Last reviewed 24 September 2019

Our planet has had enough, and it’s time for us to change our ways. Here’s an A–Z of how small businesses can seize the day, stay ahead and embrace the future.

Environmentalists have been calling out the impact that humans, governments and businesses are having on the planet for decades — there have been some victories, and some progress, but for the longest time the mantra has been that not enough is being done — and at a too slower pace. That mantra is as strong as ever, but there is certainly a wholesale change in public attitude. No longer is there any doubt of the level of mankind’s destruction — from climate change, to ocean’s of plastic, it’s painfully clear that time is out. We simply cannot sustain business as usual. Business as unusual has to become the norm.

That’s easy to say, but although businesses both big and small are starting to adapt, for smaller organisations this transition can be hard. Limited resources — both time and money — put very real restrictions on what can be achieved. So how do you start to change? Here, we outline some relatively easy ways to get started, and not only stay ahead, but ways to grow and thrive in our evolving world.

A — Are you ready?

Perhaps the biggest challenge of our time is that of climate change, and evidence now shows that global warming of 1.5°C is now the minimum we can hope for. No climate scientist would deny that global temperature rise is going to result in significant changes to our lives — and anything over 2°C is likely to mean that even rich countries are going to struggle. Current commitments under the Paris agreement will get us to 2.9°C at best, so if we are to limit global warming then unprecedented change in energy, land use, infrastructure and development will need to be seen across the globe. This means two things: we need to adapt to protect ourselves from the impact of climate change, and innovate to keep that rise as low as possible.

B — Be ready!

Any understanding of risk and opportunity starts with an assessment. To begin, consider adaptation — do you need to protect yourself from any risks of climate change? For example, risks to supply chains or increasing legislation (also see “U”).

Map these out and review potential impacts and any mitigating measures that have been implemented. Put them into a risk matrix, so that you are able to prioritise what needs to be done.

C — Changes to markets

Hand-in-hand with risk, comes opportunity. Yours might be the only supplier still able to locally deliver when floods hit, or changes in weather might mean there is more demand for your services. Your industry might be crying out for new technologies, solutions or different market models. Look to the future, and consider what changes might be expected — do these provide any new opportunities or ways you can grow your company?

D — Due Diligence

An environmental due diligence audit is a proactive way of assessing your environmental liabilities. The process involves an audit of current environmental risks and legal obligations. It can help check your organisation is compliant with any legislation and permits, as well as safeguard against any potentially costly environmental accidents.

With heightened public and government awareness, it’s likely that more legislation is in the pipeline — and from extended producer responsibility, to net biodiversity gain for developments, the Government is expecting industry to do more. Having a handle on your obligations will mean that you are better prepared for what is to come.

E — Environmental Management Systems

Not just for big companies, there are a number of Environmental Management Systems designed for small organisations that often don’t have the big environmental impacts — or the time — of their larger siblings. These often offer a phased approach to implementing a system, meaning you can work on it bit by bit. BS 8555 is one example.

F — Financing

From tax relief on energy efficient products through the Energy Technology List (but be quick — it ends in 2020) to zero interest Low Carbon Transport Business Loans in Scotland, there is finance and tax relief available to help fund low carbon development.

Funding opportunities do also crop up — The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and the Carbon Trust are good places to find out what is available.

G — Green-washing

No-one wants to be accused of green-washing. To avoid this, make sure any claims you make are backed by authentic and credible action. For example, don’t throw money at a community clean-up, but not properly recycle your internal waste.

H — Happy employees?

Your employees are likely to be one of your biggest assets. Surveys show that happy employees are more productive and likely to go the extra mile. And time and again, surveys show that companies that demonstrate that they care about society and the environment are more likely to tap into their employee’s innate need for purpose.

It can be a long journey for sustainability to go from a buzz-word to being integrated into how business is done, but in starting that journey you are likely to create a place where people will want to work — which, ultimately, will improve the bottom line.

I — Initiatives

Working with local charities and organisations can be a great way to kick-start some environmental projects. Try to find organisations that are aligned with your company values or speak to your employees about organisations they care about. There is bound to be any number of things you can do with little cost.

J — Just-in-time delivery

Innovations such as just-in-time delivery have helped manufacturing be leaner, both improving efficiency as well as resource management. As part of any sustainability planning, consider whether there are efficiencies that could be made in the organisation and conduct a cost-benefit analysis to see what savings could be realised.

Free advice does exist. From the Carbon Trust’s Energy Saving Support for SMEs to WRAP’s Resource Efficiency Tool, resources are out there to help develop new, more efficient way of working.

K — Keep it simple

Start small. Whether you decide to focus on energy efficiency, or single-use plastics, there will be some easy, cost-effective changes that can be made. Start with these and work up — some early successes will boost morale and confidence, and help pave the way for bigger projects.

