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A guide to setting up your small business sustainability plan

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Small business sustainability isn’t a passing trend. It’s here to stay.

So, it’s crucial that you understand what sustainability means to your small business and make it central to your everyday activities and the decisions you make.

The race to a net zero carbon economy by 2050 is well under way. And as a small business owner you’ll want to play your part in getting there. This is where setting up, and using, a sustainability plan for your small business comes in.

You’ll find that using a sustainable plan in your small business isn’t just good for the planet.

Being sustainable will help your small business be economically viable, socially responsible, and environmentally conscious.

Done well, it will also work wonders for your brand reputation, and can help you to meet the demands of your customers, spot new opportunities, and even help attract and keep talented staff.

In this guide, you’ll find out why sustainability is too important to ignore, how to set up a sustainability plan for your small business, and sustainability initiatives you can realistically tackle.

Here’s what we cover:

Why small businesses should care about sustainability

What is a small business sustainability plan?

Reasons for setting up a sustainability plan

Small business sustainability initiatives

FAQs on small business sustainability

Sustainability can be described as providing for your business without compromising the needs of the planet.

You need to ensure your small business remains financially stable but also has no negative impact on the environment.

There are lots of reasons why you should care about sustainability.

By setting up a sustainability plan for your small business, you can expect a wide range of long-term benefits, including:

Meeting the demands of your customers

This is a no-brainer.

Consumers care about environmental and social issues and expect businesses to do so as well. In fact, many will only buy from companies that meet these expectations.

Quite simply, having a sustainability plan isn’t just the right thing to do, it will also help create a competitive advantage for your small business.

A reduction in your costs

Who doesn’t want to reduce their outgoings?

It makes smart business sense to reduce your overheads as much you can, and the way you deal with your energy use, water, and waste will potentially save you money.

A good sustainability plan helps you identify where these savings can be made.

Complying with the law

Large businesses must comply with a range of legislation, and it’s probable that that future legislation will also affect small businesses, too.

As it’s likely you will have to adhere to more regulations, having a sustainable plan will be a crucial part of running a successful small business.

Enhancing your image

Naturally, you want to stand out from the crowd. And, with an estimated 5.7 million small businesses in the UK alone, this is no easy task.

Increasingly, consumers take a company’s environmental strategy into account when making buying decisions.

So having a sustainability plan in place will help to show that you not only take this issue as seriously as your customers but will also highlight that you have something unique to offer, and are striving to make a difference.

Improving employee retention and recruitment

High-performing employees are attracted to businesses that are making a difference in the world.

So if you want to attract and retain talented staff within your small business, you’ll need to be able to prove that you’re giving something back to make the environment, and our society, a better place.

Attracting funding and investments

Securing funding and investment can help your small business grow and thrive.

A sustainability plan will give confidence and assurance to potential funders and any other stakeholders that you care as much about the environment as your profits.

Investors recognise the value in a sustainability plan and the benefits it brings, and it’s often a requirement they look for.

Now you have an idea of the benefits that sustainability can bring to your small business, it’s time to create a sustainability plan to make your business even better.

Every industry and business works in different ways, so it stands to reason that there isn’t a sustainable plan blueprint that can be applied to every small business.

However, like all good plans, your sustainability plan should include:

  • The goals you want to achieve
  • Actions you’ll take to achieve your goals
  • Ways to track your progress.

The best plans ensure that actions are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time limited (SMART).

Key performance indicators (KPIs) will help you track progress. They are a key element of your plan and a good way to see whether your actions are working or if you need to change anything.

Bearing this in mind, your sustainability plan could include:

Your goals and how you will track progress

It makes sense to do an analysis on your current situation to benchmark where you’re currently at and identify areas to introduce changes and improvements.

You will need to know how you will track any improvements by using KPIs.

So, for example, if you want to reduce the amount of waste that you produce and ensure unavoidable waste is disposed of correctly, you could think about introducing recycling bins, finding ways to reuse unwanted IT equipment or stationery in your office, or upcycling other used or unwanted materials.

To track this, you could look at how much money is saved over a specific amount of time by reducing the costs associated with waste disposal or the amount of avoided waste being sent to landfill.

The actions or initiatives you want to include

This is where the fun starts.

The combination of actions and initiatives you choose should be as unique as your business and fully support your sustainability goals.

Make sure you ask for input from employees, if you have them.

Brainstorm with them and make them your sustainability champions to encourage them to support and promote the plan.

Even if you don’t have staff, why not ask trusted customers, suppliers, or a business friend or mentor to give you feedback on your ideas?

