What do SMEs want from COP26?

As the world’s leaders gather in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) we look at what SMEs want from the emerging new green agenda.

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This week, COP26 – the United Nations’ (UN) annual summit on climate change – is taking place in Glasgow.

It’s an event that small business owners will be watching intently, as world leaders, alongside tens of thousands of negotiators, government representatives, businesses and citizens, will converge on the city to hold twelve days of talks, and decide on an action plan for how best to tackle the climate crisis.

As the discussions – and the Earth’s surface – heat up, we ask small business owners about how they are feeling about the conference, the outcomes they would like to see, and the UK’s sustainable agenda so far.

Why is COP26 important for small businesses?

Whatever the outcome of COP26, the decided action plan will likely introduce new legislation and business regulations to help the UK reach its goal of Net Zero emissions by 2050 – which means it will have an impact on SMEs country-wide.

The UN’s climate change talks have been held for three decades, but the action only really began at COP21 in 2015, which was held in Paris and led to the establishment of the Paris Agreement. The event saw 191 countries agree to aim to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

However, little has been achieved since then, with global temperatures and emissions continuing to rise.

This has led to many SMEs forming their own sustainable policies and pledges – meaning COP26 is an exciting opportunity for governments to demonstrate their support for the progress that’s already made by many UK entrepreneurs.

What do SMEs want from COP26?

Sustainability was a key concern for most of the respondents, and many had already begun investing in environmentally friendly products or services to make their own companies greener.

Some were ethically-minded companies, going the extra mile to ensure ethical manufacturing and sourcing. They felt that COP26 could and should bring about similar changes, citing a growing demand from consumers and the general public.

However, amongst many of the SMEs we heard from, there was a feeling of skepticism that COP26 will be about empty words, with little action.

Ruth Bradford is owner of The Little Black and White Book Project, an online retail store. Bradford said: “I want to see our government push to take unpopular decisions because it's the right thing to do rather than chase the popular vote or look good at a conference. There are so many small businesses like mine who put the planet at the heart of their offering. I think in the current market consumers want to feel good about their decisions and their spending so you'd be foolish to ignore the demands of conscious consumerism. If we can do it on a small scale then governments can do a lot more on a bigger scale to prove that they are actually serious about the future of our planet.”

Paul Harfleet is founder of Birds Can Fly, an online retailer. Harfleet said: “As COP26 begins in earnest, I sincerely hope it creates real change and results in action not words. For the sake of us all, and generations to come, we have to act before it's too late. We should also celebrate all small businesses that are genuinely carbon neutral and accept that it is possible to sell products that do not destroy the planet. My own fashion business, Birds Can Fly, began as eco-friendly, with all my nature-themed clothing printed by a company that is certified as carbon neutral.”

Robert Walton is managing director at The Lindhurst Group, a contract furnishings firm. Walton said: “It's time for the empty rhetoric to stop and for political and business leaders alike to grasp the nettle. As SMEs, we can all do our bit but without total commitment from those in power our efforts will be wasted.

“In my business, we've been investing in renewable energy with Solar Panels and Air Source Heat Pumps and have just signed up to be Carbon Neutral within a couple of months and have even taken steps to be Carbon Negative. We are actively directing our business to supply more sustainable products but until our clients, including Government organisations, accept and appreciate the value we'll always be struggling to compete against the cheaper, but less sustainable, options available.”

Andrew Montlake is managing director at Coreco, a mortgage brokerage firm. Montlake said: “In the property and mortgage market, this is one of the biggest topics of conversation at present, with pressure on lenders to ensure that, in the future, their property stock is energy efficient. At present we have just seen tinkering round the edges with so-called ‘green mortgages’, nothing more than a very slight cost-saving for those who have more efficient homes. There needs to be some serious banging of heads together to come up with a solution and the onus should very be on a sizable Green Government Grant to help those who will not be able to borrow more funds to improve their homes.

“In terms of small businesses, there is a whole new generation of clients who, quite rightly, expect to see their own values reflected in the companies they do business with, whether in the form of more down-to-earth communication, diversity of people and thought, or a real commitment to companies that look after the planet and are seeking to become carbon-neutral. This needs to come from the very top and cannot be just a tick-box exercise but a deep commitment to making a change and leading from the front.”

How are SMEs becoming more sustainable?

All of our respondents had recognised the need for sustainability. Amongst the next questions put to them was to ask what measures they had taken to become more eco-friendly as a business.

Dee Featherstone is founder at The Little Sensory Box, a children’s sensory toys supplier. Featherstone said; “We have been making small changes over the past 12 months to reduce our carbon footprint, such as replacing packaging and using less packaging. One recent change has been implementing QR codes with our subscription boxes rather than providing a printed guide in the box.”

Robert Walton is managing director at The Lindhurst Group, a contract furnishings firm. Walton said: “It's time for the empty rhetoric to stop and for political and business leaders alike to grasp the nettle. As SMEs, we can all do our bit but without total commitment from those in power our efforts will be wasted.

“In my business, we've been investing in renewable energy with Solar Panels and Air Source Heat Pumps and have just signed up to be Carbon Neutral within a couple of months and have even taken steps to be Carbon Negative. We are actively directing our business to supply more sustainable products but until our clients, including Government organisations, accept and appreciate the value we'll always be struggling to compete against the cheaper, but less sustainable, options available.”

Need some ideas on becoming more sustainable? Read our guide to learn more about five simple initiatives small business owners can use to reduce your carbon footprint.

Why is sustainability important for SMEs to invest in?

As sustainability becomes a more urgent need in the face of the current climate crisis, small businesses should view investing in greener practices as a way to generate growth for their firm.

Expansion and recruitment are two areas that SMEs will begin to see change as eco-friendly becomes the expectation for employees, meaning companies that aren’t investing in the area will be at a brand disadvantage compared to competitors.

In fact, according to a global survey and upcoming ESG Report by recruiter Robert Walters, 34% of UK workers said they would turn down a job from a company with poor sustainability credentials.

These employees place a company’s green values above what an employer does from a political (29%), charitable (27%), or social affairs (21%) standpoint.

Chris Poole, managing director of Robert Walters UK, commented on the findings: “Employers failing to improve on their sustainability credentials should expect to see a knock-on impact to their hiring. With there being so many avenues to being environmentally conscious as an employer there simply isn’t much room to ignore the matter.”

Want to become more sustainable as a small business, but not sure if you can afford to go green? Our handy guide to how to become more sustainable on a budget gives you tons of low-cost ways to reduce your emissions and grow your consumer base.

Helena Young
Helena Young Senior Writer

Helena "Len" Young is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has also previously written for a popular fintech startup.

Included in her topics of interest and expertise are tax legislation, the levelling up agenda, and organisational software including CRM and project management systems. As well as this, she is a big fan of the films of Peter Jackson.

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