Building a culture of sustainability

How SMEs can connect environmental policies to the top and bottom line

Building a culture of sustainability

It’s often said lack of awareness is behind the low take-up of sustainability policies among small businesses. The numbers tell a different story. Epson research shows that 94 per cent of businesses across Europe believe sustainability is an important issue (Epson). But large firms appear to take it more seriously than small firms.

Why is it that larger organisations tend to integrate sustainability policies into the fabric of the organisation, but small firms proceed either on an ad hoc basis or not at all?

A matter of culture

Large firms with dedicated Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) units increasingly wire sustainability into the DNA of the business. Unilever for example is focused on “decoupling” business growth from its sustainable footprint, in particular targeting the way in which consumers use its products. 

For small and micro businesses, sustainability is harder to decouple from business performance. Whatever items are the biggest issue of the day become the only focus, whether tied to growth or survival. More often than not, growth creates a bigger environmental footprint.

The major barrier to the adoption of sustainability policies therefore is the inertia of everyday business. For many small businesses it’s hard to break the cycle without deprioritising things that will always seem more important.

Sustainable thinking

But not all small businesses have to operate in this way. Depending on their outlook, a business can be bottom-line or top-line focused. To make the case for sustainability, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) need to hear how sustainable business policies meet their bottom and top line ambitions.

Let’s take the cost of energy, which for UK SMEs has risen over 40 per cent since 2010 (Utilitywise). In these terms, sustainability isn’t just nice to have. In fact it’s a business benefit that saves cost and helps promote growth. Switching from laser to inkjet printers, for example, can help companies achieve energy savings of up to 96 per cent and waste reductions of 95 per cent (Epson).

A culture of sustainability is important for the top line, too. Public sector procurement most notably is moving towards evaluation of potential suppliers on the basis of their ethical business practices. And in the fight for talent, sustainability can be a mark of distinction, particularly for millennial employees. For many customers, a well-communicated sense of purpose can help to build a strong bond of trust.

SMEs have their heads down in the day to day running of the business. The way to break through with a sustainability message is by communicating the commercial benefits of sustainability – not forgetting the value to the bottom and the top line.

Practical steps

Here are five tips to help SMEs break through the inertia:

1. Think strategically, not tactically. Car sharing, cycle schemes, recycling – these are small changes that make a small difference. Thinking bigger is the only way to really make an impact. Where are you headed? What type of business do you want to be? Organise your sustainability aims around a defined business strategy and you are more likely to make a lasting impact.

2. Use your size. SMEs are inherently more flexible and agile than their larger counterparts, with less process to disrupt and a much shorter chain of command. With fewer barriers to overcome, their size enables them to operationalise sustainability without making a radical or costly business transformation.

3. People are the biggest barrier to change but also the most effective vehicle. Involve them in the journey and they can help you change the DNA of your business.

4. Transparency is the key to behaviour change. Set targets and communicate failures as loudly as success. Make an early public declaration of your intentions and keep monitoring progress and communicating around your sustainability achievements.

5. View planet and profit not as polar objectives but as part of the same strategy. Design commercial KPIs not just around products and services but around the impact on the environment, from energy or emissions to supply chain waste.

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