We all know we need to do more to tackle the damage being done to our environment – but for many small firms it can be daunting to know where to start. Rob Gray outlines how to go about doing your bit
Hardly a day goes by without the appearance of a story highlighting the environmental damage wrought by humanity. Our planet is being driven towards the brink by climate change, deforestation, plastic and other ills, with much of the blame laid at business’s door.
Awareness of the crisis has never been greater, and most small businesses are well-disposed to the idea of stepping up sustainability initiatives. But what can you do? How might it be beneficial beyond helping the planet per se? What obstacles lie in the way?
FSB Environment Policy Chair Allen Creedy says there is “an untapped potential for the SME sector” to contribute to the sustainability agenda. But, despite the launch of Government’s 25 Year Plan for a sustainable future, he believes this contribution is held back by a lack of policy detail and guidance.
Mr Creedy points to a recent FSB Policy Unit workshop. “My members were saying to me, ‘I need 20 things we can do today, tomorrow and next week’,” he says. “Members are clamouring for guidance on the sorts of things they can do. But at the same time, we are wary of the Government changing the goalposts.”
An example of goalpost-moving, adds Mr Creedy, is the introduction of clean air zones. Some FSB members were caught out, having committed to four or five-year leases for vehicles that are now ineligible to enter those zones without payment. What’s more, many of these businesses were persuaded by previous Government messages that diesel was a better option for the environment, only to be told later that it was now considered the worst polluter. “A lot of businesses want clear signals from Government,” he says. “They are happy to invest in sustainability, but they need to understand and trust where sustainability policy is heading.”
There are simple steps that businesses can take to boost sustainability. On the energy front, Mr Creedy recommends fitting a smart meter and switching to LED lights as moves that offer almost instant payback. Becoming an energy generator is also worth exploring – not least as it offers another income source.
What about plastics? “Avoid! Whether it’s packaging, padding, a component – there’s wood, there’s paper, there’s metal, all of which are more recyclable, reusable and sustainable,” says Mr Creedy. “It requires people to do some long-term thinking and partnering. Let’s use things from renewable sources.”
To that end, he advocates that small firms think carefully about buying assets such as cars. Would joining a car club prove a better solution, environmentally and financially? For other things, is leasing, going for upcycled or reconditioned options, or even borrowing equipment the way forward?
Some small firms have built great business models around sustainability. Beauty products brand UpCircle has rescued 60 tonnes of coffee grounds from cafés across London, transforming them into its coffee-based skincare range. Based on current growth rates, it is on course to save an additional 1,000 tonnes during the next five years.
Having started out collecting coffee grounds from one shop, it now collects from 100 across London, and the list is growing. As is the brand’s range, with four new products earmarked for launch before Christmas. The company was a finalist in the FSB Celebrating Small Business Awards 2019 in the ethical-green business of the year category.
“The fact that we repurpose a core ingredient is our biggest challenge and our strength,” says co-founder Anna Brightman. “On one hand, sourcing ingredients we can save from being thrown away is more complicated than buying fresh ingredients. We must catch the ingredients at the right time and place.
“However, the circular element to our range is also what makes us what we are. It’s what makes journalists want to write about us, retailers want to stock us, and customers want to try our products and tell their friends about us.”
In the retail and hospitality sector in particular, many customers choose independent businesses because of a desire to shop ethically. Increasingly, these customers will expect businesses to keep their carbon impact as low as possible.
Simon Brammer, Head of Cities at sustainable energy charity Ashden, says SMEs need to reflect the values of their customers – for whom the environment is rocketing up the agenda. This summer, a poll by BritainThinks found that, in less than a year, the environment had leapt from seventh to fourth in a list of the country’s biggest concerns. Moreover, school climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests and calls for action by Sir David Attenborough have all kept the climate emergency in the news.
Mr Brammer says lots of practical things can be done. “Wasted heating and cooling is a big source of emissions, so making your buildings more efficient is a great step – which also lowers your bills. Encouraging greener staff travel, through bike loan schemes or fitting showers and cycle parking facilities at your premises, will bring you a healthier workforce. You could encourage car-sharing, too. And what about your supply chain? Investigate deliveries with cargo bikes and electric vehicles. These are often more efficient than the alternatives, particularly in our crowded city centres.”
There is also the option of gaining carbon footprint and social value certification. A leading player in this area is The Planet Mark, whose Head of Communications Dave Carlos argues that the world needs businesses that go beyond selling stuff. “Businesses have the structure, funds, influence and power to make positive change,” he says. “That’s why those that respond to social and environmental issues get rewarded by new customers with loyalty, by employees through retention, by communities with a licence to operate, and by investors through funds.”
Rose Deakin, founder of social enterprise the Crop Club, agrees. “Sustainability can be an important driver to innovate within a business and show people you care about the planet,” she points out. “It can also often lead to cost savings, new collaborations and more efficient processes. It should be an integral part of every business, not simply an add-on or CSR story.”
Rob King and Sam Keam launched Zedify to offer a zero-emissions alternative to diesel city centre road deliveries. It operates a fleet made up of three kinds of vehicle: electric vans, pedal bikes fitted with closed cargo boxes to keep goods clean and secure, and bespoke trikes able to carry loads of up to 250kg.
The majority of deliveries are handled by the trikes, which are compact enough to be ridden on cycle infrastructure and wheeled in pedestrian areas. This means, for the most part, Zedify is not contributing to congestion or limited by traffic-controlled zones. “Zedify works by using consolidation depots on the edge of urban areas that act as a gateway for small items coming in and out of the area,” says Mr King.
According to Mr King, Zedify has doubled in size during the past year. It now moves over 300,000 items for more than 300 local and national businesses across its eight UK depots: Brighton, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Norwich, Southampton and Waltham Forest. Clients include local authorities, SMEs, e-tailers and other carriers keen to find an eco-friendly ‘last mile’ alternative to taking their vans into the heart of congested city centres.
One SME that saw the virtue of switching to Zedify is Waterland Organics, which previously delivered vegetable boxes with its own old diesel van, covering all areas of Cambridge for a relatively small number of deliveries.
Waterland now drops off vegetable boxes at Zedify’s Cambridge depot every Thursday morning. The boxes are consolidated with other deliveries being made into the city using cargo bikes.
For owner Paul Robinson, it’s far more efficient and environmentally friendly than using his diesel van and means he can get on with running his business. “It’s saved us a lot of time and hassle,” says Mr Robinson. “We just drop our veg boxes off, and they deliver everything. Our customers love
that we use them too.”
There are a number of steps – some more challenging than others – which small firms can take to help reduce their environmental impact: