Sustainability has long been a buzzword in business – since the 1980s in fact – but it has never been more paramount for organisation to stop talking and start walking, translating this word into action. With COP26 in play and the world’s leaders currently discussing how to combat the climate crisis, sustainability is now at the forefront of the business agenda and if it’s not front of mind for yours, then it should be; not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do – if not, you could be losing talent and profits as a result.
Three years ago, the Bank of America Merrill Lynch revealed that companies with a better Environmental, Social and Governance score (ESG) than their competitors, produced higher three-year returns, had a greater share value and were less likely to go bankrupt. What’s more, a 2019 Neilsen survey found that 73 percent of consumers were willing to change their consumption habits to lessen their negative impact on the environment and in 2021, Deloitte revealed that one in three consumers had switched brands to a more sustainable one off the back of environmental concerns about a business.
But it’s not just consumers that impact the bottom line. By 2025, 75 per cent of the world’s professional workforce will be millennials – this is also a group, that in a recent study conducted by Totaljobs, revealed they would largely take a pay cut to work for an organisation that is environmentally and socially sustainable. The study revealed that this group would offer their services for a considerably lower salary — £8K per annum, or US$11K — to an organisation who demonstrated environmental care and sustainable business practices. The same study revealed that 28 per cent of people would move from their current employer to a more environmentally friendly one, and this number increases to 50 per cent when just millennials were questioned. With recruiting placing a drain both on people and financial resources, it stands that attracting and retaining top talent is all the easier for organisations that operate ethically in this space. And if attracting and retaining talent weren’t enough of a reason, a significant number of those surveyed – 30 per cent – revealed that they put in substantially more effort for businesses that employ environmentally responsible strategies. In conclusion, a contented workforce results in both higher retention and productivity, which saves money, and, ultimately, translates into a more satisfied customer.
But for SMEs and those new to the sustainability game, it can be difficult to know where to start. Without millions of dollars to invest in greenwashing or entire teams dedicated to lowering your carbon footprint and implementing sustainable business practices, it can be tempting to just stick your head in the sand. But changing our practices and making an environmental commitment isn’t simply the job of large conglomerates or the David Attenborough’s of our world, its up to every single one of us. At an organisational level, if an SME wants to future-proof itself, then sustainability must be embedded into its very culture. Here are a few tips to get you started.
“Purpose is a key ingredient for a strong, sustainable, scalable, organisational culture. It can be a strategic starting point, a product differentiator, and an organic attractor of users and customers.” – Sherry Hakimi
HR Zone recently stated that organisations must make a companywide commitment with a ‘pledge to our planet’ as the desired output. ‘This pledge starts with a purpose.’ What feels right for your organisation? Is there a specific cause that aligns with your own, a specific problem you wish to focus efforts on, a commitment that you feel strongly about personally or professionally? We can’t solve all the world’s problems and fix the climate crisis alone, but identifying and being clear on a specific purpose will unite your people, focus your efforts and help ensure everyone remains committed to a common goal. For example, you might want to become carbon neutral or negative; you might want to invest a percentage of profits back to the environmental community; or for every product or service you sell you may wish to donate a product or service to those who would struggle to afford it, or focus on a specific cause like reducing food wastage through organisations like The Lost Food Project, help counteract deforestation, support the local community on reducing landfill etc.
“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Where does sustainability and CSR sit within your business? For some it makes sense for this to sit in Communications or Marketing. In other organisations it may align better to HR, Facilities, Administration or the Office Manager.
For many, appointing ambassadors or a ‘Green Team’ to hold everyone to account, creates shared ownership and accountability, as well as provides employees with a chance to step outside their natural roles, develop or follow a passion. Many of us are fierce environmental advocates and have an interest in this at home through our own actions. Why not call for volunteers or appoint ambassadors to harness this passion at work as well?
You might choose to create a Slack channel to engage conversation and share ideas – everything from recycling reminders to more ambitious plans. If you do go down the ambassador route, can you offer training or courses to these people to help upskill and knowledge share?
Bring your people along with you
“Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership. And a sense of ownership is the greatest weapon a team or organization can have.” – Pat Summitt
Once your purpose has been established alongside where sustainability sits in your company, its time to roll out a programme of involvement that touches the wider business. For example:
- Paid volunteering days off with each employee getting one full day’s leave per annum to use to volunteer towards a cause. Lead by example and ensure leadership take advantage of these. You could spotlight these days in company communications or have the employee report back to the business over an informal lunch highlighting their work and experiences, encouraging others to take advantage of the day.
- For team building days, commit to activities that speak to your purpose – focus events on causes that ladder back to your sustainability pledges.
- Consider charitable and sustainable contributions in place of corporate or employee gifts – i.e., for Christmas, employee tenure milestones etc. You could have employees/ clients nominate a chosen charity from a selection that align with your mission.
- Provide benefits to employees who cycle or catch public transport to work. Transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US and more than half of that comes from personal vehicles. With 90% of people driving to work, considerable carbon savings can be made from utilising other modes of transport.
“Every company that manufactures something is causing some damage either to the soil or water or air. Most companies treat these as externalities. But the growing movement of sustainability calls for companies to internalize these costs. Once companies do this, they will have a strong incentive to reduce their carbon footprint.” – Philip Kotler
To measure progress, you need to benchmark your starting point so consider a carbon footprint audit, not neglecting your digital footprint. If you can’t do this internally or have no idea where to start, organisations like the Carbon Trust can help you along the way to Net Zero. This will give you a starting point and as you roll out more sustainable business practices and make progress, it will provide you with achievements to celebrate to help foster passion and cement buy-in with your people.
Small changes = easy wins
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day-in and day-out” Robert Collier
There are a number of small, every day changes you can make to how you operate as a business that can help you towards your sustainability goals. Consider the following:
- Introduce energy efficient light bulbs
- If you have a smaller team in the office, consider desk lamps rather than carbon-heavy overhead lighting.
- Invest in energy efficient models and smart energy saving technology; turn items off at the wall when not in use.
- Provide reusable bottles instead of paper or plastic cups.
- Business practices
- Go paperless and plastic free
- If you don’t already, roll out a recycling program and consider composting your coffee beans.
- Do a local vendor audit to ensure you’re supporting businesses that are green
- Conduct meetings via Zoom wherever possible, avoiding travel – save on travel budget as well as carbon emissions.
- Consider introducing remote working. In an audit from 2020, during the pandemic, Shopify’s emissions dropped 29 per cent thanks to employees working from home.
While introducing sustainability strategies can be a resource and financial investment in the short term, the research is clear: companies with high ESG ratings consistently outperform their counterparts both in the medium and long term according to McKinsey. In today’s world, considering whether to adopt sustainable business practices is simply no longer an option – it’s essential.