homenews and insights how to be a sustainable business

How to make your small business more sustainable

Woman in cafe doorway

Everyone has a role to play when it comes to tackling the climate crisis, and small businesses are no expectation. The crisis has reached the stage where businesses no longer have a choice about whether they go green. It’s a case of when, rather than if.

The good thing is, becoming a sustainable business might not be as difficult or expensive as you think.

Here, we explain what a sustainable business is and offer some tips and advice to help your small business become more sustainable.

What is a sustainable business?

A business is described as ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ when they do business without negatively impacting the environment.

However, the University of Chester points out that being sustainable goes beyond being kind to the environment. A sustainable business should also be conscious of their impact on local communities and society as a whole.

Why is it important to be a sustainable business?

If it seems like more people are talking about doing their bit and changing the way they live their lives to achieve net zero, that’s because it’s true. According to research conducted by Funding Circle, 66% of UK consumers would spend more on a product if it came from a sustainable business.

And this shift in attitude isn’t a trend that’s going to go away. As the younger generations gain more purchasing power, businesses won’t have a choice but to change, or they’ll be overlooked in favour of more sustainable businesses. Even B2B companies are affected by these consumer attitudes, with the demands already starting to filter down to supply chains.

That’s why it’s important to adapt your business now rather than later and become recognised as a sustainable brand.

How to become a more sustainable business?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a sustainable business. Here are three things you can do to help you on your journey to sustainability.

1. Establish where you are now: Calculate your carbon emissions

We know that being a sustainable business goes beyond environmental issues. But understanding your business’s carbon footprint is a good place to start when you’re trying to become more sustainable.

Knowing what emissions you’re producing, and where you’re producing them, can be complex. Whether it’s the direct emissions your business produces from things like your gas boiler or company vehicles, to everything else in between that keeps your business running, your emissions come in all shapes and sizes.

Our carbon footprint calculator is free to download and easy to use. To get started, you’ll need your company’s energy bill. Then, you and your employees will fill out our free carbon calculator employee survey. After that, it’ll only take a few minutes to enter the data you collected, and your carbon footprint calculations will generate automatically.

Go to the free carbon footprint calculator

2. Put a plan in place: Create a sustainable business strategy

Whether you want to create a sustainable business plan, or incorporate sustainability into an existing business model, it stands to reason that there isn’t a blueprint that can be applied to every business. After all, no two businesses are ever the same; even if they’re in the same industry.

However, after using the carbon footprint calculator, you should have a clearer understanding of your current situation to benchmark where you’re at and identify areas to introduce changes and improvements. From there, you can ask yourself some simple questions to help you form the basis of your plan.

  • What are my goals?
  • What actions will I take to achieve my goals?
  • When do I want to achieve these goals?
  • How will I measure the progress of my goals?

Your goals should be ambitious, but it’s important to be realistic about what your business can achieve. Just remember to keep in mind the UK government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 when planning your timescales.

3. Make the changes: Implement positive changes in your business

Your sustainability plan shouldn’t be left to gather dust. After putting pen to paper, you’ll want to get to work straight away and start making positive changes within your business.

If you have employees, it’s a good idea to involve them from the offset. You’ll also want to let your customers and suppliers know that they might see some changes to the way you do business. As long as you frame it in a positive way, highlighting the long-term sustainability benefits, you should see an encouraging response from people.

The initiatives you introduce will be unique to your business. So, while there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to prioritising your actions, you should consider the cost and practicality versus the overall potential impact. And remember, there's no sense in trying to do too much all at once. It's better to focus on a few initiatives that will really make a difference.

Sustainability initiatives for business

Here are just some of the things small businesses can do to reduce their environmental impact and be more sustainable. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should give you some food for thought.

