Those who aspire to the community of conscious business people consider the origins of the materials we use. Not just whether we are saving a tree, but also the working conditions of the people who created the goods we're using.
This isn't a perfectly straightforward equation.
In 1995, I travelled to China with a delegation of business school students and professors. Shenzen, a special economic zone, felt like the wild west. We saw workmen in cheap sneakers high up on bamboo scaffolds, no helmets or other visible safety equipment, building the office buildings of corporations that now manufacture much of the infrastructure of our daily lives. (Coffee makers, TVs, telephones...)
We saw plants that had dormitories on site.
This wouldn't be accepted today in the US. Yet these working conditions were arguably preferable to some who had travelled from poverty of the Chinese countryside.
So unless we've had experience as policy wonks, international aid workers, or even ex-pats of any stripe, the product-by-product decision is a tough call.
We count on institutions bigger than ourselves to create standards for how people should be treated.
One such organization is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights.
All business owners who aspire to a sustainable small business should read the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights.
Then, apply these standards to your own business. For example, what kind of access to health care do your employees have? How about retirement planning?
My experience is that many small businesses here in the US "can't afford" these sorts of benefits programs.
Yet smart business owners know that attracting and retaining the best employees affects the bottom line. If you're in a business where employee relationships with customers matter (and who isn't?) your business is at risk every time an employee leaves. And there is a cost, in real dollars, to train the new employee.
Check out Principal Financial's guide for small and medium sized businesses: Innovation at Work: A Guide to Best Practices in Employee Benefits. What Your Company Can Learn From The Principal 10 Best Companies for Employee Financial Security.
People are the most valuable, most important, of our sustainable resources.