Preface (June 2021)
When I originally wrote this blog post in 2019, I felt like an impostor. I had just graduated college and had a dream of becoming an “eco entrepreneur”, but hadn’t actually done it yet myself. So, after completing and publishing this 4,000 word guide, I decided to use it as a roadmap to make a self-employed and impactful living in the sustainability space.
Today I’m working alongside incredible sustainability entrepreneurs and activists, paying off my student debt, and honestly living my dream. This guide was a major factor in my success.
If you resonate with the feeling of needing to do something, and needing to do it now, read on. I hope it’s helpful to you too.
I’m currently working on an improved follow-up to this guide that includes everything I’ve learned in the past two years of sustainability entrepreneurship. If you’d like to get an email when it’s released, sign up for the Eco Ally newsletter on this page.
During my time in college, I was introduced to the idea of social entrepreneurship — a type of entrepreneurship that focuses on developing solutions to social, cultural, or environmental issues.
My courses were filled with inspirational TED Talks and NPR interviews featuring people who were leveraging their skills to earn money doing something positive for others. Some of these successful entrepreneurs were even younger than me!
The more I learned about social entrepreneurship, the more I became set on becoming a social entrepreneur myself. I couldn’t dream of a better future than making a living doing good things in the world.
As I began researching paths into entrepreneurship for someone still in school, I realized that my idea wasn’t nearly as unique as I originally thought. In fact, nearly half of the members of my generation are planning to become entrepreneurs — and about 45% believe that they’ll invent something that changes the world.
Right now, the main concern that’s at the forefront of nearly everybody’s mind is the environmental crisis, which is undoubtedly the most important issue of our lifetimes. Learning about the climate crisis and our shaky planetary boundaries inspired me to begin my path down the road of an environmentally centered type of social entrepreneurship –– eco-entrepreneurship.
Eco–entrepreneurship, also called environmental entrepreneurship or ecopreneurship, focuses on solutions to environmental issues through products, services, and/or educational resources.
While some social entrepreneurs may focus on environmental issues, eco-entrepreneurs have a laser focus on either preventing environmental crises or dealing with their effects on society and wildlife.
Over the next few decades, we’re going to see massive shifts in society as the consequences of the climate crisis create serious problems for communities all over the world. Solutions that will increase our resilience against these changes will literally save lives.
There has never been a more important time to pursue eco entrepreneurship, and thanks to the public’s rising interest in sustainability there has never been a more rewarding time to start a sustainable business either.
- More than two-thirds of Americans consider sustainability when making a purchase and are willing to pay more for sustainable products.
- Nearly 70 percent of all survey respondents said that sustainability is at least “somewhat important” to them.
- Roughly 47 percent of all survey respondents said that they would pay more for a sustainable product.
- Gen Z leads the way with sustainability, with 68 percent of respondents having made an eco-friendly purchase in the past year.
Sustainability is on the rise and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Think about it — eco-friendly businesses are already becoming the industry frontrunners, and as more and more people become aware of our environmental situation their popularity will only increase.
Pair that knowledge with the fact that Gen Z (myself included) is poised to become the most entrepreneurial generation ever, and it’s clear to see that we’re about to see eco-entrepreneurs transform industries all over the world.
In this guide, I’ll walk you through the basic steps of creating, developing, and launching your own business as an eco-entrepreneur.
1. Choose your sustainable business model
What makes a business sustainable?
In its simplest definition, sustainability represents the wide scope of issues and activities that, according to the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
The goals and benchmarks of sustainability solutions are focused on what we can do today to ensure that the resources necessary for life to flourish on our planet will remain intact for generations to come.
When we’re using sustainability goals and benchmarks in business, it’s important that we don’t just think about one or two facets of the business — we need to look at the system as a whole.
Considering so many different aspects of a business can get a bit complicated, and for that reason, a foundation for measuring and meeting a business’s sustainability benchmarks has already been established.
