How Local Businesses Communicate Sustainability

This event was organized by a group of Master’s students in Environmental Sustainability at the University of Ottawa, and hosted at Impact Hub Ottawa. The room

Crowded meeting room with a diverse group of people.
The back was even more packed by the end of the event. Akil Mesiwala (centre) is a recent volunteer writer with PERC, but was there for his job.

was packed, with standing room only at the back, and there was obvious energy and excitement in thecrowd.

The morning kicked off with panelists defining sustainability. Happily, there was general agreement that the UN based definition of “meeting our current needs with compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” – it’s nice when we’re all working with the same term, and Sustainability is one of those words that sometimes means different things to different people.

Panelists were Valerie Leloup of Nu Grocery, Graeme Cunningham of Bullfrog Power,

Three men and one woman sitting on stools discussing topics with interest.
Right to Left: Omid (Dairy Distillery), Graeme (Bullfrog Power), Valerie (NuGrocery), and a student panel host.

and Omid McDonald of Dairy Distillery. Things kicked off with Valerie,  who spoke about the zero-waste cycle at her store from both the customer side (bring and weigh your own container, take home your food, wash and repeat!) and the supplier side (recycling packaging – picking up old containers at each pick up. Graeme outlined both the Bullfrog Power business model, and things they do at their office to be more sustainable. Omid explained how his business saw an opportunity to take a waste product from the dairy industry called “milk permeate” that was previously going to landfill and causing odor and health concerns for nearby municipalities, and turn that product into high quality vodka for resale.

Diverse group of students in business clothes and nametags.
Masters of Environmental Sustainability students introducing the event.

Based on what panelists had to say, local businesses have some innovative ways of communicating their sustainability initiatives, including creating themes for seasons and holidays, emphasizing this as part of a new (and better) way of doing business, and paying attention to wording – for example, instead of “waste product”, use the term “product being wasted” for a more positive and action-oriented connotation. Of course customer and employee newsletters, signage at the office, and speaking at sustainability events are also good tactics.

Communications can be a challenge, especially for smaller businesses that don’t have much of an advertising budget (or any at all), or those that provide a service rather than a physical product, so creative thinking is important. Bullfrog Power creates decals that customers can display at their locations, which helps identify them as a sustainable business and advertise the green energy option. Sometimes this means working with clients to come up with individual ways to communicate together, something that may be especially key for anyone with a broad and politically sensitive client base.

Bridging the gap between awareness and action was another challenge noted: people are often very enthusiastic to hear about sustainable business ventures, but there needs to be follow through to make sure that enthusiasm translates to a change in behaviour. Valerie at Nu Grocery talked about how she’s had success marketing the behaviours needed for zero-waste shopping as “different, but not difficult”, and emphasized the power of creating habits.

Panelists also spoke about the benefits of being sustainable and communicating that – ValerieQuoteobvious things like saving energy, but also more indirect benefits like greater employee and customer loyalty and reducing the risk of reputation damage when unsustainable practices get highlighted. The importance of getting feedback – whether though a survey, direct relationships, or social media – and being able to respond effectively to that feedback, were highlighted, particularly the unexpected overlap between the zero waste community and the vegan community, which Nu Grocery leveraged to successfully expand their offering of vegan products.

Other topics touched on include the roll of legislation in encouraging sustainable behaviours, benefits of intentionally integrating sustainability from the beginning vs playing catch up later, and highlighting unique aspects of your particular story. Omid mentioned how the brewing and distilling business isn’t typically thought of as green, and Graeme mentioned some unique things the Bullfrog offices do, like vermicomposting of kitchen waste, and an aquaponics setup which provides herbs and supplementary vegetables in the lunch room and supplies their annual fish fry.

Many great ideas, both for ways to become more sustainable, and leverage your sustainability initiatives to boost business and quality of life for customers and employees. PERC was happy to have a spot to discuss our upcoming Green Business issue, and connect (or re-connect with so many inspiring community members). If you’re interested in advertising the PEN or contributing content, please write to pen-editor@perc.ca

 

 

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