The issues of climate change and sustainability have become a point of urgency in recent years in the business world. For many large multi-national businesses, sustainability has risen to the top of the agenda, driven by increased consumer demand for sustainably sourced products.
However, while these big businesses see themselves as having a crucial role to play in driving sustainability, the picture amongst small businesses isn't necessarily so clear. In fact, according to our recent report on future-ready businesses, 47% of businesses we surveyed said that sustainability was ‘not a core priority’. But, this doesn’t mean that small businesses have a general apathy to sustainability. Instead, our research shows that the responsibilities around setting up and running a business can often take centre stage over other issues, sustainability potentially being one them.
It’s important to underline that taking a sustainable approach to business doesn’t have to be particularly arduous or time-consuming.
With COP26 fast approaching, we’re here to show how – with the help of our experts – how collectively, small businesses have the power to create real impactful change when it comes to sustainability. Here are three principles that our experts live by when it comes to running a sustainable business.
‘Consumers are looking for businesses with a purpose’
From working in a hedge fund in London to running a leading condiments brand, Rubies in the Rubble CEO Jenny Costa has always seen the value that a sustainability-led business can have. Having begun running farmers’ markets on weekends and selling chutneys made with her Mum’s old recipes, Jenny’s range of condiments can now be found in huge commercial settings, from restaurants like Jamie Oliver to supermarkets such as Waitrose.
But how has Rubies in the Rubble found success from putting sustainability front and centre? Jenny recognises that being environmentally friendly has become a key focus for many consumers. “Consumers are looking for businesses that have a purpose at their heart”.
With this in mind, Jenny says that it’s crucial that businesses strike a balance between maintaining their purpose and serving the customer if success is to be had. She gives the example of her latest product, ketchup made from surplus pears, saying, “to really make a difference in any business with a purpose, you need to serve the customer well, and I think the taste (of the ketchup) had to come first… but then maintaining our purpose, packing in as many surplus pears as possible without changing the taste, was also key.”
By serving her customers’ desires for a purposeful product without compromising on its quality, Jenny found the perfect balance when it comes to pushing a sustainable agenda while best serving her consumer base.
‘You wouldn’t run a marathon on cheap donuts and no sleep’
As mentioned earlier, many smaller businesses we spoke to said that sustainability wasn’t as key a priority as budgeting and defining strategy. However, Jessica Sansom, former head of sustainability at Innocent Drinks, believes that taking care of the environment is not only good for the planet, but can also be good for any business’ bottom line.
“Sustainability is more of a strategic imperative than a choice… a sustainable business model is one that recognises its reliance (on natural resources and people) and responds accordingly” says Jessica, who believes that investment in sustainable practices can bear fruit for businesses.
With Innocent Drinks fundamentally being a fruit and veg business, Jessica says a review of the company’s supply chains uncovered an agriculture industry in desperate need of support. In response, Innocent invested in sustainable agricultural practices to revitalise the businesses throughout their supply chain.
Jessica notes that while this was, “the right thing to do”, Innocent’s investment into these practices provided it with important benefits. “(Our investment in these sustainable practices) was a means to achieve greater security of supply, to have better business relationships, and, more often than not, have a higher quality of product”.
Comparing businesses to long distance runners, Jessica says, “you wouldn’t run a marathon on cheap donuts and no sleep. You’d look after your body to make sure you can pull it across the finishing line.” Similarly, the more investment small businesses make in sustainable practices and projects, the greater the benefit for suppliers as well as the businesses themselves.
As succinctly put by Colman Chamberlain, CEO of Unreasonable Group: “More people are being awakened to the fact that you can do well and do good at the same time”.
‘Pivoting to make the impact that is needed on our planet’
Whether it’s our constant battle with climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole world is at a point where action must be taken to overcome these challenges. For some businesses however, these challenges provide opportunities rather than problems.
As CEO at the Unreasonable Group, Colman Chamberlain knows all about making the most of difficult challenges. Unreasonable Group financially supports a wide network of entrepreneurs and businesses who are looking to tackle the world’s most pressing environmental and social issues.
When speaking at Those Who Dare, an event hosted by Vodafone Business, about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Colman noted that many of the ventures that Unreasonable work with have pivoted to create equipment to help key workers as part of their production process. In fact, one of the ventures, Richcore India, produced 5.5 million COVID-19 testing kits as a result of altering their supply chain.
Even in the face of one of the biggest challenges modern society has ever faced, Colman paints a picture of adaption and optimism when it comes to how businesses have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Whether our companies are pivoting to reach the impact needed on our planet… or whether they’re finding new avenues of growth and investment, almost of all our companies have found ways to thrive in this (pandemic)”.
In some cases, a few of Unreasonable’s partners have built successful business models based on the problems they wish to tackle. Fiona Spowers, CEO of Riversimple Movement, exemplifies this attitude of finding success at the heart of a collective problem. By providing customers with vehicles on a subscription-only basis, Fiona and Riversimple have developed a, “business model that encourages sustainability”, keeping resource usage to a minimum while prolonging the lifecycle of every vehicle used.
As put by Vinod Kumar, CEO of Vodafone Business, small businesses bring “an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to be bold and daring”. In a time where sustainability will remain front and centre, why not apply this small business mindset to global-sized issues?