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What does sustainability mean for small businesses and is it realistic?

The UK is becoming increasingly environmentally conscious. The government has banned plastic straws, you have to pay a small price at the till when you want a plastic bag and by now, we’ve all calculated our carbon footprint online and felt a little bit ashamed. 

So if we’re becoming more aware of the impact our day-to-day lives have on the environment, surely this is reflected in the decisions we make when reaching for our wallets? Of course, it is. 

Our purchasing decisions are being steered by how sustainable and ethical a brand really is. We’re reaching for the eco-friendly products, getting full use out of our “Bags for life” and applauding supermarkets who go packaging-free

Though many of us immediately think about the environment when we hear the question “what does sustainability mean?” this can tell a different story for small business owners with words like “expensive” and “unattainable” popping up. 

While more often than not, going green as a small business can be linked to high costs and low reward, research and case studies are showing that this isn’t the case. 

Here’s how to get on board… 

Is green business good business? 

First things first, we need to look at the impact going green has on businesses... 

Many business owners think that sustainability comes at a price, but a recent Unilever study, where they questioned over 20,000 adults across five countries and even examined their spending habits, found that a third of consumers would rather purchase from sustainable businesses. 

Running a sustainable business brings in the customers as 1 in 5 of those surveyed said they would pick a brand if they not only made conscious, ecologically-friendly decisions, but also advertised it on their marketing and packaging. 

And brands have been seeing the difference;

 “Dove, Hellmann’s and Ben & Jerry’s, have integrated sustainability into both their purpose and products delivered nearly half the company’s global growth in 2015. Collectively, they are also growing 30% faster than the rest of the business.”

It isn’t just brands who are feeling the positive side effects of going sustainable. 53% of UK shoppers and 78% of American shoppers claim to feel happier purchasing sustainable produce. Surprisingly, this number rises to 85% in Brazil and Turkey, and 88% in India.

With an untouched market of €966 billion, Unilever’s CMO, Keith Weed thinks that “This research confirms that sustainability isn’t just nice-to-have for businesses, but rather an imperative.

What are other people doing? 

It’s easy to look at industry giants like Patagonia on a pedestal and to feel as though their level of commitment to the sustainability cause is unreachable, but smaller companies can get involved too. 

There’s more to going sustainable than getting a recycling bin and promoting reusable cups. One key factor businesses need to take into consideration is that building the necessary infrastructures to make going green a reality, takes time. 

A lot of companies are making the ecological move while fessing up to the fact it’s a journey. Take glassware company Ace&Tate for example. Their approach is “we’re working on it,” and they really are. 

Their new Medium platform highlights their road to going eco, and its mission is clear and simple; 

“This is a new platform Ace & Tate is trying out, committed to openness and self-reflection. As we move forward, we’d like to let our walls down and take you along on our journey, wrong turns and all.” 

They’re gradually considering where they make their frames, shifting towards 100% biodegradable and recyclable acetate and working with people like Reflow to test alternative ways to recycle their frames. The best part? They’re being open about the trials and tribulations that come along with the process. 

While some companies are still finding their way in the world of sustainability and business, others have forged their identity around it.  

With over 1 billion unsustainable phone cases being made a year, Pela has stepped into the arena with a sensible alternative and a big goal, “to create a waste-free future.”

Their entire brand, values and product are shaped by their goal and they strongly believe other small businesses are capable of doing their bit too. 

Showing that this is possible, is VinoKilo. The German-based social enterprise holds one of the countries largest pop-up events for second-hand fashion. They believe in giving old clothes a new wind of life, and in asking questions like “where do our clothes come from?”

By approaching a typically wasteful industry with a twist, they’ve re-sold over 100,000 kg worth of clothes, equating to roughly +315,000 items.

Small business, big impact 

With SME’s accounting for nearly half of the UK’s private business sector, the impact they have is anything but small, and based on Unilever’s research, it would appear that their readiness to focus on sustainability within business, makes all the difference. 

So if a sustainable approach keeps both customers and the environment happy, what’s holding people back? 

SMEs have an impact of £1.8 trillion on the private sector, and while 88% of them applaud sustainability, roughly 70% of them find it difficult to implement. 

This may be because of the “doesn’t come cheap” conception, but there are ways around breaking the bank. 

As Ace&Tate points out, this shift is a journey, and starting small with things like packaging and going paperless is a good place to start. 

Think big, start small. Stop printing wasteful receipts, and start using SMS or email features to send them to customers instead. Take a look at your packaging, and consider using an alternative, affordable provider like Paperfoam

If you want to go for a more head-on approach, take inspiration from small businesses and startups like Ecosia, VinoKilo and Pela. 

Just because the road to sustainable business is a potentially long one, doesn’t mean it has to be any more expensive or any less attainable. 

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Anna Marie Allgaier