When people talk about sustainable businesses the truth is that these businesses are far from sustainable. Most, if not all, of the major companies that have sustainability directors are as far from sustainable as it gets. They may be decreasing their environmental impact a little bit here and a little bit there but they just will never be sustainable. In this article I present to you businesses that are truly sustainable. These are businesses that will truly make your community and the world a better place. There is no green washing here and if these businesses are done correctly there will be no green washing in any of them. The idea of this blog isn’t just to inspire people to start sustainable businesses though. It’s really about helping people to figure out how they can support a sustainable life. None of these businesses are about getting rich. They are about finding a way to do something that you love and support your needs while living a life that is beneficial to the earth, your community, and yourself rather than destructive to the earth and the life on it. These business ideas, with a few exceptions, are designed to decrease consumption rather than increase it. For example selling organic cotton t-shirts is sort of great but the truth is there are already enough t-shirts on earth and we don’t need any more. These business ideas go a few steps further than a business idea like that.
One of the great keys to success with these businesses is to simplify your life and your needs. The more money you need, the more bills you have, the more possessions you have to maintain, the harder it will be for one of these businesses to meet your financial needs. But by reducing your bills and living simply you’ll be able to meet your needs with one of these businesses and not need a soul sucking job that you wish you could quit. On that note my guide on how to quit your job that doesn’t serve you or the earth would probably be a useful tool to go with this article. It’s important to note that I’ve also chosen businesses that have little to no start up costs to decrease the barriers to starting today or tomorrow.
- Compost pickup program by bicycle
This business is very simple and has multiple streams of income. You start by finding people in the community to sign up for your compost pick up service. Simply give them a 5 gallon bucket with a lid and each week pick it up and replace it with a clean empty one. Set up a bicycle trailer and you can do all of this with zero impact and without spending a penny on gas. Set up a simple composting facility where you will make the compost. This could be done in your backyard, on an abandoned lot, the yard of someone in the community. You can sell the compost to local people with gardens and farms.
Let Us Compost in Athens, Georgia is an awesome example of this. They are very happy to help anyone get a program like theirs started so don’t hesitate to reach out to them. Check out the video I did on them.
- Vermiculture and other insects
This goes along perfectly with the compost pickup program by bicycle. Set up some vermiculture bins to raise worms. You can sell the worm castings or “black gold” as a super rich garden supplement. You can create bins and sell those to people who want one at home. Worms can be sold to people to add to their gardens or to use as a good source of protein for chickens. Worms aren’t the only insect you can raise though. Black soldier flies eat as much as 10x more food waste than worms and produce even faster and make an excellent protein source for backyard chickens.
- Growing food in other people’s yards by bicycle
Look around your community and you’ll likely see that most of the yards are just a waste of space. They are hardly even used and they’d be much better off as a garden for growing food. How about farming other people’s yards? You can give them a percentage of what you grow as a fee for using their space and then sell the rest locally.
Fleet Farming is an awesome example of this. Check out the video I did on them.
- Fermentation- sauerkraut, kombucha, vinegar, and more.
Fermenting foods is a simple way to make good food even better and it is super simple. A lot of fermented foods sell for a really high price but the truth is they are very low cost to make. You could start a little fermented food and beverage company and offer affordable ferments to your community.
Sauerkraut, ginger beer, fruit scrap vinegar, sourdough bread, pickled veggies, and kombucha are just a few foods and drinks that you could sell. In many states you can do this under the cottage food law and can make the food right at home and sell it direct to the consumer. This keeps startup costs to an absolute minimum.
See my Wild Fermentation video series for inspiration and a rundown on how awesome it is!
- Garage bulk refill grocery store
If you don’t have a grocery store in your community with a bulk refill section why not start your own?
You can set up a very simple mini grocery store right out of your garage and stock it with dried and shelf stable goods such as grains, legumes, flour, seeds, nuts, herbs, fruit, spices, oils, honey. You can also sell kitchen and beauty products like dish soap. In this way you can provide organic whole foods to your community at an inexpensive price where it might not otherwise be affordable or accessible. Plus you’ll be offering a package free alternative in a community where most food comes in packaging. You can start this business under the cottage food law as well.
Check out this little bulk refill store and this refill soap shop for examples.
- Jewelry out of wasted materials
Find materials that are wasted by industries and people and make beautiful jewelry out of them. Project Tres is an awesome example of this. You could also use everyday items you find in nature as long as you didn’t take too much.
- Reselling stuff from dumpster diving
It’s truly absurd how much stuff is thrown out and even more the quality of the stuff thrown away. Both business dumpsters and residential trash cans and dumpsters can hold $1,000’s of dollars worth of perfectly good stuff. Nationwide they hold billions of dollars worth of stuff on any given night. You can collect this stuff and then resell it locally on sites like craigslist or nationwide through websites like eBay. By diverting stuff from the landfill and then finding a home for it (where they might have bought a new one instead) you are doing a good deed for the environment while making money. Some may not need any work at all except to take a picture and upload it while others may need to be repaired.
- Refurbishing of old furniture and wood work
The amount of good furniture that is thrown away in the country is mind boggling. It seems today most people will throw something away and get a new one before thinking of repairing it. If you have the skill of woodworking you can repair furniture and sell it used. The options don’t end at furniture though. You can make picture frames, tables, benches, garden beds, and decorations out of wasted wood. The options are actually pretty endless.
