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What is sustainability in business?

How should a business operate sustainably? Discover how to keep your business ahead of the environmental curve

With protestors taking to the streets calling for urgent action on climate change, supported by high-profile individuals using their platforms to promote eco-friendly living, sustainability is driving discussions both in the UK and around the world. Indeed, this conversation affects all aspects of society – from the decisions that people make on a personal level, all the way through to the actions of major multinationals.

The business sector contributed 18% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the UK in 2018, according to provisional estimates published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

Clearly, there’s room for businesses of all sizes to better manage their impact on the environment. But as a small business – or even as someone that’s yet to begin their entrepreneurial journey – how can you incorporate sustainability into your operations?

We’ll cover the key points to consider to run a sustainable business. This includes making more climate-conscious choices about your manufacturing, production, and technological processes, and looking at how your business can give back to the community. We’ll also provide real-life insight from startup founders and other businesses to help you understand how sustainability works on a day-to-day basis.

Environmental ideas for companies

The UN has stated that 2020 marks the beginning of a “decade of action” to achieve the organisation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Of these goals, many are focused on the environment, including: 

  • Clean water and sanitation
  • Affordable and clean energy
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action

With these goals in mind, how can businesses contribute to a greener, cleaner environment?

Manufacturing and production processes

People are becoming increasingly aware of the impact that their spending power can have on the world. Often referred to as ethical consumers, this is a label given to people who intentionally use their money to support sustainable, ethical businesses.

The UK ethical consumer market was valued at £41.1bn in 2019, as reported in the Ethical Consumer Markets Report 2019 – highlighting the sheer size (and worth) of this audience. 

Here are some ways to make the manufacturing and production process more sustainable, and appeal to this type of customer.

Get Soil Association certified

As the leading organisation in the UK for organic certification, getting a Soil Association symbol on your products shows a commitment to the highest standards of food and farming sustainability. 

While this could be seen as a daunting process, 70% of organic products in the UK feature the Soil Association symbol – you’ll be far from alone in having completed the certification process!

The Soil Association offers organic certification for the following sectors:

  • Food and drink
  • Farming
  • Beauty and wellbeing
  • Fashion and textiles
  • Forestry
  • Food service

The Soil Association offers certification that meets international standards. So how can you go about achieving this?

During the process, your business will be assessed on:

  • Suppliers – these must also hold organic certificates
  • Record-keeping – a record that details goods in, production, goods out, and stock
  • Labelling – there is compulsory labelling criteria to meet, including what is displayed on the label and how
  • Product composition – products must contain a minimum of 95% organic agricultural ingredients to achieve certification
  • Separation – if you work with both organic and non-organic goods, these must be kept separated 
  • Importing – note that your business must be certified to import organic products from outside the European Union (EU)

Visit the Soil Association certification website to learn more. Or, if you’re based in Scotland, find out about Soil Association work in Scotland.  

By completing this process, you’ll be able to display the well-known and respected Soil Association symbol. Not only will you be demonstrating your commitment to sustainability, but you could potentially reach even more customers too, such as those who practice conscious consumerism

With the organic market achieving record growth in 2019, reaching a whopping £2.45bn,, this shows how sustainability and profitability can go hand in hand.

Promote Fairtrade

Fairtrade is an organisation that champions sustainable pricing, safe working conditions, and fair terms for farmers and workers in developing countries. 

With more than 6,000 Fairtrade products available, and more than 1.66 million farmers and workers from across 73 countries participating in Fairtrade, the incentive is helping to drive sustainability on a large scale. 

There are a number of ways to get involved with Fairtrade products, including:

  • Stocking Fairtrade products – if you run a shop, consider selling Fairtrade goods. Use Fairtrade’s National Fairtrade Purchasing Guide to find a certified supplier
  • Sourcing process – similar to the Soil Association, you can apply to become Fairtrade certified. This requires that single ingredient products must be 100% Fairtrade, while those with composites must be at least 20% Fairtrade. Learn more about the Fairtrade production composition requirements here.
  • Education – Fairtrade can provide your business with the resources and information to help you shape your strategy, and get to know the impact your business is having
  • Getting involved in programmes – if you want insight and changes to your supply chain, consider Fairtrade programmes. A Fairtrade programme offers ways to make your supply chain more sustainable, as well as provides connections to producers and communities. Reporting is also available. These require a minimum investment of £50,000 per year for the standard programme, while the bespoke programme requires a minimum investment of £200,000 per year for three years. 

