What “sustainable business” means for SMEs

Discover what it really means to be a "sustainable" business in the modern world.


Sustainability is a concept which is present in nearly every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s the reusable cups we drink our coffee out of or the renewable energies that power our homes, sustainable practices and policies are now the norm. The same is true in business.

In our recent report, 67% of the business we surveyed said that they were working on improving their sustainability, with almost all business with over 50 employees now investing in sustainable practices.

But while many businesses across Europe are making the push to go green, what does sustainability actually look like in the context of a small business?

If you’re not sure, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered with a quick guide to what sustainability in small business is, why it matters and how you can get started.

So, what does sustainability actually mean (for a small business)?

Due to its complex nature, sustainability means different things to different people. And it becomes more complicated when applied to the business world. For the most part, this is because sustainability can take many different forms. From using local or sustainability-driven suppliers to using packaging made from recycled materials, sustainability is a shapeshifting concept in practice, with no two companies necessarily following the same policies and practices.

According to the Harvard Business School (HBS), sustainability in business refers to ‘doing business without negatively impacting the environment, community or society as a whole.’ More specifically, the HBS believes that sustainability in business breaks down into two main categories: the effect business has on the environment; and the effect business has on society.

Ultimately, the goal of any sustainability policy is to produce a positive impact in one or both of these areas.

Why sustainable business matter?

While sustainability in decades past was a much smaller aspect of the business landscape in general, the issue of climate change has driven sustainable policy to the top of the agenda. With the recent release of the United Nations’ IPPC climate change report, the threat that global warming poses to our planet has never been clearer, with scientists and world leaders stating that humanity can no longer stand idle in the face of this monumental challenge

The conversation around climate change will come to a head at this year’s Conference of the Parties, also known as COP26, where the world’s leaders and top scientists will meet in Glasgow to negotiate and (hopefully) agree upon global sustainability goals. And while this may seem like an event that only applies to players at the international level, COP26 will set the global attitude towards climate change for decades to come. As such, it’s the duty of everyone, from individuals to small businesses to governments, to do their part and aim high when it comes to going green.

In fact, in the context of small business, driving a sustainable agenda can not only be a benefit to the environment, but also your business as well. For example, Jessica Sansom, former head of sustainability at Innocent Drinks, said that by installing sustainable policies, such as working with greener suppliers, Innocent saw the quality of their products increase. So, if a business like Innocent can benefit from going green, why can’t yours?

How to get started?

With the stage set by COP26 and the release of the latest UN report, where should small businesses start when it comes becoming more sustainable? Here are a couple of tips on how to start your journey to becoming a greener business.

Making a business sustainability plan (BSP) - Like everything, building a plan of action is always a good place to start. The same applies to investing more into sustainable practices. A BSP can help provide the direction your business needs to create both environmental and societal sustainability. Plus, developing a BSP will also build out your knowledge on sustainability, putting you and your business in a better position to positively impact the world around you.

Setting goals – With a plan in place, adding ambitious goals can help you gauge your business’ progress towards becoming a more sustainable business. What’s more, these goals are a great way to show your green intentions to your customers, with modern consumers always looking for businesses who are driving a sustainable agenda.

But your sustainability development goals (SDGs) don’t have to meet the level set out by multinational businesses or governments. No two businesses are the same, meaning that your SDGs aren’t necessarily going to be the same as another business’. Setting achievable goals, such as cutting your business’ use of plastic by a certain percentage, is crucial for sustainable success.

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that being sustainable is not as easy as it sounds, particularly for a small business. But going green doesn’t mean you have to invest everything into being sustainable. While it’s great to drive sustainability as much as possible, we know that the extent to which each business can be sustainable is never the same. So, do whatever you can, no matter how big or small. Because any change is better than no change.

Looking to kick-start your sustainability journey? Read our article on how to boost the sustainability of your business, or speak to one of our V-Hub Advisers to help you with your first steps.

Sustainable Business Growth For SMEs

Discover guidance on sustainable growth for SMEs with WWF and The Carbon Trust.

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