If you run a business, environmental issues seem so big that it could be easy to think that whatever you do when it comes to sustainability, it’s going to be inconsequential.
But every little bit adds up.
Millions of businesses have a big part to play if the UK is to become a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. And even if you don’t feel particularly green as a business owner, many of your customers might be.
Many businesses are trying to become more sustainable because there’s now a broader realisation across consumers that we need to reduce our carbon emissions by, for example, using renewable energy or buying energy-efficient products.
To help you think about ways to become greener, we’ve chosen 10 UK sustainable business owners that we think are doing a great job in driving sustainability forwards, both in their businesses and personally.
Here’s our 10 to watch in 2022:
Their businesses are tangibly making a difference to sustainability in the UK, whether that’s via improved energy use, reducing plastic, preventing food waste, supporting other sustainable businesses, reducing meat consumption, or through sustainable fashion.
As influential business founders, they also make a personal impact and continuously demonstrate their commitment to the cause by using their social influence to drive forward the importance of sustainability.
Read on for top tips from these top founders, whether you’re looking to build a sustainable business from scratch or apply sustainable principles to your existing one.
Here’s what we cover:
Investigate becoming a Community Interest Company (CIC)
With a traditional business, maximising profits is usually the goal. However, you may want to reinvest most of the profit you make into your sustainability mission and social objectives.
In that case, you might want to set up a Community Interest Company (CIC)—a type of limited company created with the specific aims of social enterprises and ‘not-for profit’ type projects.
CICs aren’t as challenging to set up as a charity and provide you with a limited company’s freedom.
However, you have certain requirements, such as a community interest statement and an ‘asset lock’—a legal promise stating that you can only use the company’s assets for social enterprise objectives.
Lizzie Carr MBE is the founder of a CIC called Planet Patrol, which she set up to help eradicate litter from nature using citizen science and community action.
She says: “Essentially, volunteers participate in free activities and wellbeing-based clean-ups [such as paddleboarding and litter picking]. Everything collected in terms of litter is recorded in the Planet Patrol app.
“This information is analysed by data scientists, all to help inform policy changes at government level—we launched a campaign to ban plastic bags based on our data insights—and work with brands to implement closed-loop solutions.”
Develop sustainable products
One path to sustainability is to decrease your use of wasteful single-use plastic, which is generally only used once before being thrown away or recycled.
Think of things such as plastic bags and hot drink stirrers, as well as fizzy drink and water bottles.
Steph Elswood is the founder of Sasstainable, a business that specialises in high-quality, reusable and sustainable products such as bakeware, coffee cups and bamboo cutlery.
She launched the business with a mission to provide ethically sourced and made products, encouraging customers to educate themselves and make minor adaptations to their lifestyle, which all has a positive impact.
The business initially launched with two products: bamboo cutlery sets and toothbrushes.
Steph says: “I wanted to start with these products as they were the main places where I slipped up—using plastic toothbrushes and grabbing cutlery when grabbing food on the go.”
The bamboo products got a positive reaction. And with a small team, Steph began to research other wasteful single-use products causing long-lasting effects on the planet. Their mission: to find reusable alternatives.
Sasstainable now has a full range of bakeware, household, and on-the-go items. Steph wants to grow the product range in the next five years, becoming a one-stop shop for reusable home/bakeware.
If you have a sustainable vision, you shouldn’t stop at providing sustainable products. Steph actively wants to collaborate with other sustainable businesses and charities.
She says: “We want to ensure that our customers are not only purchasing items to help them live more sustainability but that their money is contributing to help the environment.”
Stop wasting food
Food waste is a big problem.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third-biggest contributor of greenhouse gases after China and the USA. We throw away 70% of edible food (4.5 million tonnes) in the UK every year.
Whether supermarket, manufacturer, or restaurant, that amount of waste can’t be good for business or the environment. You reduce profitability as you had to pay for the wasted food first, and you lose money through the processes of disposing of it.
Emilie Vanpoperinghe and Deepak Ravindran co-founded Oddbox as a sustainable business trying to do something about the problem of food waste by using the ‘odd-looking’ local produce that ends up not being harvested or thrown into landfill.
Emilie says: “Food waste affects absolutely everyone and has a huge impact on the planet. My grandparents on both sides were potato farmers back in Northern France, so I’ve witnessed the time and effort spent to grow produce, especially through my dad working on the farm.
“For all of that time and work to end in food going back into the ground for reasons that have nothing to do with the taste and quality of the produce is just madness.”
Oddbox works with farmers and suppliers through a subscription service to pick up unwanted produce, sending it to homes and offices across the UK.
Although Oddbox has a sustainable business model, it’s also essential to have sustainable values in place.
Emilie says: “We try to limit plastic waste as much as possible, only putting it in our boxes if it’s been pre-packed by our supplier.
“For example, if we get a call saying a grower has surplus salad that he can’t shift, but it’s pre-packed, we make the call to take the food in plastic rather than seeing it all go to waste.