Travel
  • Replace petrol and diesel cars or vans with electric or hybrid alternatives.
  • Install EV charging stations at your premises for your and your employees’ cars.
  • Offer employees free or discounted public transport.
  • Continue home or hybrid working (where possible) to reduce employee commuting.
  • Arrange video calls to limit the time spent travelling to meetings.
Energy consumption
  • Switch to a 100% renewable energy tariff.
  • Upgrade old appliances and equipment with new, energy-efficient equivalents.
  • Install a smart meter.
  • Switch off your equipment, don’t leave them on standby.
  • Use an energy management platform to manage and forecast usage, like SSE Clarity.
Supply chain
  • Choose environmentally responsible suppliers (if they’re local to you, even better).
  • Use recycled or compostable materials in products and packaging.
  • Review service level agreements and remove unnecessary steps that decrease efficiency.
  • Shrink packaging as much as possible so trucks and containers can carry more products.
  • Think about sustainable product design (e.g., using fewer ingredients to shorten the chain).
Waste
  • Go paperless by running your business digitally
  • If printing can’t be avoided, use both sides of the paper, and use recycled paper and ink cartridges.
  • Provide accessible recycling bins for customers and employees.
  • Use real kitchenware, rather than disposable cups and cutlery.
  • Work with a dedicated recycling company so they can dispose of your waste sustainably.

Examples of a sustainable business

As well as having 100% renewable energy from SSE Energy Solutions, these small businesses are all making great strides in the sustainability space. Check out their stories…

Prickly Thistle

Prickly Thistle is a luxury tartan design house based in the Scottish Highlands. Their biggest barrier to going green was sourcing a sustainable power supply to run their 100-year-old looms, as well as all the other equipment and lighting. So, the solution was to choose a 100% renewable electricity contract.

However, founder and co-owner Clare Campbell explains why sustainability goes beyond renewable energy, saying: “We want to be as sustainable as possible. It’s hard work as a start-up, but worth it – I don’t think there’s another option. It’s about recycling, composting waste wool and so on. We’ve even said no to commissions that would have produced too much waste.”

The Scottish business heavily promote their green credentials on social media, more than their actual products. In years gone by, companies like Prickly Thistle would use their heritage and the Scottish clan system as their biggest sales tool. However, they’ve discovered that talking about sustainability is proving more powerful than the Scottish element.

Find out more about what the team at Prickly Thistle are doing by reading the full case study here.

The Warren

Deri Reed opened The Warren café and restaurant in 2016 with strong sustainable and ethical goals. “Sustainability is at the forefront of what we’re doing,” says Deri, who was the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s (SRA) Chef of the Year 2019/20. (The SRA works with businesses across the food industry to help with things like sustainable policy writing and staff training.)

The cafe is powered using green gas and electricity. And Deri thinks that more businesses would switch to green energy if they knew how easy it was and how little extra it would cost.

This sustainable ethos extends to The Warren’s supply chain. The small business chooses to work with companies and local businesses with similar ethical views. They buy a lot of their produce from independent, organic wholesalers. And the cooperatives they buy their staple ingredients from runs its hybrid trucks on biodiesel.

Read the full case study on The Warren to find out more about what they’re doing, including the sustainable technologies and initiatives they’re investing in.

Sustainability initiatives and government grants for small business

There’s almost £5 billion of funding available to help UK businesses as part of the government’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The funding will be awarded to businesses investing in green technologies to increase energy efficiency or reduce carbon emissions. The list is constantly being updated as new funding becomes available. You can find out what’s currently available to small businesses by visiting the government’s website here.

As well as government grants, there are loads of other organisations that can help your business become more sustainable. This help comes in many different forms including memberships, discounts, grants, and interest-free loans.

The initiatives available to small businesses vary depending on where you are in the UK. A good way to stay up to date with the latest sustainability initiatives in your area is to join your local chamber of commerce. This network exists so business can connect, support each other and share new share opportunities.

Being sustainable is good for business. It makes you more attractive to employees and investors and can also save you money in the long term.

Visit our small business sustainability hub for more tips and advice.

Please note, SSE Energy Solutions has written this blog for information purposes only. We recommend speaking to your own business and financial advisors directly before taking any direct action that will impact your business.