- Trash artist
Make art of trash and sell it. If you’re an artist you’re already creative so I’ll just let you brainstorm how you could make this one work.
- Sustainability consultant
If your passion is to make the world a more sustainable place just imagine being able to make that your work as well and feel good about every job that you do. As a sustainability consultant your job could be to go to houses and help them to live more sustainably while saving a lot of money. In this way your service could pay for itself for the client. One business model would be to charge the amount of money you would save them in their first year (or a period of time you come up with). Simple things to start with would be replacing the lighting with energy efficient bulbs, putting in low flow faucets and shower heads, installing greywater and rainwater harvesting, building a compost bin and raised bed gardens for growing food.
- Creating edible landscapes
By helping others to have edible landscapes at their homes you can reduce their dependency on the globalized, industrialized food system and get them in touch with their food. This is a way to transform your community and positively change your clients lives. Fruit trees, edible shrubs, and food gardens are just a few ways to make your clients landscape edible.
- Bee rescue and honey sales
99% of all honey bee swarms that are called in to be dealt with are exterminated rather than rescued. This happens when a colony leaves its home to start a new one and ends up in a place where humans don’t want them. You could learn to rescue these bees and then give them a safe home. In this way you’ll be helping our struggling bee population. A great business model is setting up boxes in people’s yards, giving them a small share of the honey, and then selling the honey locally. Many people would love to have a bee colony in their yard. Your three streams of income can be rescuing bees, selling honey, and installing bee boxes and colonies on people’s property but once you get into beekeeping you’ll see there are many streams of revenue to be had.
Check out Girl Next Door Honey in San Diego and Capstone in New Orleans.
- Mobile bicycle repair
The more people you can get on bicycles the better off the world will be. Often people want to ride their bike but it is sitting in the garage needing repair. If they didn’t have to do any work to get it fixed there’s a good chance that they’d be back riding that bike instead of the car. That’s where you can come in with your mobile bicycle repair business. You can do at home visits and repair them right at their house. Another option is to set up your mobile bike repair shop at busy places like the farmers market.
- Permaculture design teacher and consultation
Get your permaculture design certificate and once you are truly experienced and knowledgeable you can teach permaculture design classes. The more people out doing permaculture the more of a just and sustainable community you will live in. Along with this you can do consultation for people who want to apply the permaculture principles to the land they are living on.
- Start a farmers market
If there is need for a farmers market in your community then start one. Make your market exceptional by only taking vendors and booths that have truly sustainable products and services to offer. You could do it on trading and rather than charging vendors they can trade you a little bit of their product. That would be a huge step in reducing your need for money in the first place.
- Repairman / woman
Today many of the items that we buy are designed for the dump which means there is no shortage of things that need to be repaired. In the past repairing stuff was common sense and common practice but today it’s not a strong part of our culture. To prevent stuff from ending up in the landfill and to reduce consumption of new stuff you can repair things for people. This is definitely a job for a handy person but the options of things you could repair are endless.
- Food Rescue Program
$165 billion worth of food goes to waste per year while 1 in 7 Americans are food insecure. You could start a food rescue nonprofit and pay yourself a livable salary. You’d be keeping food out of the landfill, decreasing food production needed, and helping to feed people in need. See my guide on how to start a food rescue program. You could also come up with a business that reduces food waste, start a gleaning program that sells the produce, or make compost out wasted food.
- Habitat restoration
So many of our natural ecosystems have been damaged or destroyed by us. Make it your job to restore these habitats back to ecosystems that support the native plants, animals, and insects.
- Solar panel salesman
Most sales jobs don’t make the world a more sustainable place but a solar panels salesman is different. For every sale you make you decrease the amount of dirty energy that needs to be produced and you get paid. Talk about a great gig for a salesman that wants to make the world a better place.
- Marketing for sustainable businesses
People need to know about all of these businesses for them to be successful. Your job could be to market for businesses such as these. But make sure you do your due diligence and make sure that you are marketing for companies that are not practicing green washing and are truly, truly making the world a better place. Of course you’ll have to market through means that are not environmentally destructive as well. Be creative and try guerrilla marketing campaigns and organic promotion.
If you are inspired I encourage you to turn that into action and start something right away. It can start as something you are doing on the side until you are comfortable or you can take the leap of faith and just really go for it. If you’re serious about dedicating your life to something far greater than your own needs I encourage you to follow that feeling you have.
Also I encourage you to join 1% for the Planet if you start a business like this. 1% for the Planet members donate 1% of revenue to grassroots environmental nonprofits. It’s a great business move as you get to use the logo which is a beautiful marketing tool and you become part of a network of great businesses and nonprofits. It’s simple to join and it’s just as simple as donating 1% to great groups that you want to support anyway. Contact me if you want me to connect you with them or just go to their website www.onepercentfortheplanet.org. Also I encourage you to look into becoming a B Corporation which are “a new type of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.”
Here are a few more resources that may be helpful for you in your journey:
How to quit a job that doesn’t serve you or the earth
How to be a positive environmental influence on others
How to get out of the routine and follow your dream
How to overcome the fear to live a more earth-friendly lifestyle
Cover Photo by Sierra Ford Photography