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Small companies, micro-enterprises and sole traders make up over 99% of Britain’s business population and play a significant part in how the UK tackles climate change. 

But, despite the climate emergency, small businesses have been slow to prioritise sustainability. Many are reluctant to go green due to increased costs and uncertainty about how to find the right solutions.

Becoming a more sustainable enterprise needn’t be a headache, though. Nor should it be a hollow PR exercise to attract eco-conscious consumers. Demonstrating your company is actively reducing its impact on the environment can help you build brand awareness, create customer loyalty and, ultimately, save money. It can also create a competitive advantage.

Whether you’re a side-hustling sole trader or an ambitious start up, we’ve highlighted six steps to kickstart your sustainability journey.

1. Mind your language 

Before embarking on your mission to become a sustainable small business, it’s important to get familiar with climate terminology. Don’t feel confident explaining the terms ‘carbon footprint,’ ‘carbon neutral,’ ‘offsetting’ and ‘net zero’? Look at an online glossary, like this one from Vision 2025.

If you’re already making eco-conscious business decisions, it’s understandable that you’d want to shout about it, but be careful what you claim. If your services and products have minimal or no positive impact on the environment, you could be accused of ‘greenwashing’ – exaggerating the effects of sustainability initiatives for marketing and public relations.

To avoid greenwashing, follow the government’s green claims code to communicate authentically. What’s more, don’t overstate any sustainability efforts that you can’t back up with evidence.

2. Level up your green skills 

Developing your sustainability skills is an important preparatory step before auditing your business. While there is no shortage of sustainability consultants willing to offer advice, this sector is currently unregulated, and some so-called ‘experts’ may not be qualified. 

The best way to judge whether a sustainability consultant is worth their fee is to build your own knowledge first, says Martin Spiller, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Cranfield School of Management. “Start with a bit of education,” he says, and then decide if it’s a good use of your time. “Or can you earn more by doing your thing and then bring in somebody else?” he adds.

For reading about sustainability, without getting too technical, Spiller recommends the UK Business Climate Hub website, as well as the Carbon Trust. It’s also worth searching for sustainability courses provided by universities and charitable trusts, some of which may be funded in your local area. 

Wherever you’re based in the UK, online courses in business sustainability are available to suit different budgets. For example, Birmingham Enterprise Community offers a Transition to a Sustainable Business course, which costs £600 for 60 hours’ training.

Spiller teaches Cranfield’s 18-week Ready for Net Zero Growth programme, which costs £4,750, but scholarships are available for businesses that meet certain criteria. 

3. Start small

Measuring your carbon footprint to offset your emissions is a great green aspiration, but for many small businesses, the complexity and cost mean this isn’t a quick win. 

Don’t be disheartened: Tracking your consumption of electricity, gas and water is a solid place to start, says Robert Bowey, technical director of Marka, a sustainability ratings provider supporting small businesses in the hospitality sector.

Recording the energy and water you use now means that you’ll have the data you need when you’re ready to complete a full carbon audit in the future, Bowey explains.

4. Look for money-saving sustainability hacks

One of Marka’s clients is Axis, a micropub in Gateshead, which has been looking at its water usage. This type of business can save over £100 a year on water by adjusting the flow of water from their taps and toilets, while still meeting hygiene standards.

Electricity savings are also easily achieved. “Switch off your screens at the plug rather than just letting them go into standby mode, or turn your Wi-Fi off when you don’t need it. These are all things that [can] save you money,” says Spiller. If you’ve invested in LED lights and a timer for your office, in a year they’ll have paid for themselves in the electricity you’ll save, he adds. 

When investing in new equipment for your business or replacing outdated kit, start checking energy ratings. Whether you’re buying a washing machine, a computer or a car for your business, factoring energy efficiency ratings into every purchase is a key step towards going green.

5. Build sustainability into your business plan

Going green isn’t just about easing your conscience or your cash flow; there is a strong business case for incorporating sustainability goals into your strategy early on. And, the smaller your business is, the easier it is to do.

It takes a lot of time and planning for large corporations to implement sustainability into their operations. But, as a start up embracing sustainability from the outset, you’ve already got a head start, Bowey explains.

“Sustainability might be one of, if not the number one advantage for a start up business because it is so difficult retrospectively for other businesses to implement properly,” he says. 

Small firms that wait too long to begin their sustainability journey could face higher costs in the future and may miss out on the opportunity to engage with eco-conscious consumers, such as the purpose-driven Gen Z (born around 1995 to 2010) and Generation Alpha (born from the early 2010s to 2025), Spiller warns.

6. Paint a greener picture of your brand

As more small businesses take steps towards going green, UK consumers are showing their support by choosing sustainable options. Marketing data and analytics company Kantar conducted 32,000 interviews in 33 countries for its Sustainability Sector Index 2023. It found that 50% of consumers have reduced their spending or stopped buying products and services because of their environmental or social negative impact. It’s for this reason that Kantar says sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have for businesses; it’s a strategic imperative and a commercial opportunity.

However small your business is right now, it could pay to put a sustainability score on your door.

For pubs, cafés and coffee shops, Marka’s sustainability rating system aims to help businesses attract “the 70% of consumers actively seeking sustainable options”. For those keen to demonstrate a positive social impact, as well as being environmentally friendly, it may be worth looking into becoming a B-Corp.

According to Spiller, any action businesses can take, however small, is a step in the right direction. “Don’t get too hung up on being exactly right. Because if we all just did a little bit, we’d be better off.”

Image source: Getty Images

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