Sustainable solutions for SMEs

Sustainability and CSR are not just luxuries for large companies but are accessible to small businesses too, argues Liam Kavanagh.

Organically-grown onions have a lot to answer for. There is a residual belief in the UK that an environmental conscience is expensive. The truth is that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not just a reporting requirement or public relations luxury for large companies with deep pockets but an activity that is accessible to small businesses, even having the potential to save them money.

In fact, there are compelling reasons for small businesses (SMEs) to become more environmentally aware: in 2012 the European Commission calculated that the continent’s SMEs were responsible for no less than 64 per cent of European pollution. So, no matter how small your business, you should probably be reducing its carbon footprint and improving your bank balance into the bargain.

Even if you are a sole trader or launching a start-up from your shed, there are strategies you can implement from day one. In order to preserve energy, you can insulate the walls of your office or shed and install double glazing. In addition, a smart meter helps to identify when and why your electricity consumption rises and rooftop solar panels can provide power, even on cloudy days.

Andrew Pilkington Architects suggest double glazing, extra underfloor insulation and roofing vegetation for good temperature control. Roofing vegetation has the additional benefit of consuming carbon dioxide by day and reducing the carbon footprint of the business. Economy packages of heat and electricity can be purchased from independent energy companies that supply their power from renewable sources.

So much for facilities management. There is plenty to be done elsewhere: the IT department, for example. How much power do your desktop computers, laptops and servers consume and can this be reduced by more efficient storage or cooling? Is it absolutely necessary to have everything on site, using up valuable space and generating heat? Come to that, is it absolutely necessary to have all your staff on site all the time? Flexible working arrangements can result in extended office hours which please customers while permitting staff to work around their family or other commitments.

Reducing emissions

If you have a meeting planned and one of your staff is not due in at that time, videoconferencing is an under-used and powerful ally. Indeed, when asked to describe its industrial activity, Tandberg, the Norwegian teleconferencing company that was acquired by Cisco in 2010, used to define itself not as an IT or electronics company but as an environmental business. When you calculate the carbon dioxide emissions saved by not driving or, worse, flying, to an appointment, the logic is clear.

When employees do come to the office, it should be possible for some, at least, to cycle to work. The UK’s national Cycle to Work scheme allows business owners to loan bicycles to their staff via salary sacrifice. Employees benefit from access to good quality cycling kit worth up to £1,000 which is normally paid off within 18 months. Thanks to lowered National Insurance contributions, employers save 13.8 per cent of the total sum of salaries sacrificed. Fitter workers and zero emissions. Good for productivity and good for the ozone layer.

For those that live further away, most rail operators will admit a limited number of bicycles and many turn a blind eye when that number is exceeded, as long as there are enough seats for foot passengers. Residents of remote, rural locations may have no option but to travel by car but car-sharing should be possible via websites such as, even if the company is too small to create an internal car club.

And what about the issue of waste? The truth is, most of us have no idea how much we throw away. According to Waste Watch, everyone in the UK throws away their own bodyweight every seven weeks. And the Confederation of Paper Industries gives 12.5 million tonnes as the amount of paper and cardboard disposed of annually in the UK.

The power of recycling

The Federation of Small Businesses is currently lobbying the government for concessions from local authorities that would allow SMEs to access household waste recycling centres that are currently out of bounds for commercial enterprises. Until that happens, WRAP, the charity that helps businesses of all sizes to reduce waste and recycle, stresses that there are measures that employers and employees can take that have more of an effect than they might imagine. WRAP cites the example of Caret, a Birmingham-based consultancy that generates a lot of waste paper. Rather than consigning this to the general commercial waste collection service, the paper is now collected by a local recycling company and, contrary to popular belief, is not an expensive solution. Alison Marland from Caret comments, ‘Had we realised what good value it is, we would have done it a lot sooner. I don’t think people are aware of how easy and convenient recycling at work can be.’

And if further encouragement were needed, financial help is available. The government runs a number of schemes to promote the greening of business and the European Union runs even more. Information is available from the Business Support or Enterprise agencies operated by most local authorities. One example is the Low Carbon Business Evolution Programme, recently launched by Staffordshire County Council. SMEs will be eligible for up to £10,000 in capital grants for introducing energy efficient modifications to their businesses. There is even assistance available for consultancy fees related to emissions reductions.

So there is really no excuse for Britain’s 4.9 million SMEs to keep thinking that they are too small to make a difference. Time to get some sedum on the roof and some solar-powered headlights for the fleet of office bicycles.

Liam Kavanagh is founder and CEO of Rockfire Capital.

Further reading on sustainability

Ben Lobel

Delphine Hintz

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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