As the world turns its attention to next month’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, small firms too need to do more to play their part in helping meet the UK’s strict carbon emissions targets. Penelope Rance outlines how even the smallest outfit can make a difference
In July, fatal floods in Europe offered a reminder that we must all work to mitigate the climate crisis – and adapt to weather it. November’s COP26 summit in Glasgow will see countries reporting on their progress, with decisions made at the highest levels affecting even the smallest businesses.
“Every little helps: if everybody does the right thing, we end up with meaningful change,” says Martin Baxter, Director of Policy and External Affairs at the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. “It’s important that small businesses don’t get frozen out of the green industrial revolution. We need entrepreneurial SMEs to bring new technologies and develop sustainable business models to help create the solution.”
Small businesses tend to support net-zero objectives, with a recent FSB survey showing 36 per cent of members wanting to do more to achieve sustainability. But many do not appreciate the scope of the changes required, with only 22 per cent believing they will have to adapt to meet government emissions targets.
“If we are to reach the UK Government’s 2050 Net Zero goal, we need to start making changes now,” points out Friederike Andres, FSB’s Policy Advisor for Energy, Environment and Infrastructure. “The earlier businesses start thinking about it, the more time they have to make the necessary changes, from energy consumption to waste and recycling, and their business model itself.”
However overwhelming the task seems, there are simple steps you can take. Putting environmental impact at the heart of every business decision is the first. “There’s a lot small businesses can do,” says Mr Baxter. “The type of vehicles you have, or driving less. The greenest energy is the energy you don’t use. It’s similar with waste, maximising the materials you use to greatest effect.”
Transitioning to net-zero can also deliver business benefits: cutting costs, attracting talent and bolstering reputation. “Being sustainable could be an area of business growth,” adds Mr Baxter. “Customers are expecting to do business with more responsible companies, and people want to work for companies that are doing the right thing.”
The following areas are those in which you can make a big impact through relatively small changes, helping to play your part in cutting emissions.
1 Stick to a single principle
Reorganising your business around sustainability is the most effective way to appease consumers, investors and employees calling for sustainability, believes Neil Gaught, co-founder of Single Organizing Idea.
“The only way to guarantee that you deliver sustainability in everything that you do is to make it part and parcel of the core business strategy, using that as the guiding star for everything,” he says. By engaging with all stakeholders, internally and externally, you can identify a ‘single organising idea’ and the values that underpin it, then align every part of your business with it.
2 Save your energy
Cut energy use where you can, then source essential electricity from renewable suppliers. Green energy used to command a premium, but suppliers now offer competitive tariffs. SSE, for example, is supporting SMEs to go green by supplying 100 per cent renewable electricity for new business customers.
“If you add up the 5.6 million SMEs across Britain, collectively they can make a huge difference,” says Nikki Flanders, MD of SSE’s customer business.
Green energy comparison sites such as Big Green Switch can help you find a sustainable supplier, and it has also launched an initiative letting SMEs offer home workers £35 of free green energy.
3 Sustainable workplaces
There are many ways to make a workspace more sustainable. During the first lockdown, Natasha Penny, founder of accountancy firm Busy Books Westbury, downsized from a rented office to an environmentally friendly shipping container in her garden. The location cuts her fuel use and Ms Penny has had an EV charger installed via a government grant.
She is already seeing energy and financial savings: “The container is easy to heat and light, and cheap to run with no rental costs.” Its environmental credentials are enhanced by custom insulation and a sedum meadow roof to offset CO2 emissions and attract wildlife.
“My staff love the clean, fresh, unique place of work, knowing they are working for a company that cares about the planet, not just profits,” says Ms Penny.
“I would encourage other business owners to be honest about what they need from their place of work, and if they can make the smallest changes.”
4 Vehicles and transport
Transport contributes to CO2 emissions, so switching to electric or ditching the motor altogether can have a major impact. “Explore public transport options to see if you can reduce your car journeys,” suggests Ms Andres. “Or look at options such as a cycle-to-work scheme, if available to you.”
According to research by Electric Bike Access, those living close enough to cycle to work could see impressive reductions in their carbon emissions. Driving commuters generate 4,321.77kg of CO2 over the course of a working life, while cyclists generate 20kg – also significantly smaller than rail commuters, at 588kg.
“Not only does cycling to work encourage staff to put their wellbeing to the forefront, it can help businesses meet environmental targets,” says Ed Pegram, Business Manager at Electric Bike Access.
5 Go digital
While many businesses now operate remotely, cutting transport emissions, few count the carbon cost of virtual communications. According to Ovo Energy, Britons send over 64 million unnecessary emails each day, using vast amounts of energy via computers and servers. If each UK adult sent one fewer, it would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year.
Tom Vaughton, founder of analytics consultancy Varn, encourages clients to recognise digital activities’ cost. “Website hosting has a massive impact,” he says. “The amount of energy needed to power the servers for any website is huge.”
Web design can also make a difference. “If your website is more user-friendly, customers have to spend less time looking for information on it, so it costs less power and you’re likely to convert more clients.”
6 Tackle packaging
Sustainability isn’t just in your products; it’s also in the way you deliver them. Consumers expect minimal packaging and easily recycled materials. Ystrad Mynach-based Transcend Packaging was founded to help small businesses convert packaging to sustainable alternatives.
“We’re not talking about paper-based materials that can only be industrially composted, incinerated or recycled by niche companies, but a paper product that is as easily recycled as a newspaper, or can biodegrade in your home compost bin,” says company CEO Lorenzo Angelucci.
Digital printing, which has lower minimum-run sizes, allows businesses to reduce order sizes, warehousing requirements and packaging waste, saving materials and money. And by using UK-made products and components, small businesses can shorten their supply chain. “Reducing the need to import products from abroad minimises excess CO2 emissions,” adds Mr Angelucci.
7 The smaller stuff
As well as considering major changes, it’s worth sweating the small stuff. Portishead-based bClear Communications is aiming to become carbon-neutral by the end of the 2021 – and in the meantime, it is making as many simple changes as possible.
All office tea, coffee and sugar is Fairtrade; it uses recycled toilet roll and paper towels; wildflower areas attract bees and butterflies; every staff member has a plant to improve air quality; team members are encouraged to cycle, walk or use public transport; and printing is limited, and always black and white. CEO Debbie Staveley says: “It makes a real difference to know that you’re playing your part, and employees appreciate it too.”
How you can get involved
Looking to be more sustainable, but not sure where to start? The race to a net zero carbon economy by 2050 has begun – and FSB are making sure small businesses aren’t left out of the big picture.
You can get all the help and guidance you need for your business at our Sustainability Hub
The COP26 climate talks, taking place in the UK this November, give FSB the perfect opportunity to explore the significant role small businesses will play in the transition to Net Zero.
You can join this free conference on 2 November to find out what’s in it for you. Register here.
Help for small businesses
“There are major changes coming, but you’re not doing it on your own,” assures Friederike Andres, FSB’s Policy Advisor for Energy, Environment and Infrastructure, citing a number of schemes helping SMEs shift to more sustainable practices.
FSB is part of the Zero Carbon Business partnership, bringing together business organisations, energy networks and environmental support services to help smaller businesses join the low carbon economy. The Zero Carbon Business Portal (zerocarbonbusiness.uk) is another useful resource.
In Northern Ireland, the BITC Business Action on Climate Change offers access to a series of online resources to SMEs committing to reducing their carbon emissions by 2030.
Business Wales hosts information, workshops, online, telephone and virtual face-to-face advice, plus specialist support to help businesses go green.