Think about the actions and initiatives you want to introduce and include a detailed description for each one on your plan.

Try and prioritise them based on impact, practicality, and any costs they may incur.

They could cover any area of your business that you think you could improve, including your people, processes, your supply chain, any materials and packaging, as well as introducing ways to reduce your energy consumption, water use, waste production and disposal, carbon emissions, fuel, and transport.

Ways to carry out your plan

Do you have the right knowledge and information to be able to carry out your actions?

Check if your staff are happy and able to help.

Do they need training for example, or do you need to task one of them with being a sustainability champion for the business?

Think about how you will communicate your plans, both internally and to your customers, and the wider world.

Above all be honest and transparent. If you’re just starting out and aren’t 100% there yet, let your staff and customers know that you’re working on it.

The reasons for setting up a sustainable business plan and, more importantly, using it, will put your small business on the right road to ensuring you minimise your negative impact on the environment, while enjoying all the other benefits we’ve mentioned earlier.

There are many ways for any small business to set up a sustainability plan, and yours is no different.

Remember, your sustainability plan is just the first step and shouldn’t be left on a shelf to gather dust.

It’s important that you use your plan.

After all, you’ve taken the time to come up with some ideas and initiatives to help you become a more sustainable business, so it’s vital to carry out the actions you have decided on and review them regularly to make sure they are making the right impact.

Think broadly across all areas of your business to identify where you can apply realistic sustainability initiatives.

To get started think about your:

Energy

How much energy do you consume, and can you use less?

You’ll find many ways to reduce your energy consumption from switching traditional lighting with energy efficient LED lights and installing lighting timers or sensors to replacing or refurbishing inefficient IT equipment.

Other clean alternative energy sources you could adopt to generate your own energy include solar panels and biomass boilers.

Office resources

Go paperless if you can and instead of binning unwanted or unused stationery such as folders, paper, stickers, staplers, or pens, reuse them where you can or donate them to a local school or charity.

This also applies to any unwanted office furniture or IT equipment you have.

Equally, instead of always buying new, why not investigate where you can either repair or upcycle what you already own or buy pre-loved in a charity or antique shop?

Warp It, for example, is an online community that puts this into practice by helping businesses swap office furniture and equipment.

Products and packaging

Do you use sustainably sourced and eco-friendly materials that are safe for both people and the planet?

Interrogate the way that your manufacturing impacts the environment and look for ways to improve it.

Can you, for example, commit to using recycled materials to package, or even create, your products?

This is exactly what fashion retailer Rothy’s has done by using recycled plastic bottles as a material for its bags, shoes, and face coverings.

Supply chain

Make sure all of your suppliers share your sustainable commitments and actually act upon them.

Find ways to lower carbon emissions in your supply chain by sourcing products locally or from the closest source possible.

Numi Tea has achieved this by making sure everything it does in sourcing, making, and selling tea is environmentally sound and links to its sustainability mission of using sustainable packaging and tracking carbon emissions during the production process.

Transport

What vehicles do you use for operations and distribution?

Consider replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with hybrid or electric options.

Encourage staff to cycle or walk for shorter distance trips, while carsharing is a sensible option if they need to travel together.

If no commute is necessary, adopting a remote or hybrid working arrangements may be very effective.

Waste

If you produce waste, can you prevent, reduce, reuse, or recycle it? Can you improve the ways you discard waste?

Always make sure hazardous and electrical waste are disposed of correctly.

Water

How much water do you use in your business, and do you waste any? Can you conserve water with smart technology like motion sensor taps?

If not, make sure that you only run the tap when needed and display posters to ensure your staff and guests do the same. Make sure any leaks are found and fixed.

You could even find out whether it’s possible to harvest rainwater with a collection and storage facility by taking a survey of your business premises.

What is small business sustainability?

A sustainable business will take thoughtful and relevant steps to conserve natural resources and work without negatively impacting the environment, community, people, or society as a whole.

Why are small businesses more sustainable?

Small businesses aren’t automatically more sustainable, but customer demand and reputational concerns are among the top reasons for why they will focus on taking concrete steps towards a more sustainable future.

Why does a business need a sustainability plan?

Just like any other project or business ambition, a small business needs a plan to make sustainability work.

A good sustainability plan will include goals, a timeframe, and a way to measure and monitor progress of the chosen environmental, social and governance impacts.

Sustainability Hub

Explore how your small business can create a robust sustainability strategy, save money, and attract more customers by visiting the Sustainability Hub.

Find out more

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