However you decide to work with Fairtrade, it offers your business the chance to help make the global trade process more sustainable. 

Plant-based food

Gone are the days when ‘meat and two veg’ were the only options available on menus. As civilisation rolls on, we’re becoming more and more aware of the impact our food choices can have on the environment. 

The average hamburger uses 3,140 litres of water, according to data published by the World Economic Forum. In contrast, plant-based burgers use 75-95% less water, as well as using less land and creating fewer emissions. 

The concept of ‘Veganuary’ (going vegan for the month of January) is becoming increasingly well-known in the UK. Meanwhile, big name brands such as Costa, Greggs, KFC, and Ben & Jerry’s have all recently launched vegan versions of some of their most well-known items. 

So, how can other businesses follow suit and promote plant-based food

In the UK, the Vegetarian Society offers vegetarian and vegan approved logos that can be displayed on products that meet their standards.

The application process involves:

  • Checks of the ingredients and specification sheets used to make products
  • Paying the licence fee

It may also be possible to get help from the Vegetarian Society in order to help ensure your products achieve the requirements.

The Vegetarian Society offers two types of logos: vegetarian approved and vegan approved. Products must be free from:

  • Cross-contamination while in production
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Animal testing (both conducted or commissioned)

For vegetarian items specifically, products should meet the following requirements:

  • Only free-range eggs are used
  • No ingredients used that result from slaughter

As one might expect, vegan products must be completely free from any animal-derived ingredients. 

In addition, trademark logos are also available from the Vegan Society. The standards for this are:

  • No animal ingredients
  • No animal testing
  • No animal genes or substances derived from animals in the production or development of GMOs

Dishes must also be prepared separately from non-vegan meals, with utensils and surfaces that are at least washed and ideally separate from the utensils used in non-vegan food preparation.

Christopher Kong, CEO and co-founder of Better Nature, explains: “At Better Nature, we want to create a happier, healthier, and more sustainable planet. Our current food system needs to change – particularly the way in which we consume our protein. 

“Protein is one of the main problems within our food system. Around half of all UK consumers are seeking to add ‘extra protein’ to their diets, according to market research from Weetabix. However, the current rate at which animal protein is cultivated cannot be sustained. That’s why we’re focusing on tempeh: a fermented, plant-based protein source originating from Indonesia. 

“Tempeh contains every essential amino acid, and is one of the highest sources of plant-based protein. Per 100g serving, it has the same protein content as grilled cod and grilled mackerel, double the protein content of crab, and almost double the protein content of eggs. 

“Having said that, it is relatively unknown in the UK, so we want to lift the lid on this secret and show that protein can be consumed in a better way – one that contributes to a happier, healthier, more sustainable planet for everyone.”

Waste disposal

From its creation to its disposal, the world is facing a plastic crisis – and much like plastic itself, it’s not going to go away anytime soon.

In 2019, the annual emissions from the plastic life cycle (production and incineration) were equivalent to those of a staggering 189 500-megawatt coal power plants running at full capacity.

This figure is predicted to rise to 295 coal plants by 2030, and as many as 615 coal plants by 2050. This data comes from Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, a report published by the Center for International Environment Law (CIEL).

So what actions can your business take to help combat waste? When you think about sustainable waste disposal, you may think of running a paperless office, or offering multiple bins in the staff room. 

And while these actions are definitely positive steps to take, did you know that there’s a waste hierarchy that outlines the order in which to approach waste management?

The waste hierarchy consists of the following five steps:

  1. Prevent – minimise the amount of waste created initially
  2. Reuse – find another purpose for items
  3. Recycle – send waste to be made into new items
  4. Recover – transform waste into other resources, such as electricity
  5. Dispose – get rid of waste, such as through incineration or in landfill

For example, you could furnish your office with second hand furniture, and work with a business recycling provider to ensure any waste created is treated in an environmentally friendly way. 

Sean O’Keefe, founder of COGZ, states: “At COGZ, we see a world where everything grown gets eaten. Sustainability is at its core: our online marketplace enables food processors to purchase surplus produce directly from farms that would otherwise go to waste. 