Basically, there are four different “tiers” of sustainable businesses that are distinguished by their systems, strategies, principles for success, and tools.
A Tier 1 business is your basic for-profit business model that focuses entirely on profits and traditional business strategies.
In a Tier 2 business, we begin to think about the supply chain, the life cycle of the products, business efficiency, resource management, and entry-level environmental tools like LEED and the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). This tier can be considered minimally sustainable.
Tier 3 businesses are the most common type of “sustainable business”. They consider global systems relevant to their business, define success by their profit via sustainability, use sustainability as a core strategic lense, and implement advanced sustainability tools such as Sustainable Management Systems (SMS) and Cradle to Cradle Manufacturing (C2C).
Tier 3+ businesses often release yearly environmental impact reports to show their stakeholders the progress they’re making towards increased sustainability. These businesses are generally eligible for benefit corp & B Corp certifications.
The most advanced sustainable business model is a Tier 4 business, which considers all global systems, aims to reshape society so that sustainable business becomes an advantage, and takes actions far past the bounds of the business through lobbying, civic engagement, and public campaigns. Most Tier 4 businesses are nonprofits, but they can be for-profit too.
The goal of eco-entrepreneurship is either to mitigate environmental issues or to address their consequences. So, by nature, a business started by an eco-entrepreneur must be either a Tier 3 or Tier 4 sustainable business.
In both of these business models (Tier 3 & Tier 4), sustainability is a key strategy and principle for success — meaning that the goals of the business reach further than simple growth and profit.
Truly sustainable businesses prioritize their impacts on people and the planet in addition to profit (i.e. the “triple bottom line”).
A sustainable business can’t just be sustainable for others, it also needs to be sustainable for you.
Each of us has different skills, resources, and life commitments. By narrowing down on which type of business you want to run, you’ll ensure that whatever plan you come up with will be something that can fit into your life.
There are three main types of businesses you can start: an online business, a service-based business, and a product-based business.
Let’s go over each of these business models individually and see how they can meet the requirements to be a Tier 3 or Tier 4 sustainable business.
The online business model
Did you know that by the year 2040, 95% of purchases will be through eCommerce?
I love the online business model because it has the lowest barrier of entry, requires the least amount of financial commitment, and can reach massive amounts of people. It’s perfect for anyone trying to start a business on the side or with limited resources.
A few examples of online eco-entrepreneurship include:
- Impact blogging
- Social media influencing
- Publishing an e-book or audiobook
- Creating a digital product or course
- Creating an app or SaaS (software as a service)
Of all three business models, this is the easiest type to set up as a Tier 4 sustainable business thanks to the global nature of the internet.
All of the examples given above have the potential to educate, influence, and empower others to embrace sustainability in their own lives and businesses.
Although it may seem that an online business has no negative impact on our global systems since it’s entirely virtual, there is one serious pitfall to consider. It takes massive amounts of energy to store and run all of the data required for websites to work –– so much so, that by the end of this year the web hosting industry will surpass the global airline industry in greenhouse gas emissions. This is a pretty serious problem, but it’s not difficult to address. The easiest way to make sure that your website is eco-friendly is to choose a sustainable web hosting business like GreenGeeks, which I personally use to keep eco ally running as a 300% sustainable website.
The service-based business model
If you love working with others and have the expertise to share, you’ll excel with a service-based business.
There’s a huge opportunity here to meet some Tier 4 goals like reshaping society and participating in civic engagement through your services.
A great example of Tier 4 service-based business is Recycled City, a Phoenix-based business that provides composting services to individuals and businesses.
Their business model is simple: they provide air-tight bins with built-in odor preventers to individuals or businesses to collect compost and exchange it every week or two on a scheduled day. The finished compost is either returned to you or is given to local farms.
Sustainable business consulting, ecotourism, and urban farming are additional examples of ways that you can provide a service to others while promoting sustainability.
