Ducking the melting snowball

Why SMEs are coming unstuck on sustainability (and what they can do about it)

Sustainability. Government leaders, charity campaigners, and corporate bigwigs love speaking about it. Creative agencies and consultancies across the globe love pushing it. Sectors as diverse as Marketing, Hospitality and Retail have conferences dedicated to it.

It seems businesses and brands just can’t get enough of the green pill.

Or can they? A recent YouGov survey found that 40% of SMEs don’t have any sustainability plan in place – with reasons cited ranging from a lack of in-house skills/knowledge to limited funds for effectively tackling the issue.

So why does sustainability seem to be running aground in SME land? And how can smaller businesses play catch-up with the big boys? We decided to pick the brains of leading sustainability expert Sarah Greenaway (B&Q, Simply Health) to find out what’s going.

The sustainability Q&A

Our Managing Director, Dave Vann, decided to put some candid questions to Sarah to unpack what SME leaders are really thinking when it comes to sustainability…

So, sustainability…it can all sound a bit scary and overwhelming. Is that why so many SME leaders are struggling to make their move?
Absolutely. People are scared to look under the carpet; they’re worried about what they might find. Take the supply chain for example. The thinking goes: ‘Do I really want to know the answers I’ll get back?’ The reality is that sustainability often gets put into the ‘too hard’ folder because leaders are worried about how difficult the changes might be, and whether they even have the expertise to do what needs to be done.

My experience is that the reverse tends to happen. When we go in and do our work, there is actually a lot of relief when you find things aren’t as bad you feared; embarrassment actually turns to pride in what you are already doing. There is a positive story to tell within every business, because the truth is no one is ever starting from zero.

What is the real barrier holding SMEs back: lack of know-how or lack of funds? What does it really boil down to?
The two issues are really intertwined. A lot of businesses think: ‘We don’t have the skills in-house; we need to recruit a Sustainability Manager’. But for many businesses that probably isn’t necessary. The simple truth is that sustainability is a universal business reality you will need to understand and get to grips with. But it probably doesn’t require creating a new job role or setting up a new division of the business – just some new ways of thinking about everyday issues, and some measuring and tracking of things you’ve probably not thought of measuring and tracking before!

I know you like talking about the net savings businesses make when they invest in sustainability. How does that work exactly?
Any fears around the cost of tackling sustainability are pretty quickly eased by the unexpected savings uncovered on the way. Whether that’s reducing staff travel, finding energy saving measures, reducing waste, whatever – the savings are often there, and they often come quite quickly.

Add to that the cost of not doing anything – be that from rising energy costs or increase in environment taxes and penalties – and pretty soon it becomes a no-brainer, even from a purely commercial perspective.

Let’s talk about employees. I hear a lot of leaders say their people want the business to act on the climate crisis, but they don’t want it to impact their day-to-day jobs. How do you resolve that tension?
It’s true a lot of leaders worry about the ‘hassle factor’ associated with sustainability. They worry it will distract or overburden their employees. But in my experience, the opposite actually happens. When staff are really involved in sustainability plans and actions, they actually get really excited and motivated by what’s happening. There’s a real energy and enthusiasm there, and that often leads to some real innovation within the business.

I recently heard a leader ask (when discussing sustainability): “Will we have to commit to some unobtainable level of perfection?” That’s a valid concern for smaller businesses, right?
It absolutely is. I think there is this idea that businesses who shine a spotlight on sustainability somehow have to be perfect. But nobody is perfect. Everyone has to start somewhere; and being seen to be doing nothing is far worse than being seen to be doing something constructive, if imperfectly.

Another related issue here is the worry that sustainability means focusing on everything – including stuff that’s immaterial to the business. But that’s nonsense. You don’t have to focus on everything; it’s about focusing on the issues that are actually material to the business. These are the areas where your environmental or social impact is potentially high, and the potential impact on the business is also high. That’s the starting point for any sustainability plan, regardless of what size the business is.

From green pills to golden threads

As a communications agency focused on purpose, we know that words aren’t enough – proclamations and promises need to be backed up with real action. And there are few actions that speak as loudly as when a business gets serious about sustainability.

The good news is companies of all shapes and sizes are determined to make this issue a priority. A recent NatWest survey found that 41% of SMEs and 60% of large companies intend to make sustainability a “high priority” in the coming 12 months.

Our commitment? To team up with the likes of Sarah Greenaway (and other experts in this space) to challenge SMEs to walk the talk of purpose; to support them in finding new and innovative ways to positively impact people and planet.