Here’s how to make your small business more sustainable, on a budget

We spoke to sustainability entrepreneur Gary Styles to learn more about how small business owners can invest in the cause, without breaking the bank.

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Consumer demand for eco-friendly products and services is at an all-time high. The global pandemic has accelerated trends we were already seeing pre-Covid, causing more people than ever before to use their wallets to show support for the planet.

Government initiatives are helping to drive the change. The UK’s ambitious climate plan, announced last year, is targeting a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to become fully Net Zero by 2050.

Meanwhile the benefits of becoming more sustainable – increased efficiency, less money spent on energy bills – are also being increasingly recognised by business owners.

This cocktail of incentives means that the pressure is on for businesses to minimise their carbon footprint and reduce emissions. But implementing such a huge change to your business model is a big challenge for SMEs – particularly in light of their typically stretched resource load.

So, what are some low-cost solutions to becoming more sustainable?

We spoke to Gary Styles, founder of the recently-launched sustainability platform Zellar, to find out the answer to this question, and more. The company is a peer-to-peer sustainable marketplace covering green tech, renewable energy, local carbon and biodiversity offset, and volunteer projects. It provides support and expertise for SMEs, making Net Zero accessible through one, easy-to-use platform.

In this article, we’ll go through current attitudes towards sustainability, the biggest challenges SMEs face to reducing emissions, and some easy steps you can take to ‘go green’ on a budget.

What are the current small business attitudes towards sustainability?

According to research from Merchant Savvy, 94% of firms in the UK are small or micro-businesses. Their combined weight means they could make a huge difference to the fight against climate change.

So, what do small business owners think about becoming more sustainable?

Gary told us: “Awareness among the general population has increased significantly in recent years. Particularly post-pandemic, the general attitude towards recovery has been a desire to reconnect with nature and accelerate progress on general wellbeing and green models.

“Most small business owners are now asking themselves: what kind of business do I want to be? Beyond profit, SMEs want to be sustainable, and want to learn how to transition to a more environmentally-friendly model. The triggers are usually either emotional (based on caring for the planet); economic (coming from a desire to drive business); or legislative (wanting to prepare for the future green taxes and tendering requirements that we expect to be introduced by the government).”

What are the biggest barriers SMEs face to becoming more sustainable?

Gary said: “The problem is multi-layered. The three most common factors that SMEs need to consider – time, money, and expertise – are always going to present an issue. However, I think the first big challenge for SMEs is knowing where to start.

“There’s so much information out there, so it can be difficult to know what the all-important first step is. It’s easier for big companies, as they have dedicated resources and can engage consultants. However, small business owners need to rely on a mix of several different consultants, brokers and apps, which will cost them further time and money and might not guarantee success.

“Other barriers include the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. I think sustainability is now firmly positioned at the heart of the recovery. However, achieving net zero brings plenty of complicated challenges for SMEs, and every business has different obstacles to reaching that goal.”

The sustainability challenge is also sector-specific

When it comes to implementing a sustainable strategy within your organisation, there is no one size fits all approach.

As Gary told us: “There’s so many sectors out there. Small business communities are incredibly broad and diverse, so one solution does not fix everything. If you consider the difference between running a manufacturing company and managing a hotel, for example, the day-to-day tasks share few similarities.

“All industries have their own, specific challenges to become net zero. These determine whether you’re in need of a behavioural change or a reduction in waste or energy consumption. You might also use deep international supply chains that are harder to control, or you might be a tenanted business, in which case, how do you engage with landlords to make sure the property you’re in is being run sustainably?”

How can you avoid greenwashing?

Greenwashing refers to deliberately misleading marketing or promotional materials that incorrectly position organisations as eco-friendly. It is, essentially, false advertising. As an example, if a fast fashion company claims to recycle its clothes, but in reality, sends the majority to landfill, then it’s engaging in greenwashing.

Not only is this dishonest, it is also a huge turn-off for consumers. In a 2020 survey conducted by Shift Insight, 48% of respondents said they would avoid buying a company’s product or service if they were revealed to not be living up to their sustainable claims.

Gary said: “Consumer habits are shifting to recognise and avoid greenwashing, so it’s important for SMEs to demonstrate real commitment to the green agenda. For that to happen, you need to be educated and well-informed about the initiatives and products that you are engaging with. This encompasses everything from the technology you’re investing in, to the projects you’re backing. There are lots of offsetting programmes cropping up that, upon closer examination, don’t offer the correct credentials to be classed as sustainable.