The product-based business model
This business model is generally the most expensive and time-consuming, but with the right plan for funding, you could start a product-based business fresh out of school.
It can be a little tricky to create a truly sustainable product, as manufacturing something new — regardless of how “eco-friendly” it is — is inherently unsustainable.
If you want to be able to say that your business is truly sustainable, you must aim to produce value in the same manner which an ecosystem does: neither producing waste nor consuming unsustainable resources.
Of course, it’s really difficult to make a product that won’t eventually end up in a landfill. By considering the full lifecycle of your product and implementing tools like Cradle to Cradle (C2C), you can ensure that your products will be as eco-friendly as possible.
In my opinion, the easiest way to think of a sustainable product to sell is to take a look at the way current industries or communities are struggling and offer an eco-friendly solution. Innovation is the name of the game in the sustainable products industry.
For example, eco-entrepreneur Eben Bayer created a sustainable packaging material made out of crop waste and mushrooms to replace standard plastic packaging.
Not long after its conception, IKEA picked up the product and his company’s success has been steadily growing ever since.
Solutions to sustainability problems don’t just need to focus on preventing further pollution, they can also be developed to help individuals deal with the consequences of unsustainability.
One of the many pressing concerns that we’ll be encountering over the next few decades is going to be a combination of extreme weather events and water scarcity.
In his TED talk, Engineer Michael Pritchard recounted watching the aftermaths of several natural disasters that forced people to drink contaminated water or face death.
Over the next few months, Michael spent a lot of time in his garage developing a method to filter even the most revolting water so that it can become drinkable in seconds. After a few failed prototypes, he developed the Lifesaver bottle.
As global issues like water scarcity and increased natural disasters become more prevalent due to the climate crisis, the Lifesaver bottle will undoubtedly save countless lives.
So, which business model should you go with?
There are a lot of considerations that should go into deciding what type of business you want to run, and the one most people think of first is “what do I want to accomplish?”.
Of course, it’s important to think about your mission when you’re planning out your business. That’s usually the only thing you’re able to think about when you’re excited about a new idea!
But before you get ahead of yourself and come up with a grand plan to totally reverse the destabilization of life on earth, take some time to think about your personal needs, wants, and available resources (time, money, etc.).
If your business idea isn’t sustainable for YOU, then how are you going to be able to see it through?
Sure, you might accomplish a few of your goals, but you’ll inevitably burn out and end up making less of an impact than you would have if you had chosen the path that made the most sense for you.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself when you’re trying to figure out which business model to choose:
- What do I want my days to look like?
- How much time am I willing to commit? Daily, weekly, over the years?
- How much risk am I comfortable with?
- How much startup capital do I have to work with?
- Am I willing to work with a venture capital firm or investors?
These questions are just meant to get your mind flowing in the right direction. Go through them one-by-one and take some time to think about which business model (or combination of business models) makes the most sense for you right now.
Once you’ve settled on a solid idea, begin thinking about what goals you want to accomplish with your business.
Entrepreneurship isn’t easy, and your mission is what’s going to drive you to show up and commit to your venture every day.
Regardless of how simple your business model first appears to be, you’re inevitably going to be faced with challenges.
The more research and planning you do while setting up your business, the more prepared you’ll be. In the next step, I’ll go over exactly how to do that.
2. Draft a business plan
Before you start getting into the specifics of your business idea, you should sit down and take some time to figure out what you’re offering and who you’re selling to.
Your initial business plan doesn’t need to be anything fancy, it can even just be a quick note in Evernote or an outline on a notecard.
Here are a few of the questions you should answer:
- Who am I selling to?
- What does my competition look like?
- What unique value am I offering to my customers?
- Why should someone be my customer instead of someone else’s?
- How can I get my product in front of potential customers?⠀
Of course, there are a lot of other considerations to have along the course of launching your business, but these basics should get you moving in the right direction.
Let’s go over two of the most important aspects of your initial business plan: analyzing your market and competition, and developing your brand strategy.