“Then we use 100% biodegradable bags if necessary for freshness and have fully recyclable boxes.”
That leads us nicely to our next sustainability tip.
Switch to sustainable packaging
Food and drink packaging is most often made with single-use plastic, significantly impacting the environment and our health.
Single-use plastic is more likely to end up in the sea than reusable options, and they don’t biodegrade—they break into micro-particles that contaminate the environment.
Safia Qureshi is the founder and CEO of ClubZero, which has a sustainable vision where returnable food and beverage packaging replaces single-use products.
She says, “I couldn’t see sustainable models around us that reused food packaging at scale. I could see outdated models for reuse that worked to some extent, but nothing that used technology.
“I couldn’t understand why there was this concept of using packaging for a very short space of time at the expense of convenience alone. The system felt wrong.”
ClubZero has developed a patent-pending reusable packaging system for food and drink (in-store, takeaway, and delivery)—a convenient and cost-efficient alternative to disposable packaging.
ClubZero creates a circular system by supplying reusable cups and to-go containers to cafes and restaurants.
After customers use these, they return them to drop-off bins, where the cups and containers are collected, washed, and returned to sites for reuse. Users register with an app, and retailers scan QR codes for every purchase.
Safia’s background has helped her develop the product, combining her interest in sustainability with her experience in design (she had previously founded a design agency).
In the coming years, your businesses will need to manage increasing demand for packaging materials with concerns about sustainability.
At the same time, you might need to adhere to regulations that governments will surely pass to combat climate change.
Look at opportunities to adopt sustainable packaging strategies, whether that’s through educating your customers about recycling best practices or using eco-friendly packaging materials and biodegradable alternatives.
Coffee company Grind has a sustainable online business focused on biodegradable coffee pods for Nespresso machines that can break down in compost or food waste bins. It also has a chain of cafes.
David Abrahamovitch is the CEO and founder of Grind, which initially started with a coffee shop in Shoreditch, east London before branching out to more locations around the capital.
It has since grown revenues online due to the popularity of the pods.
Pre-coronavirus, David was already planning to invest heavily in the pods, but challenges for the hospitality sector meant having a sustainable product people wanted to buy was crucial.
He says: “We got really lucky with the timing. Thank God we started that process when we did.
“In 10 years, we built this £10m turnover restaurant business, and then in 10 months, we built a £10m turnover B2C [business to consumer] business. Covid and our shift online changed the business forever.”
Abrahamovitch believes there is a fantastic opportunity for Grind’s compostable offering, pointing out that when you survey people using plastic pods, they say they “literally feel guilty every time they make one”.
“There aren’t great compostable alternatives out there,” he adds. “And consumers on both in the US care as much as we do in Europe.”
Switch to sustainable clothing
The fashion industry creates a large carbon footprint.
There’s a growing movement around sustainable fashion and the desire to change the way wasteful materials are used for clothing through unsustainable production.
The circular economy is central, as businesses need to change manufacturing processes for example, for this work.
Stay Wild Swim is a sustainable essentials and swimwear business founded by Natalie Glaze and Zanna Van Dijk. It’s going against traditional fashion norms with ‘slow fashion’—the opposite of fast fashion with an approach that considers processes and resources to create clothes.
Clothing pieces are created at a small zero-waste factory in London, using recycled materials with sustainability front of mind.
Natalie says: “It was something we wanted to explore together. We created an Instagram page to start putting feelers out and get people’s reactions and thoughts.
“When we designed our pieces, we wanted them to flatter all bodies, have a purpose, and most importantly, each element had to consider people and the planet.
“I think we thought we would test the water before we committed, but before we knew it, the business took on a life of its own. Everything snowballed.”
If you have an e-commerce business focused on fashion, it might be wise to think about sustainability, as many customers today will choose brands that are genuinely doing good things for the environment over those that are paying lip service.
Switch to renewable energy
You should explore the use of renewable energy to meet your business needs, while doing your bit for the environment.
There are sound business reasons for switching to renewable energy sources—fossil fuels are depleting and have a bad image due to their critical role in creating greenhouse gases.
In the UK, renewable energy outpaced fossil fuel generation for the first time in 2020.
Renewable energy generated by wind, sunlight, water, and wood made up 42% of the UK’s electricity compared with 41% generated from gas and coal plants together.
This transition to renewable energy permanently changes how we generate and use power.
There are opportunities for businesses that are clever and forward-thinking enough to take advantage.
Jo-Jo Hubbard is the co-founder and CEO of Electron. This business focuses on the trading of energy through digitally optimised marketplaces.
It’s an alternative to spending money on large-scale new energy generation, which could lead to huge costs and carbon inefficiencies for network utilities, energy service providers, and end consumers.
The company’s platform solution, ElectronConnect, supports the creation of marketplaces where businesses can procure energy services resources such as solar panels and battery storage, making better use of zero-carbon generation and limited grid capacity.
Electron has already developed local energy marketplaces in four different countries.
