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  • Writer's pictureNat Sharp

Why sustainability matters for small businesses

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

Learn the latest things you need to know about sustainability as a small business owner

As a small business owner, prioritising sustainability is not just an option but a necessity. With tightening environmental regulations and a growing demand for ethical products, staying ahead of the curve is crucial for long-term success. In this blog post, we delve into the significance of sustainability and explore the benefits it can bring, providing actionable tips for businesses like yours.

What does it mean to be a sustainable business?

Being a sustainable business involves meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. Research conducted by Aldermore revealed that in 2021 53% of UK SMEs had already made sustainability investments.

However, according to sustainability expert Ciaran Armstrong from Sustainable Pathways, we still have a long way to go and true sustainability goes beyond superficial changes like implementing LED lights or making charitable donations. It requires a transformative approach, aimed at minimising waste, extending the lifespan of materials and products, and regenerating natural systems. Ultimately, the goal is to improve the well-being of both people and the planet through your products, services, and operations.

Another popular option for businesses is becoming a Certified B Corporation, a distinction achieved by over 1,000 UK companies. B Corps are verified to meet high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. Digitom, a recent B Corp certified company, emphasizes the principles of sustainability in their approach to running the business. By reducing their impact on the environment, collaborating with clients and supporting the community, they achieved a score of 96.2 during the rigorous assessment process. However, it's important to note that businesses need to continually up their game, as reassessment occurs every three years.

Sustainability expert Adam Bastock and founder of Small 99 highlights the urgency for small businesses to embrace sustainability. As the UK sets net zero targets, larger organisations are under pressure to measure their carbon footprint and develop net zero plans, but this will impact smaller businesses as they try to secure tenders and contracts in the future.

What are the sustainability trends this year and why should you act now?

This year has seen remarkable progress and innovation as individuals, businesses, and governments recognise the urgency of addressing environmental and social challenges.

But as Ciaran Armstrong advises, when you’re looking ahead to the sustainable pathway, it can feel overwhelming. Seeing other businesses, competitors and collaborators already on their way. He comments:

"The reality is, they all started by taking that one small half-step to cross the threshold. Every step counts. There’s never been a better and more urgent time to start than now."

Positive Planet identify four key trends that have emerged: regenerative practices, social sustainability, circular economy models, and sustainable finance so look to see how these evolve further over time.

But how can sustainability benefit your small business?

1. Inspire change and protect the environment

In the current landscape, small businesses hold significant influence over the environment. Notably, SMEs contribute nearly as much to greenhouse gas emissions as large companies. By reducing your carbon footprint and embracing sustainable practices, you can actively combat pollution and address the pressing issue of climate change. Moreover, your proactive efforts can serve as an inspiration to other businesses, ultimately creating a positive ripple effect throughout the broader ecosystem.

You can create a significant impact by implementing affordable solutions, such as workplace recycling programs and encouraging alternative transportation methods. Furthermore, the adoption of circular business practices, such as reusing and repurposing materials, is gaining momentum. For example, consider donating surplus IT equipment to organisations like Computers4Charity. By doing so, you contribute to their mission of refurbishing and redistributing devices to those in need.

Ciaran Armstrong comments:

"Failure to change is simply not an option if we wish to maintain and improve the world we know and love. "

2. Unlock savings and boost your bottom line

Contrary to popular belief, embracing sustainable practices can yield long-term financial benefits for your business. By implementing energy efficiency measures, you can potentially reduce your energy bills by up to 25% as research has shown by The Department for Energy & Climate Change. Simple steps, like using electricity meters to identify energy-consuming equipment and transitioning to energy-efficient alternatives, can result in considerable savings. Additionally, exploring renewable energy options such as solar or wind power can further contribute to cost reduction. There are also a number of green grants available to enable small businesses to do this.

Optimizing your office space by harnessing natural light and utilizing low-energy LEDs can also significantly contribute to savings. Moreover, embracing digital operations can minimise waste, consequently reducing expenses associated with paper and printers.

3. Attract and retain customers

In today's market, consumers actively seek out businesses that prioritise environmental responsibility. By implementing sustainability initiatives, you can increase loyalty and reduce customer churn as well as build brand recognition. Consumer behaviour is strongly influenced by concerns about the climate crisis. Notably, research by BCG indicates that 57% of consumers are willing to change their purchasing habits to reduce their environmental impact. By showcasing your environmental credentials, you can attract a motivated customer base that aligns with your business values.

4. Stand out and retain talent

In today's competitive job market, businesses must differentiate themselves to attract top talent, particularly in roles where skills shortages exist. Offering a sustainable workplace can be a significant advantage. Research consistently indicates that your staff are more likely to stay with companies that prioritise sustainability and environmental responsibility. Moreover, the values of young people are shaped by the environmental impact we have on our world. A survey by The Engineer of 1,000 individuals revealed that 57% of those aged 18 to 34 would prefer to work for an employer who shares their environmental values. Embracing sustainable practices not only helps with recruitment but also boosts staff retention.

5. Drive innovation for success: Embrace sustainability as an economic opportunity

According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, sustainability presents the most significant economic opportunity of our times. Pursuing sustainability goals fosters innovation, creating new avenues for business growth and resilience. Legislative changes and evolving customer demands can spark innovative operating methods, processes, and products. Various proven business models demonstrate innovative strategies for increasing sustainability, whether it's environmentally or socially driven. By embracing these approaches, you can enhance efficiency, tap into new markets, and attract new customers.

6. Meet supply chain expectations: Prioritise sustainability throughout your supply chain

Supply chains face increasing scrutiny to minimise environmental, ethical, and social impacts. Many companies prioritise suppliers who take sustainability seriously. As Adam Bastock advises larger companies committing to becoming net zero have a cascading effect on supply chains, reaching down to small businesses. He adds:

"Measurement processes conducted by large businesses acknowledge that small businesses significantly contribute to their emissions, particularly in 'Scope 3: Purchased Goods and Services.' For instance, Tesco mandates suppliers to have a Net Zero plan by 2050, making these plans increasingly urgent. As a flour mill supplying a baker who, in turn, supplies Tesco, or an HR consultant working with the flour mill, you're also involved in meeting these targets."

Adam Bastock, Founder Small 99

Failing to have a plan could result in the loss of contracts in the medium term and missed bidding opportunities. This is going to become more and more common. Unilever is already partnering with its suppliers to achieve a net zero supply chain by 2039.

If you're being asked by your supply chain for your carbon footprint, you can get started by accessing

Kickstarting your sustainability pathway

It's time to build a better future for your business. Sustainability doesn't have to be complicated or time-consuming. Start with small changes like a waste audit, implementing recycling programs, and reducing energy consumption. These simple steps can make a significant impact over time.

The problem of sustainability can’t be ignored, and nor can the potential benefits. Becoming a sustainable business goes far beyond mere superficial changes; businesses need to fundamentally transform their operations and models in order to minimise waste, extend product lifespan, and regenerate natural systems. Not only is being sustainable good for the environment and your bottom line, but it also helps you attract customers, retain staff, drive innovation, and meet supply chain demands.

To get started, it’s important to carry out an impact assessment that looks at your company's footprint – there are lots of free tools available to do this including SusNav.

As we move forward, let us remember that sustainability is not just a buzzword but a strategic imperative. By embracing sustainability as a small business, you're not only contributing to a better future but also positioning your company for long-term growth and success.

Read more on the Sharp End - search from over 150 articles on all things marketing for your small business.

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