Analyzing your market and competition
Chances are, you’re not the first person to come up with an idea similar to yours… and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Take some time to figure out who you’re selling to, what products are already available, and how accessible they are.
The best advice I can give you for this step is this: Read the positive and negative reviews about the products you’re competing with and use that information to create something better.
This exact strategy might not work for every idea, but the concept holds true for everyone: see where your competition is lagging, and then one-up them. Just make sure you’re doing this ethically and aren’t infringing on Copyright.
The second step of analyzing your market and competition is to define your audience.
Describe your audience in terms of population, demographics, income levels, and so on. By identifying your audience and your competition, you’ll ensure that you can differentiate yourself from your competition in your brand strategy.
Building your brand strategy and online presence
This is the fun part — it’s time to give your business idea some personality.
Your business name, logo, claim, value proposition, and personality all make up your company’s brand.
Each of these things will help you create a cohesive public image that customers can easily identify.
Think of your name and logo as your first impression. What message do you want to convey?
When I chose the name eco ally, I wanted to make it clear to my audience that it’s a blog for people that care about the environment. I didn’t want a fancy logo or colors to distract from that (and to be honest, I have a thing for clean, aesthetic minimalism).
Your claim is basically what your product or service is going to accomplish for your customers. What will they gain from buying from you?
If you search for Neil Patel on Google, the first thing that comes up next to his name is his tagline (claim): “Helping You Succeed Through Online Marketing!”. This one sentence sums up exactly what you can expect to gain from utilizing Neil’s services and products.
Your value proposition is how much your product costs. Are you marketing yourself as a premium product, or are you trying to make your service as accessible as possible? Consider your mission and target audience when you’re figuring this out.
Finally, your personality is the imagery, message, and overall tone that your business will convey across all social media accounts, emails, press releases, etc.
Take a look at a few companies’ Instagram pages (Thinx is a great example) and notice how cohesive the feel of their brand is. Your goal is to create something that’s easily identifiable so that if someone comes across your material, they’ll immediately know that it’s yours.
In order for you to make sales, you need to get your product in front of an audience. Later in this article, I’ll go over some specifics for marketing your new company. But right now, the next thing that we need to focus on is how you’re going to turn your vision into reality.
One challenge that many people (including myself) have faced when trying to bring a project to life is how to come up with the money.
Thankfully, there are quite a few options for funding projects that don’t require business loans or generous relatives that I’ll be going over in the next step.
3. Fund your venture
Earlier, I mentioned startup capital and potential firms and investors.
Depending on the type of sustainable business you’re starting, you might need a little money (blog) or a lot (product-based business).
The full startup cost for a good looking blog, depending on how fancy you’re going to get, will likely be around $100 — $300.
On the other hand, taking a product from concept to distribution could demand well over $10,000 in costs — just for the first round of production.
But don’t let the bigger numbers scare you out of your brilliant idea!
You have options for securing some startup capital. They include crowdfunding, venture capital firms, and angel investors.
P.S., Being an eco-entrepreneur will totally help you win some funding!
If you’ve ever seen something on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, then you’re probably already familiar with crowdfunding.
This is basically how it works:
- Come up with an idea for a product.
- Create a business plan.
- Build a social following so that the idea can gain traction and popularity.
- Create a “campaign page” and announce it to the public once you have a community to promote to.
- Create a campaign video and share it everywhere — including with the press.
- Launch your project with set goals and deadlines so that people can contribute money to the product’s development in exchange for some kind of incentive.
- Manufacture and distribute the products (and incentives) to backers using the money they pledged to you.
Crowdfunding is a great way to launch a product with minimal startup capital.
One popular success story on Kickstarter is of a company called Baubax, which manufactured “The World’s Best Travel Jacket,” with 15 distinct built-in features. It raised $9,192,055 on Kickstarter in July 2015, and then another $2 million or so on Indiegogo in September 2015.