“Not only does this prevent food waste in primary production (one-third of produce grown never leaves the farm), but it also saves water that goes into the production of these foods and reduces CO2 emissions. Everyone benefits from a more connected and less wasteful food supply chain.”

Energy

Data from Statista shows that on average, small businesses consumed 15,000 kilowatt hours of gas and 20,000 kilowatt hours of electricity in 2019.

In comparison, the average large business consumed 75,000 kilowatt hours of gas and 90,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. 

While there is a big gap between small and large business energy consumption, thinking about eco-friendly energy before you scale could be useful – both for the planet and for your business’ bottom line.

This makes energy a key area in which to turn your attention to if you want to operate with green business policy in mind.

One way to do this is to choose an energy provider that offers power from renewable energy sources, such as Bulb. When deciding on a provider, here are some questions to consider to confirm their eco-friendly credentials:

  • Do they offer low-carbon electricity?
  • What percentage of their electricity/gas is renewable? 
  • How and where is the energy produced, and who owns it?
  • Does the supply come from the Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin (REGO) scheme?

For more information, check out our small business energy comparison guide.

Technology

But it’s not only the powering of devices that can be made more eco-friendly: the devices themselves can, too. By making a few simple, climate-savvy decisions, the computers, mobile phones, and tablets that your business uses everyday can help you do your bit to protect the planet. Look out for:

  • Ethical mobile phones – look for providers that are transparent about how the devices are made, can be repaired easily, and avoid certain harmful materials, such as mercury, nickel and PVC
  • Refurbished devices – opt for second hand laptops or PCs that have been processed to be used again, as this will save the power and materials required to make a device from scratch

And this approach extends beyond hardware: your business can help to make a difference through its digital footprint, too. An example of this is Ecosia, a search engine that uses the revenue from ads in searches to fund a programme that plants trees around the world.

Plus, you can harness technology to promote sustainability in how your business works. Consider swapping face-to-face meetings for video calls wherever possible, or offering staff the opportunity to work remotely on some days. This allows technology to replace the need for travel, and shows admirable consideration for the environment. 

And a myth about sustainability and business that O’Keefe would like to bust? That in order for a business to be sustainable, it comes at an increased cost for the business and doesn’t promote business growth.

“Waste and surplus are generally caused by inefficiency. Reducing that inefficiency will have economic benefits, and technology is increasingly able to make that happen. 

“For us, that means using technology to reduce the market inefficiency for farmers and food processors and create a more circular food supply chain, which prompts growth and saves costs. Sustainability isn't just a responsibility – it's an opportunity.”


What is corporate social responsibility?

Your business can promote sustainability beyond the office, too. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to the strategy and processes that an organisation offers to give back to the community, in order to have a positive impact on the environment and society in which it operates.

Corporate social responsibility examples:

  • Offer charity days – allow team members to volunteer during work time, whether by providing specialist expertise or supporting events 
  • Run fundraising drives – from collection pots to large-scale donations, consider the ways your business could provide financial assistance to worthy causes
  • Support the local community – order team lunches or run social events at eateries and venues in your surrounding area

Hear about how a more established business has created an eco-friendly culture. Gemma Banks, HR Business Partner at Connect Assist, describes how sustainability has become embedded in the organisation:

“Since our inception in 2006, we’ve placed sustainability at the core of our operations and committed to creating positive outcomes for our local environment, community, and economy.

“Formally, we are ISO14001 (environmental management system)* accredited; less formally, we believe that making small changes quickly adds up.

“Our sales and marketing team regularly travel throughout the UK, and only use public transport to help reduce our carbon footprint.

“We’ve installed recycling stations in lieu of general purpose bins. Staff-appointed ‘recycling champions’ check these daily, reducing our waste and keeping us as green as possible.”

*ISO 14001 refers to the tools, standards and management systems that organisation can use to manage their responsibilities to the environment. 


Sustainability and company culture

However, it’s difficult for a business to have a meaningful impact without buy-in from team members. While direction and initiatives may be led from the top, sustainability can be woven into the fabric of a company through its culture and structure.

Elliot Coad, founder of Offset Earth, comments: “We judge ourselves based on impact: creating an army of subscribers all doing their bit to fight climate change through funding carbon offset projects, planting trees, and living a more sustainable life through our tips and advice.

“But we also have to live what we preach here – not just environmentally, but also our beliefs on how a social good business should work in the modern world. For this reason, our values include total openness and transparency. 

