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A culture of sustainability: How small businesses can make an impact

sustainability small businesses

Growth is great, but growing greener is taking on a new urgency for mid-sized businesses against a backdrop of climate change awareness and uncertainty for our collective future. The UK government is urging SMEs to commit to the Net Zero goal as part of a global campaign, via its UK Business Hub, in order to promote more environmentally conscious ways of working.

While businesses are in growth phase, they still have the power and are nimble enough to make fundamental widespread company changes that can impact the direction of the business for years to come. They also have the power to develop a culture that fosters an environment that takes into account corporate social responsibility from the very beginning of the business’ conception – this is why planting the right seeds at SME size is so important.

SMEs’ combined environmental impact is in many ways more significant than big corporations’, according to recent commentary from The Open University, rendering them a mighty force to be reckoned with and also destructive in their aggregate carbon footprint.

Making changes is easier said than done, though; SMEs are typically less well-resourced and face challenges around implementing practices that make their operations more sustainable. This must be taken into consideration. That said, there is a clear opportunity for the collective firepower of small businesses to gain support from their partners and customers by shifting to a greener mindset communicated through their company culture and rolling out practices that can make impactful long-term changes.

Going green: people first

The term sustainability is often thrown around but drilling down into the social aspect of the concept is most relevant for smaller businesses in the growth stage. Mostly the conversation focuses on consumption costs and the environmental side of operations, but for green initiatives to make a real impact and meet compliance standards, businesses need buy-in from their people. Relying on people-power is especially important for mid-sized businesses; for a sustainability strategy to really work, they need to be onboard from the outset. Employee engagement means creating a set of shared values around the issue that everyone can get onboard with, and speaks to individual personal – as well as professional – values.

Sustainable business is about creating practices that can last, and much of this relies on the creation of a solid and nurturing culture. Creating a fabric of shared and realistic values helps motivate a cohort and in turn allows for a much higher margin of productivity. To enact real change, everyone in the business must be on the same page about shared goals and how to get there – a green ethos is achievable this way.

Offsetting and supply chains

Practical approaches to sustainability are often what’s missing and hard to achieve for smaller businesses – unlike their mighty corporate counterparts, it’s unlikely there’s a dedicated team monitoring for legislation changes like carbon tax rises and impending restrictions. A great way to demonstrate commitment to sustainable business is through investing in carbon offsetting schemes and packages, either locally or internationally. Funding projects that focus on reforesting and rewilding, for example, is a good way to do this.

Taking a step back and viewing the green credibility of supply chains can be a daunting task for SMEs – understanding how each piece of the overall puzzle contributes to your carbon footprint can cause headaches. However, now, many suppliers must be upfront and provide visibility by declaring their carbon emission status, which makes it easier to select the most responsible ones to work with. Making no compromises on your businesses’ shared sustainability values and culture must also apply to your wider supply chain, too.

A culture of shared values

People are at the heart of a business so their viewpoints on how to move forward in a sustainable way should always be taken into account and used to steer the ship. SMEs may not need to look as closely at carbon emissions produced by business travel programmes, for example, but when it comes to the cost of overheads, measuring consumption has become a lot harder since the shift to hybrid working.

Allowing for flexibility in work location underpins a healthy culture post-pandemic; it gives people the agency to make the best decision about how and where they work to provide the most value to the business. With this in mind, and to ensure flexible working can work from a sustainability standpoint, there are tools available like carbon calculators that can give a better idea of emission production which can help business leaders monitor energy consumption across the workforce.

Introducing a values-based approach for sustainable business is the best way to drive change, ultimately. A culture that openly discusses the best initiatives and routes to take in order to maintain a sustainable business strategy is guaranteed to thrive.

Honesty as policy

People want to work for companies that do the right thing. And involving them in conversations when it comes to determining the direction of the business is the best way to promote trust in where everyone is heading. Setting common goals on ethical decisions that impact wider communities will help to boost morale and could even mean that people are more likely to stick around to see how the business thrives as it scales up.

Businesses that demonstrate their green credibility and measurement also have a better chance of attracting and securing the next generation of talent, by being clear about their commitment to working in a way that is ethical and aligns with their own values, and being transparent about how they plan to get there if there’s still work to be done. Beyond the practical environmental benefits of sustainable working practices, creating a community culture of like-minded people is certainly the best way for a business to stand the test of time.

Committing to developing a culture built to last starts with a pledge – regardless of where you are in your journey, joining the Breathe Culture Pledge gives you the recognition and resources you need to take your culture to the next step.

This article is part of a paid partnership with Breathe, an HR software company.