SMEs: improving sustainability while cutting costs

For most small businesses right now, the focus is likely to be on cutting costs – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of sustainability. We look at some measures SMEs can take to improve their impact on the environment while also saving money.

Share your workspace

This route has brought both financial and environmental benefits for Manchester-based Influx Digital, according to founder James Whittall: “Our shared WeWork facility in Manchester Spinningfields is a great space for collaboration and means we’re sharing resources with other like-minded people and businesses, with the benefit of all our basic utilities being included. It’s far less expensive and less wasteful that it would be to own an independent office.”

Knowing they can fill space easily means most providers offer short-term agreements, and if you need to scale up or down at short notice, you can do so without needing to find a completely different building.

Encourage flexible working

And with a slightly smaller but fully functional space, Influx Digital can allow its team to be flexible with when and where they work, while still adhering to the current Covid-19 guidelines. This is essential amid all the uncertainty we’re experiencing now, when short-notice announcements require companies to adapt quickly, but it will also be beneficial in ‘normal’ times.

“Our team comes into the office as and when they want; it’s not ever compulsory,” Whittall explains. “We’ve found this way of running things to be so much better for a healthy work-life balance, and of course with less commuting, it’s so much better for the environment.”

Reuse your materials

Clothing retailer Pure Bundle employs this tactic in a couple of different ways: firstly by selling pre-loved items and offering to buy them back from customers, and also by sending all orders out in reusable packaging.

“Reusable packaging is more expensive at first,” concedes CEO and co-founder Sally Giblin, “but it starts to become more cost-effective after a handful of cycles.”

“Take our reusable packaging from [supplier] RePack as an example. Our large reusable packs cost around £3.66 each, whereas a standard brown box would cost about £0.74. Sure, RePack is five times the cost – at first. But, once you factor in that RePack can be used for up to 40 orders, you actually start saving money once you pass five uses. With parents purchasing around every three months, it takes a reusable pack about 15 months to become cost-efficient.”

Limit travel, and make essential journeys greener

According to the latest government data, transport accounts for around a third of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK – and that’s without including international air travel and shipping. By minimising your own business travel, or at least changing your methods, you can play a part in reducing this figure and save money.

We are completely paperless apart from the odd bit of post we receive. It’s easier for us than most to commit to this but it does mean little-to-no spend on stationery

James Whittall
Founder, Influx Digital

“One of the measures that really helped us to achieve environmental benefits and cost savings has been switching our fleet to hybrid and fully electric vehicles,” says Donald Moore, chair of schoolwear manufacturer Rowlinson Knitwear. “We’ve also reduced our road and air travel by arranging more online meetings – something we’re all familiar with these days!

“Just be sure to educate your employees on the climate crisis and how they – and you as a business – can make a difference,” adds Moore. “Measures without an understanding of the ‘why’ behind them will never be truly successful.”

Sign up for a reliable cloud service

The idea of going paperless is nothing new, but now could be the perfect time for one final push towards storing everything digitally. Tablets can be used to store and present near-infinite documents, and staff can even share their screens in video meetings – the excuses to keep using that printer are dwindling.

“We are completely paperless apart from the odd bit of post we receive,” Whittall says. “It’s easier for us than most to commit to this but it does mean little-to-no spend on stationery, and the shared printing facilities in our office still suffice for those rare occasions when a client requests something in physical format. Everything is on the cloud and accessible wherever, whenever, so it helps with our flexibility as an employer, too.”

Take your production back to basics

Ditching expensive production methods can also make a big difference to your environmental impact, as it has for ethical fishmonger Sole of Discretion. “We’ve gone backwards in time by hand processing fish as we do, rather than rely on heavy machinery,” says owner Caroline Bennett. “Not only does it take a lot of carbon to create the machines, it takes a lot of energy and water to run them.”

And while this approach might not work for a large company, it can be financially beneficial if you’re happy leading a smaller operation. “It comes down to scale I think: if you are happy in the small to medium, people-dependent sphere, then less machinery may make you more efficient,” Bennett says. “After all, machinery breaks, and it can become obsolete quickly if your market changes unexpectedly. It also costs money to run, and parts and servicing can be expensive – so for us, hand processing works well.”

Make yourself accountable as a B Corp

Consider making yourself – and your green credentials – accountable to someone else.

Stockport-based Rowlinson Knitwear did that by becoming part of the B Corp movement, as chair Moore explains: “As a B Corp, we’re legally required to consider the impact of our decisions on the environment as well as our workers, customers, suppliers and the community. That means sustainability is built into everything we do and every decision we make.

“And this doesn’t mean we’re compromising our financial performance, either – in fact, we’re growing and increasing our profits. Perhaps in part because consumers appreciate the measures we take to be sustainable.

“We strongly encourage all companies to explore the benefits of becoming a B Corp, as its robust assessment processes ensure that organisations can’t greenwash, and that all decisions are made with sustainability in mind.”

And even if B Corp status isn’t for you, be sure to explore the different ways in which the government supports and incentivises green business practices. Adopting certain measures or reaching specific targets might reduce the amount of tax you need to pay, for example. For more information on environmental taxes, click here.

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