Last week Bonnie Meck flipped the switch and activated the MW solar project her company has been working on for four years. The solar panels, which line the roof of a new manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania, are expected to fulfill between half to two-thirds of FesslerUSA’s electrical needs.  

For Meck, who serves as the custom private label apparel company’s chief operating officer and chief sustainability officer, the panels are one component of a larger sustainability plan that includes minimizing electricity usage and the distance garments travel, recycling manufacturing by products, using easily-recyclable dyes and fibers that are sustainably produced.

“Sustainability was a journey, not a destination,” said Meck, “A journey that required everyone to be on board – from every employee, to vendors, to our vendor’s vendors, and most importantly, our customers.”

While solar panels are not a viable or affordable option for every business, there are steps entrepreneurs can take to develop a sustainability plan that meets their needs.

“Start with a clear definition of what sustainability means to you,” advised Eric Lowitt, author of The Future of Value: How Sustainability Creates Value Through Competitive Differentiation. “Then determine who are the stakeholders most impacted by the company and its operations and what sustainability mean to them.”

Defining sustainability and identifying stakeholders will help entrepreneurs determine how much of a commitment they can afford to make. The next step is to identify where the opportunities for sustainability lie.

Michael Williams of Certified Eco Consultant advised entrepreneurs map out a month-to- month plan.  “A lot of people don’t go green because they are overwhelmed,” he said, “If you do three easy things first, then you can see the savings and use that money to reinvest into larger sustainability programs.”

According to Williams, small marginal changes can include using “reusable cups, turning off lights when employees leave the room and instituting a shut down policy for computers.” Then business owners can move on to larger changes like “software that requires a print preview, installing motion sensor faucets or implementing a company car pool program.”

For entrepreneurs wanting to take on larger-scale sustainability programs, Gary Price, partner at San Francisco tax and accounting firm Sensiba San Filippo, advised business owners “find construction companies and electrical companies that have energy czars and find out what kind of programs local energy companies offer.”

“Developers and conservation groups are helpful and key because they can help you get through the red tape and head you in the right direction,” said Price.  

And, while a sustainability plan may look great on paper and have the full support of the business owner, without a commitment from employees, the program is not likely to succeed. 

“There are business owners who install solar panels, but then have employees who leave the lights on throughout the office,” recalled Williams of Certified Eco Consultants.

At Fessler, Meck garnered employee support by creating a volunteer Sustainability Team that helps drive the program. She also makes sure that every company newsletter contains information about current initiatives. 

Another way to get employees on board is to provide incentives. “Change compensation and performance reviews to be part of the employee behavior you want your employees to change,” recommended Lowitt.

Although it can be tricky, business owners need to figure out how they are going to measure a program’s success and need to be willing to change direction.

“No company gets their sustainability efforts right the first time,” warned Lowitt, “Or third, fifth, or tenth time. The important thing to remember is that sustainability is both relatively new and continuously evolving.”

Entrepreneurs should also take advantage of government programs that encourage sustainability. Price of Sensiba San Filippo recommended business owners visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency and try to see if they are eligible for the Section 1603 Program, which offers a cash disbursement in lieu of a tax credit, but has a looming implementation deadline of 2011.