Although previously considered a somewhat abstract concept, sustainability has now reached ‘buzzword’ status in business practice, and its growth shows no signs of slowing. With the mounting awareness of corporate social and environmental responsibilities, businesses across all sectors and industries are incorporating sustainable business practices as part of the business strategy. And such initiatives are no longer conceived as merely well-intentioned.

When it comes to sustainability, however, the trickle-down effect is not common. Major corporations have the luxury of in-house sustainability teams. On the contrary, smaller businesses are not so privileged and are frequently limited by financial and temporal constraints, as well as limited sustainability know-how.

What are the challenges faced by SMEs?

In a constantly evolving marketplace, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) face various challenges to remain competitive. The world’s major corporations advance with sustainability initiatives (voluntarily or otherwise) to improve energy efficiency and reduce their environmental impact and SMEs too have looked to follow suit. But reports suggest that

70% of SMEs are struggling to turn their ambition into action.

A pressing reason is that SMEs often lack the resources available to their larger counterparts, making it far more difficult to affect change.

Recognising the importance of sustainability to a business is one thing but embedding it into the day to day operations can be challenging. This is largely the case in a society where progress is so often measured by the numbers on the balance sheet.

Here are some major barriers that SME’s come across when planning a sustainability strategy :

  • Money: At all levels, among the most important aspects of businesses in assessing potential investments are the upfront cost and return on investment. If it is not considered directly business-related, it will inevitably slip down on the business agenda.
  • Time: In a dog eat dog world, many business owners cannot afford to set aside the required time to implement such practices into their operations.
  • Sustainability know-how: Simply understanding which actions should be taken and where to focus attention is a significant stumbling block that many businesses face.

How can SME’s implement sustainability?

Despite these challenges, the tide is starting to turn. SMEs should view sustainability not as a burden, but an opportunity to better promote their business. In so doing, sustainable companies will attract the rapidly growing consumer group who are willing to pay more for environmentally-friendly products and services. Opportunities for SMEs in sustainability are many, from nominating a workplace ‘green champion’ to investing in energy efficient LED lighting and everything in between. Sustainability specialists are not necessarily required at every step of the process.

Recent triumphs in sustainability include:

  • Wyke Farms: The dairy business saves approximately £100,000 a year on energy bills by sourcing electricity from solar panels and biogas.
  • SABMiller: In the pursuit of building a responsible supply chain, the international brewing company have committed to promoting sustainable agriculture in Africa. The resulting product (Uganda-based Eagle Lager) has boosted smallholder farmer income and contributed to investment in education and healthcare across the region.

Both initiatives were recognised at the 2016 Guardian Sustainable Business Awards.

Moreover, recent studies indicate that among the best things businesses can do to boost investment capability is to voluntarily publish details of their environmental impact. A good start for small businesses stepping towards sustainability is to consider environmental certification. A certification programme allows companies to address their obligation to curtail their environmental impact by voluntarily following a set of defined measures and targets.

Small business environmental certification

The mantra of ‘grow first, then go green’ is dated. Businesses are gradually appreciating the win-win situation on offer of reducing both costs and emissions. A carbon footprint allows you to bring these together and agree on targets to make real improvements. At Avieco, we have helped hundreds of small businesses to start their sustainability journey and enhance their business’ performance through our Certification programme. Conventional wisdom suggests that for SMEs, the associated costs outweigh the benefits. Carbon Smart programme transcends this outlook by breaking down the barriers faced by SMEs. In doing so, it equips small businesses with the simple and practical tools to become a more sustainable organisation. This will afford SMEs a more holistic view of their operations, by providing:

  • Improved understanding of resource consumption data
  • Improved data quality
  • Understanding of carbon footprint and greatest areas of impact
  • Fully developed environmental policy
  • Consultancy support to identify priority areas for action
  • Tailored action plan for the next 12 months and beyond
  • 3rd party recognition and certification to demonstrate progress

Sustainability is achievable, and your business can also become a part of this change.

All that is required from you is ambition and a clear vision of what you want to achieve. This will help you to improve business performance, enhance your reputation and demonstrate environmental responsibility to stakeholders. Being green, it seems, does pay off.

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more than a word.

We get that change is not easy. But we must be brave, challenge old ways, set new habits, embrace new thinking.