It became the most funded clothing project in the history of crowdfunding and the 4th most funded project in the history of Kickstarter!
The average project goal on Kickstarter is about $5,000, which is totally achievable with a proper strategy.
There’s an entire tag on Kickstarter for environmental businesses that gives eco-entrepreneurs like us a chance to make their project ideas come to life.
Venture capital firms and angel investors
Unlike Kickstarter which raises funds from the public, venture capital firms and angel investors are private entities.
If you’ve ever seen the show Shark Tank, then you’re probably already familiar with this type of investing.
Venture capital firms and angel investors want to see tangible results before they even consider backing your venture.
In order to prove that your idea is worth investing in, you’ll need to show investors that your idea is viable — usually through fundraising.
Although the basic ideas of venture capital and angel investing are similar, there are some key differences between the two.
Venture capital firms provide funds to small, early-stage, emerging companies that are deemed to have high growth potential, or which have already demonstrated high growth. They’re usually made up of successful entrepreneurs and business people that can spot a diamond in the rough.
An angel investor is an affluent individual who provides capital for a business start-up, usually in exchange for convertible debt or ownership equity. Angel funds are exclusively owned/operated by wealthy individuals (usually philanthropists). They’re great for approaching for support at the start of your new business when most investors are not prepared to back you.
Both of these options work in the same basic way — you receive cash from an investor, and in return, you give that investor an equity (ownership) stake in your business.
Whatever path you decide to take, once your business is funded then it’s time to develop your products. Once they’re ready to go, you’ll be ready to launch your business and make your first sales.
4. Launch and market your sustainable business
You’re ready to launch your business and meet your first customers.
Before you go public with your new business, there are a few things you should do:
- Secure all domains and usernames associated with your business
- Set up your website so that it’s ready to go for your launch (product pages, contact information, etc.)
- Create a professional email address through your web host — I suggest using G Suite/Google Apps, which can be accessed through your cPanel
- Sign up for an email marketing service like ConvertKit and set up a landing page for email collections on your website
- Create a buzz and pre-launch your business to your social media accounts, asking them to sign up for your email list to be the first to hear about your new business
- Look for opportunities to market your launch on other blogs or news websites and send them a press release with the date of your launch
By completing all of these steps, you’ll ensure that your business is immediately ready to make sales (and collect emails) after your launch.
The more excitement you create before your launch, the more visitors your website/sales page will get when it’s up and ready to go.
In order to keep people coming to your site after the initial launch, you’ll need to enact a comprehensive marketing plan. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Here are some ideas for marketing your business:
- Writing on Medium
- Blogging and guest posting
- Paying Instagram influencers to mention your product or service
- Pinterest marketing
- Running paid ads on Facebook, Instagram, or other social media sites
- Creating YouTube videos or a podcast
The possibilities are endless, and I suggest that you pick no more than two marketing/outreach methods to start on top of your regular social media postings and emails.
It’s better to become an expert at one source of traffic rather than being loosely spread out across different platforms.
As an eco-entrepreneur, you have a unique opportunity to benefit from marketing your services or products as being in the best interest of our environment.
5. Fund yourself and make a difference
As you become increasingly successful, you’ll have more time and money to get out there and really make a difference for people and the planet.
After all, isn’t that why you became an eco-entrepreneur in the first place?
Now that you’ve gotten through this article, I’m hoping that you feel inspired to create something amazing for yourself, for others, and for our planet.
By following the steps outlined in this article, you’ll undoubtedly be able to call yourself an eco-entrepreneur in no time — whether you’re starting a blog or are going to be creating a product that saves millions of lives.
You can make it happen as long as you carefully plan your business and continue to keep learning long after you’ve become successful.
If you’re planning on following through with this plan, I suggest bookmarking it and keeping track of your progress step-by-step!
What are you hoping to accomplish as an eco-entrepreneur? Let me know in the comments!