L — Long-term planning

Although baby steps are a good way to get started, long-term planning still needs to take place. Climate change scenarios are often mapped out to 2050 – a much longer timeline than even big companies often consider. There’s lots of variables and uncertainty, but the longer ahead you can plan, the better adapted you will be.

M — Measure

As the old adage goes, what gets measured gets managed. To integrate sustainability into your business it’ll need to be incorporated into core objectives, values and strategies. Once it has a place in the overall aims of the business, it’ll need monitoring. Set some KPIs that align with objectives and foster more environmentally-orientated decision-making.

N — Natural Capital

Natural capital is the “stock” of natural assets such as air and water that provide services (often called ecosystem services) such as food or regulating natural hazards. Many of these services are underpinned by biodiversity — for example, more wild flowers, means more pollinators, which are vital for growing food. The Government has just proposed that any development should result in /a “net gain” for biodiversity. Although this policy only applies to the building industry, the principle is worth considering in your own organisation.

Sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs — consider whether the actions of the organisation will allow the young people of today to thrive.

O — Optimising for big business

Big businesses and the Government are starting to ask more of their supply chain, and being able to respond to these requests will provide a competitive advantage.

As well as basics such as demonstrating good environmental management and having a sustainability policy, it might be worth considering other initiatives. For example, greenhouse gas inventories might be required by clients implementing a science-based target, and clear supplier due diligence procedures might be required by clients keen to eradicate modern day slavery in their supply chains.

P — Plastics

Plastics, and especially single-use plastics, are impossible to ignore. However, a recent study by Keep Britain Tidy found that 40% of the 1000 small businesses surveyed had not done anything to reduce consumption, despite 70% saying that staff wanted to reduce their single-use plastic footprint.

Reducing plastic does not need to be difficult — a simple audit will outline where it is being used, and some staff workshops will help gather information about where staff would like to see changes. Steps such as making it easier for people to bring food from home, stocking the kitchen with mugs and cutlery, and providing office water filters can go a long way to help matters without much upfront investment.

Q — Quirky?

Worried that making the business greener and more socially responsible will be seen as more “hippy” than “hardline”? Don’t be. Putting the environment first makes financial sense too. From better resource efficiency (costing you less money) to better forward planning (helping grow the business) considering the environment is actually a sensible and cost-effective business decision.

R — Resources

Having the resources to implement change can be a big ask for small organisations, especially when there is so much else to do. The office manager is probably already incredibly busy with admin, and who else could take on that extra project? This is often the nub of the problem — and why it is absolutely crucial that an organisation understands how the environment fits into their overall goals and bigger picture.

For the stick, imagine a future where bills are higher and legislation is stricter, and as a carrot consider more enlightened customers that want to know what they are buying has been produced in a way that benefits the environment and society. In this world (which isn’t far off) all businesses will have to start incorporating sustainability into their overall objectives to win contracts, attract customers and retain talent.

S — Sustainable Development Goals

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals can be useful to hang a sustainability policy on as they provide a ready-made structure for environmental improvements. An organisation can look through the 17 goals, pick 2 or 3 that are most relevant and chose some activities that support them. From creating a green travel policy to encouraging staff welfare, the SDGs are surprisingly easy to promote within organisations of any size.

T — Tendering

When writing tenders or employing sub-contractors make sure you know what your suppliers are doing towards sustainability too. Your supply chain can be just as critical as the work you do directly.

U — Umbrellas on order

In the UK, climate change is likely to mean more extreme weather — which will mean flooding in some parts of the country and drought in others. Consider what this means for your business — what experience have you had of extreme weather before? Are your buildings and work processes resilient to impacts such as flooding and heatwaves? How sensitive are manufacturing processes to energy and water supplies?

V — Values

Your company’s values will be key to developing a sustainability strategy. If you have a clear idea about what the organisation stands for, then it can be much easier to develop policies and make improvements.

W — Waste (and recycling)

Make sure that your organisation is doing everything it can to reduce waste and implement the waste hierarchy. This means reducing waste wherever possible, before reuse, recycling and finally disposal. A waste audit can help identify where current practices are working, and where improvements could be made.

X — X-Factor

Have you got the sustainable X-Factor? Then...

Y — Yell about it!

Make sure you talk about your sustainability efforts on your publicity materials, website, and any company statements. Put yourself forward for awards and make your work known about. Customers want to know that companies care — and many studies have shown that, if given a choice, they’ll go for the more sustainable option.

Z — Zzzzz ...

Don’t be caught snoozing! Time is of the essence — attitudes, legislation and our planet are changing. From the resources available to us, to the legislation with which we need to comply, change needs to happen if we’re not to accelerate the world towards catastrophic warming. Everyone can, and should, be moving towards a more sustainable future. And crucially, it doesn’t need to cost the earth.