“You can see our finances via the website, and we even post all of our board meeting notes there for people to read. We think this will help us build a community where our subscribers fully understand and empathise with our approach, and as a result, really champion what we’re trying to do.”

One way to achieve this is to consider your business model. Sustainable options include operating as a:

  • Charity – an organisation with a not-for-profit purpose
  • Social enterprise – a business that aims to have a positive impact in society, as well as generate profits
  • B Corp – business ideas operate with both charitable and profitable intentions, along with meeting the criteria required by B Lab, the certifying not-for-profit organisation that can grant B Corp status

Business case study: Olivia Sibony, CEO of SeedTribe

SeedTribe is an ethical investment platform. Here, CEO Olivia Sibony discusses how and why sustainability and business are connected.

How does your business promote sustainability in its operations, and why?

“SeedTribe only helps businesses that have sustainability at their core. We only work with for-profit businesses that address the United Nations' ‘Sustainable Development Goals' (SDGs) through their business model, and aim to produce positive and lasting social change. 

“We believe that business can – and should – be used as a force for good in the world, and has the potential to help us leave the world in a better place than when we came to it. This is what drives us, and all the businesses and supporters of our platform.

“In selecting businesses to work with, we don’t look at growth at all costs, if this is going to come at the expense of sustainability. If a business is going to leave a positive mark on the world, it needs to think carefully about the output of the business, as well as its business practices. 

“This can sometimes mean slower growth, but in the long term this should more than pay off, if good, ethical, sustainable business practices are embedded from the outset.”

What advice would you offer to other entrepreneurs who want to run a sustainable business?

“To embed sustainability in your business model, it boils down to three core principles:

1. Make sure to embed purpose into your business model. It's critical that profit is inextricably tied to purpose, so that you are fully focused on the social or environmental mission – and the more impact you have, the more profit you make. 

“If the social or environmental purpose is an aside, such as a “buy one give one free model”, this can be put at risk in turbulent times. And, it becomes too easy to lose sight of the impact you are having, when you are focused on making sure you can pay the bills at the end of the month. You need to ensure that profit is not at the expense of purpose, and vice versa.

2. It's particularly helpful to take a systems-based approach to the problem you are looking to solve. How does your business and mission fit into the wider context of the challenge you are looking to solve? Are there any laws of unintended consequences you haven't thought through? 

“For example, you could invent a biodegradable cup, but if it's not easy for a consumer to dispose of it, you'll end up creating more waste and methane and exacerbating the problem, despite your best intentions.

3. Finally, collaboration is key. The more we partner strategically, the more everyone can benefit: companies, societies, and the environment. Think about stakeholders, strategic advisors, and other companies you work with who can deliver a sustainable business model. 

“If values and goals are clear, transparent and aligned, collaborations are beneficial for everyone involved, and together everyone can grow stronger for the long term.”

Are there any myths about sustainability and business that you’d like to bust?

“It’s not philanthropy. We believe you can have a greater impact when your business model makes sense. Money is not a dirty word. Even though the motivations might be social, you need to ensure that profit is not at the expense of purpose, and vice versa.

“There is also a myth that sustainability can’t be delivered within a capitalist framework. Many of the most exciting startups winning financial backing have sustainability at their core. 

“Indeed, recent research we did showed rapidly rising interest in green business terms among investors. These are the lifeblood of early stage companies, and their backing can transform our economy, people, and planet.”

Summary

There are many steps your business can take to put it on a sustainable path – whether that’s operating with charitable aims as a priority, or being mindful of how much waste your business creates and how it’s disposed of. Not only that, your business can give back by becoming more involved in the local community, or by opting to use refurbished devices.

With so many aspects of sustainability to consider, knowing where and how to start can be confusing. Businesses should incorporate as many of these initiatives as possible. If every business was able to make just one or two sustainable changes, think of how much more environmentally friendly commerce could be! 

And, as the stats show, there remains a demand for green products and services. Companies that meet customers’ requirements, and help care for the planet at the same time? That sounds like good business sense to us.

Scarlett Cook
Scarlett Cook

Scarlett writes for the automotive, energy, hosting and website sections of the site. In addition, she promotes the newest small businesses by managing the Just Started profiles, and has also contributed to Tech Donut. Scarlett is passionate about championing equality and sustainability in business.