainability

‣ Announce or incorporate sustainability achievements into press releases and annual reports.

‣ Create a publicly-available sustainability report summarizing your organization’s sustainability

performance across the topic areas your stakeholders care about most. Try to contextualize the

information to your industry and local conditions as much as possible and include not just successes, but

areas in which you hope to improve.

‣ If you’ve followed the guidelines put forth by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) to develop your

sustainability report, submit the sustainability report to be GRI-checked.

‣ Account for sustainability. Calculate the total carbon footprint of your operations.

‣ Disclose your carbon footprint to the Carbon Disclosure Project.

‣ Perform a life cycle analysis for one or more of your organization’s manufactured products.

‣ Put in place an environmental management system (EMS). Include in the system:






a policy statement documenting the organization's commitment to the environment

an assessment of the environmental impact of the organization’s business activities

stated objectives and targets for environmental aspects of the organization’s operations

programming designed, with allocated resources, to achieve these targets

periodic compliance and auditing to evaluate environmental programs conducted

‣ Seek ISO 14001 Certification for your EMS.

‣ Formalize your commitment to being a sustainable organization. Seek B Corporation Certification,

writing your commitment to stakeholders into your Articles of Incorporation to ensure that even if there

is a leadership change, stakeholders and sustainability will remain central.


‣ Manufacture or retail products with sustainability certifications. Some of the most widely known












ENERGY STAR certified

WaterSense certified

LEED certified

Cradle to Cradle certified

Green Seal certified

Certified USDA Organic

Fair Trade certified

Rainforest Alliance certified

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified

Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certified

‣ Use your business as a tool for change. Specifically address a social or environmental need with the

products or services you offer.

Raise Awareness

‣ Join a local, national, or international association/network/sustainability consortium that fosters

sustainable practices in your industry or region.

‣ Develop a strategy to engage employees in sustainability-related activities at home or in their personal



Select a Site

‣ Make what was unusable useful again. Opt for an office location in a building that originally served

another purpose and has been restored to serve as office space. Or, consider locating your office at the

site of a restored brownfield, a site that was previously contaminated and has been restored.

‣ Implement green building practices, such as:








externally shading sun-exposed walls

installing window tinting on sun-exposed windows

increasing building insulation to tighten the building envelope

using daylight dimmers for lighting

installing occupancy sensors for HVAC

using low or no volatile organic compound (VOC) paint used in renovations within last three


using recycled, reused, or sustainably-sourced building materials used in building or renovations

‣ Look for an office with a green building or system certification. Two well-known certifications are LEED

and ENERGY STAR. Such certifications often have the added benefit of being cheaper to operate due to


‣ If you have land, consider the health of local plants, animals, and ecosystems. Set aside corridors or

vegetative covers for wildlife. Such land serves the important purpose of allowing animals to migrate for


feeding and breeding. Take it a step further by developing a strategy to encourage local biodiversity.

Healthy ecosystems can be enjoyable to observe and often serve very important functions, such as

cleaning up the air and water.

Be Energy Wise

‣ Monitor energy use. It is documented that a real-time display of energy can alone reduce consumption

by 10%. Look for data logging capabilities of your overall use or your largest energy loads so that you can

better understand and manage energy consumption.

‣ Produce your own energy. Look into which renewable energy options are most appropriate for your

facility. Common options include solar panels, solar thermal, geothermal, and wind energy.

Organizations often seek to produce enough energy to cover a significant amount of their daily usage.

Some even go so far as to produce 100% of their energy needs. Renewable energy typically requires a

meaningful upfront financial investment, but in many cases can become a new revenue stream over

time, as some utilities will pay you for any excess generation.

‣ Go carbon neutral. Purchase enough carbon offsets to neutralize your organization’s carbon footprint.

Whatever your stance on climate change, carbon neutrality means that fewer gases are being emitted

into the air, which ultimately means cleaner air to breathe.

‣ Adopt an energy management system and seek ISO 50001 Certification.

Be Water Wise

‣ Capture and re-use water that comes onto your facility’s property. Harvest rainwater to use in

landscaping by using barrels or cisterns. Or alter your plumbing to allow grey-water to be used for nonpotable

purposes. There are many common uses of water that do not actually require that the water be

clean enough to drink; minimizing non-essential uses of potable water is more efficient.

‣ Rain water runoff, though probably not top of mind, is a big deal. Runoff goes into streams and water

sources. When it does not have an opportunity to be filtered and cleaned, it can cause a threat to local

plant and animal life. What’s more, many municipal sewer systems are old and have trouble processing

massive amounts of runoff, which can lead to raw sewage backing up into water sources.

Slow down stormwater runoff and facilitate filtration with the following: rain gardens, vegetated

swales, riparian buffers, permeable paving, and green roofs. In the case of green roofs, green roofs can

lower heating and cooling costs and extend the life of a roof.

Get Around Sustainably

‣ Make it easier for employees to use alternative transportation. Install bike racks and showers.

Designate parking places for fuel-efficient vehicles.

‣ Encourage the use of public transportation by paying a portion of the fare for employees.

‣ Become a member of a car-sharing service (such as Zipcar) to allow employees to commute to work

without a car but have access if needed for errands.


Be Waste Wise

‣ Set up recycling stations for electronics or batteries at your facilities. Even though there are responsible

ways to dispose of such products, making it easier helps with compliance. Whenever you can, donate

retired electronics for reuse.

‣ Compost food waste and plant material. Food waste and plant material constitute 26% of municipal

waste. Composting turns what would otherwise be waste into rich soil and nutrients and reduces waste

hauling and landfill volume, which can save money.

‣ See if you can figure out a way to to send zero waste to the landfill. Once you’re reusing, recycling, and

composting, it’s likely that there is not a significant amount of waste left for the landfill. Look for

strategies that make even this waste an input into a productive process.


Help Employees Be Effective

‣ Invest in continuing education for employees. Offer paid time off for professional development. Take it

a step further by offering some or complete reimbursement of employee tuition from education


‣ Help employees plan for the future by matching contributions to retirement plans such as a 401(k) or


‣ Encourage excellent performance. Offer bonuses when certain objectives are met.

‣ Share profits with employees through equity or stock options. Such arrangements help facilitate a sense

of shared ownership among employees.

‣ Allow flexible work weeks, such as four, ten hour days in place of five, eight hour work days.

‣ Allow job-sharing as a flexible work option.

‣ Build team spirit through off-site retreats. Creating space away from the office can offer opportunities

for fun, team building, and big picture thinking or learning.

‣ Consider advanced health and wellness practices, such as:











the option for part-time employees to enroll in an employer-sponsored healthcare plan

provide healthy snacks or beverages

provide ergonomic equipment or assessments

subsidize gym memberships

provide free flu shots

provide health or diet consultations

offer smoking or other addiction cessation support

organize activities such as walking groups or athletic teams

provide private rooms/space for rest or breastfeeding

plant an office community garden or maintain livestock to promote fresh and local food


Engage Your Community

‣ Offer 20 or more hours of paid time off per year for employee volunteering. More intensive

volunteering increases the impact your organization can make.

‣ Match employee charitable gifts. Doing so supports employee’s interests and multiplies impact.

‣ Make a set commitment for charitable giving, such as 1% of revenues. In addition to being impactful,

such policies can motivate employees.


Make a Plan – Advanced Steps

Sustainability Action



Goal Completion


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