Jo-Jo’s background is in financing large-scale energy assets and digital transformation. Co-founder Paul Ellis had previously set up and run two global trading platforms in the financial markets.
Electron’s chief operating officer, Nicola Waters, has scaled two existing energy companies from tens to thousands of people.
Despite their different backgrounds, Jo-Jo, Paul, and Nicola were converging on the same energy system optimisation challenge.
Jo-Jo says: “We understand the various challenges and commonalities of the problem and are now transitioning the business to a subscription-based software model.”
Dance towards sustainability
Imagine using the power of dance to create renewable energy. Even if it’s more about getting people interested in sustainability in a fun way than powering the planet, it’s still worthwhile in sending a green message out to as many people as possible.
That’s the basic idea behind Pavegen, which generates energy through footsteps on specially adapted tiles.
The amount of energy is small—two to five joules per step. But it’s enough for customers who want to create participation-led experiences, where users can physically engage with sustainable initiatives, supporting messaging and discussion.
Pavegen has seen this business model work for brand activations, gamification, and experiential marketing, as well as smart cities and transport hubs across the world.
Currently, the business focuses on the events industry, providing a platform for artists, brands, and venues to showcase commitment to creating a more sustainable future.
Pavegen CEO Laurence Kemball-Cook initially started the business as a prototype in a Loughborough University lab, developing more than 750 more prototypes over 10 years. He’s succeeded in turning Pavegen into an international business with installations in 37 different countries.
He says: “I can proudly say we are the world leader in harvesting energy from footfall. The idea came to me travelling through London Victoria station every day. Unharnessed energy created by footsteps is wasted, and I wanted to do something about it.
“We understand we cannot power the world with Pavegen, but we can create captivating experiences that generate positive behavioural change by making people part of the solution.”
If you scale and build a more strategic business, you, like Pavegen, might start thinking about enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to help streamline business operations and optimise your planning and scheduling coordination.
For Pavegen specifically, ERP and accounting software supports its international end-to-end business processes, such as design and engineering, assembling the product in London, and managing finances to invoice clients.
How to get your sustainability message out to the masses
Sustainability is front of mind for savvy customers today, and the same should be true of business owners looking to thrive in 2022.
First, you need to understand how your business fits into the sustainable space, where you stand now, and what more you can offer. Customers will pick up very quickly whether your brand is intrinsically sustainable or whether you’re simply doing it to market to an eco-aware audience.
Solitaire Townsend is the chief solutionist and co-founder of Futerra, an international sustainability strategy and creative agency founded in 2001, with offices in London, New York, and Stockholm.
Futerra specialises in branding, strategy and behavioural change around sustainability, aiming to create and connect people with sustainable business solutions and encourage radical innovation across industries.
Solitaire says sustainable businesses need “inventiveness, imagination, experimentation, and creativity, rather than trying to engineer the old”. It’s also helpful to understand and listen to your customers’ thinking and what you can do to address their concerns.
Solitaire’s sustainability journey began at 13 when she joined Bedfordshire Against Nuclear Dumping, known as BAND, formed to fight a proposal to dump nuclear waste in her hometown.
“But it formally began at 23 with my master’s degree in sustainability,” she says.
“I’d always thought that my passions for communications and storytelling and my passions for social and environmental justice were irreconcilable, but during my masters was the first time I realised that those things could go together.”
Your sustainable brand might need specific green marketing strategies and creative direction. Think about promotional work, especially if you’re looking to set up educational events.
Emma Slade Edmondson leads ESE Consultancy, a creative agency looking to elevate brands focusing on environmental and social good. She’s the creative strategist behind successful campaigns that celebrate thoughtful fashion consumption, including Charity Fashion Live.
Emma was a creative director for Love Not Landfill pop-up stores and campaigns with the London Waste and Recycling Board, housing charity collections curated by influencers.
She says: “Love Not Landfill was focused on getting 16 to 24-year-olds into the space to consider second-hand clothes as a viable option, and to introduce them to sustainability fashion facts and stats.”
One of your sustainable business goals might be to educate your customers on the importance of sustainability and why it’s crucial to the planet.
Emma says, “Everything I do is with an eye on sparking and nurturing behaviour change.
“Many of the projects, campaigns, and strategies I work on for brands have some agenda that intends to open a conversation around sustainability with new audiences.
“Or it’s to educate, creating further appeal for sustainable, ethical and second-hand alternatives to fast fashion.”
Profitable and sustainable—a shared value opportunity
The subject of sustainability is broad, and what specific sustainable business practices you choose are up to you—no two strategies will be the same.
However, we can say that there is always a shared value opportunity with sustainability, where doing good can directly impact your business’s ability to do well.
There you have it, some insider tips from our top 10 sustainable business owners to follow.
What they all show is that you can build a positive impact while making a profit. Turn your objectives into a purpose, build your sustainability mission, and create a plan of action.
It may be a long journey, but it’s a worthwhile one—and the planet will thank you for it.
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