“I created Zellar to make it clear to SMEs about what products and services they are buying, and also clear to their audiences, so that customers can see they’re not being greenwashed. Most importantly, you need to be honest and upfront with customers. Allow yourself to admit, ‘hey, we’re not perfect and we won’t get it right all of the time, but we’ll head in the right direction’.”

What are some low-budget steps towards becoming more sustainable?

Third-party consultants

The suggestion of outsourcing any service to a consultant or third-party provider tends to ring alarm bells for most small business owners. Admittedly, it requires some effort in time and money to find, and keep, the right one. However, hiring a consultant to review your business’ carbon footprint should be your first step to designing a green model for your business.

Sustainability consultants can give you a thorough and accurate review of your current carbon footprint so you can understand the challenge that’s at hand, and also easily locate the quick wins.

Gary said: “At Zellar, we make sustainability simple and practical for every small business owner. It was also important for us to be low-cost for SMEs, as we understand the budget constraints many SMEs face and how unaffordable many rival sustainability platforms can be. That’s why we charge just £5 per week for our micro-business programme, which small business owners can execute in their own time and at their own pace. We give you a custom programme to reach net-zero by 2030 – two decades ahead of the UK government’s target – but we also look at other areas of the business to identify the quick wins and design a long-term sustainability plan.”

Move away from fossil fuels

This might sound like a huge step to take, but don’t worry – we’re not asking you to start setting up a wind farm on the office roof.

Renewable energy providers are more accessible than ever, with brands like Good Energy and SSE plc leading the way to zero carbon emissions. However, there are other, less obvious opportunities to remove your reliance on fossil fuels than oil and gas companies.

Websites are one. Web hosting can be extremely energy-intensive. In fact, Jack Amend, founder of Web Neutral Project, estimates that the average website produces 4,500 pounds of CO2 a year. Green website providers like GreenGeeks or DreamHost will offset your carbon footprint, so that every unit of energy your website generates will be pumped back into the circular economy as a renewable investment.

Want to know more about eco-friendly web hosting? Read our guide to the top green web providers for small businesses.

Similarly, if your company needs to deliver products, think about investing in a green delivery service. For a small fee (usually around £8 per month) you can offset the COemissions from the shipments you deliver.

One caveat to these schemes is that you need to make sure you do thorough research, to make sure any provider you use has legitimate claims and credentials. This will help you to avoid greenwashing – a major sin for the modern consumer.

Look for behavioural changes

Building a sustainable business model isn’t just about looking externally – it’s also about examining your company behaviours and identifying the areas where you could be more efficient.

Gary told us: “There are lots of simple things you could and should be changing, such as switching lights and computers off at the end of the day, purchasing energy saving bulbs, using fewer display screens. It’s about searching for scope one emissions, and asking: ‘how can I be more efficient in that particular space?’ Behavioural changes are some of the most low-cost, and high return, solutions – but they are also something the whole company will need to come on board with and engage with.”

Work as a team 

Even for the greatest of business leaders, sustainability is not a one man mission. You need the engagement of everyone including staff, customers, and suppliers to ensure you are properly supported in achieving a Net Zero objective.

For your employees, taking leadership and instilling ‘green’ practices can be a great way to shape company culture. Gallup, an analytics and advisory company, found that an engaged workforce led to an average increase of 21% for productivity. Ensure you’re keeping a constant change of information to let them know the journey they are on and exactly what will be asked of them.

Communicating your sustainable goals to your partners is also important, as it can enable you to work with your supply chain and identify issues or opportunities to increase environmental efficiency. You might also incentivise suppliers or purchasers to join in with the agenda.

Conclusion

The challenge of sustainability is huge for today’s small businesses, particularly post-pandemic. However, it’s certainly not impossible.

This article has highlighted some basic steps you can take that won’t hurt your wallet, like making the simple switch to a green energy provider, plus platforms like Zellar, which have been designed to make the steps towards Net Zero as easy as possible for SMEs, with an achievable and realistic timeline for reducing emissions.

Don’t panic about deadlines – becoming more sustainable is not about just painting your business model green. As long as you are fully committed to the cause and making real, tangible changes, you are heading in the right direction.

Helena is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has previously written for a popular fintech startup covering everything from money-saving tips to cultural reviews.

She is particularly interested in project management software and the films of Peter Jackson.

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