What About the Little Guys? How SMEs Can Become More Sustainable

Robert Fenn argues that SMEs can be sustainability heroes too.
Robert Fenn argues that smaller organisations can be sustainability heroes too.

By Robert Fenn

Big brands around the world are taking big strides towards becoming sustainable; doing great work in raising awareness that being green and responsible needn’t be at the sacrifice of profits; in fact, quite the opposite! DuPont, for example, has saved $2.2bn a year through energy efficiency, whilst Marks and Spencer’s Plan A sustainability programme achieved cost neutrality in a year, and provided a net benefit of £105m in 2011/2012.

There are lots of similar stories out there from big businesses, but let’s remember, more than 99 percent of private sector businesses fall within the small to medium enterprise (SME) category, and an overwhelming proportion of these fit into the smaller end of that bracket. The reality is, the gains to be had within smaller businesses are considerably less exciting than say, Unilever committing to using algae-derived oil as part of their target to use sustainable agricultural raw materials by 2020. But, according to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills’ figures, SMEs employ 14.1 million people; there’s an opportunity to make a massive impact. With this in mind, forget these huge figures for a second and take a look at some steps even the smallest of organisations can take which, together, can make a big difference.

The business case

Some of these incredible numbers publicised by large businesses are intended to inspire, but are perhaps doing the opposite. To an SME, any efforts may seem insignificant in comparison, and therefore not worth the time to implement. However, the good news is some research has shown that there has been success at a smaller scale too.

In 2012, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) looked in-depth at smaller businesses who had implemented an Environmental Management System (EMS). An EMS allows organisations to develop, implement, manage, coordinate and monitor environmental policies. The major outcome of this is reduced waste from the very start of the process, with resulting cost savings. This proved to be the case in Defra’s findings, the results showing waste to landfill savings were at 43 percent after two years, whilst 39 tonnes per £m of turnover was saved in CO2 equivalent. In money terms, the efforts of the organisations questioned resulted in an annual average saving over two years of £4,875 per £m turnover. Taking into account the costs to implement the EMS in the first place, the suggested payback period was just three months.

A statistic that will light up the eyes of any small business owner is that two thirds of the businesses surveyed by Defra increased sales, or expected to, since implementing their EMS. Just over a third said that their EMS helped win new business sales, quoting an average value of £14,961 per £1m turnover in the year following certification. Not only is this great news, but it shows how the market is changing – supply chains are expecting smaller businesses to make efforts towards becoming sustainable. This, therefore, gives proactive companies the opportunity to take advantage whilst the competition lags behind.

So, what this all tells us is that no matter the size of your organization, being sustainable still meets the traditional business goal – making profit.

Building the foundations

Defra’s survey research also found that the more investment put into developing an EMS, the more the companies concerned got out of it. An easily overlooked point is that “investment” doesn’t simply equal money; in reality, it is the time investment spent engaging, training and communicating with staff to ensure that sustainability becomes embedded.

Within a large organisation, achieving uniform engagement is undoubtedly the biggest challenge to achieving the lofty aim of being a “sustainable business.” This is one advantage smaller businesses have; they don’t have the layers of bureaucracy that slow down change. However, that’s not to say there aren’t hurdles…

Now, you may be reading this article because you’re passionate about the environment, or simply want to make your company more competitive. Regardless, it’s important to realise that people are motivated by different things. One thing for sure is that, in general, people are increasingly showing signs of wanting to work for responsible, “green” businesses.

If you’re leading the charge on sustainability, then, it’s important you are able to act like a chameleon in order to appeal to everyone. This could range from pointing out potential cost savings to your boss, showing how you can get one over your competitors to your sales manager, or illustrating how a bike-to-work scheme will get colleagues fitter and happier.

The plan of attack

Beating back the sceptics means you have to be on their level – plan the sustainability initiative as you would any other business initiative. To do this, you need to understand where you are now, what your targets should be, who’s responsible for them, and how often they are checked.

Hopefully, in your initial planning stages, you’ll have a fair idea of who is more inclined to take on suggestions in the right spirit; then see if you can “recruit” them to the sustainability team. If you’re looking to implement a “big” idea, it’s important your plans have a justification and accurate information on the resources and budget required. Without these details, enthusiasm will wane, other priorities will take over, and you’re back to square one.

The low-hanging fruit

Even the smallest of businesses have lots of quick wins that can get the sustainability drive off to a good start. For example, it was once thought that paper would be obsolete within offices, yet today we are using it as much as ever – the average office worker uses 100 sheets every day! Easy commitments to make here could be:

  • Share paper copies within meetings
  • Train staff on reducing margins, text size etc. in web browsers and software
  • Reduce the number of printers to make printing more inconvenient
  • Having a centralised online/intranet location for important documentation
  • Having a dedicated printer for printing on used paper for internal use
  • Encourage recycling with recycling bins outnumbering standard bins

You can also reduce the amount of paper, cardboard and other waste you deal with by talking to suppliers, too. An easy win is to unsubscribe from unnecessary subscriptions to avoid getting duplicates of magazines or unwanted junk mail. We all get it, but with it being a low priority, don’t do anything about it.

Don’t be afraid to make suppliers work for your business. Ask them to be more imaginative with packaging; do they think about how much they use? Could they be using more eco-friendly materials? Could they take unwanted packaging away with them?

It’s also an opportunity to have a review; if you’re using a supplier in Scotland when you’re in Cornwall, does saving a few pounds outweigh the environmental impact? Could you get more responsive service by choosing a local supplier, which hires local people? When you factor in your supply chain, even the smallest of businesses can inspire big changes.

Whilst there are a plethora of articles on the internet providing ideas such as swapping your lightbulbs for motion-detecting LED alternatives, restricting your heating to certain hours or fitting devices to faucets to stop the waste of water, the reality for small businesses is this is often in the hands of the landlord. Therefore, a similar approach may be needed to when you first sold the sustainability initiative to your bosses. If you share your offices with other companies, strength in numbers would certainly help your case. Naturally, if your lease is expiring soon, your landlord may require less convincing than if you’ve just agreed to a 10 year term.

Keeping momentum

Hopefully, the above provides some ideas on how you can gain some quick wins with little or no financial investment. This should act as the groundwork for ideas that may appear a little extravagant because payback may take a little longer.

It’s important that when any new idea is introduced, people are aware of why it’s being done, the benefits and what it takes from them to make it a success. Better yet, all staff should have the opportunity to provide feedback to ensure the idea is practical and worthwhile. This will give you an idea of what targets will have the biggest impact, which will be easier to initiate and which will cost less money to implement.

Whilst people are usually keen to begin with, it’s easy to fall back into bad habits. Posters can be used to provide clear guidance on how to recycle or use particular equipment more efficiently.  The posters could include facts (e.g. lighting an empty office overnight wastes enough energy to heat water for 1,000 cups of coffee) to help relate the action to the goal.

The full cycle

This article is intended to help you to overcome the common hurdles to implementing a sustainability initiative, helping to move it from being just another programme, to something that becomes embedded into the culture of the business. With this in mind, consider the plans needed in place for this hard work to continue without constant, hands-on management. For example, are all the good things you do incorporated into job inductions? Could sustainability goals be broken down into departmental and individual targets, which could be incorporated into appraisals?

Becoming a sustainable business is no easy feat, but ingraining these ideas into a SME means growth comes easier when your sustainability reduces costs and makes the company more attractive to work for and do business with.

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Robert Fenn is a Director at the British Assessment Bureau, a UK based Certification Body specialising in the ISO 14001 environmental management standard. Robert is an experienced speaker and writer on sustainability and corporate responsibility within the business world.

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