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Considering ethical consumerism as an SME

We’ve 12 years to limit global warming, according to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Making headlines and small talk over the last year, environmental concerns and the need for company transparency have finally come into the limelight, as reflected in the continual rise of conscious consumerism.

As a small and medium enterprise, are you sure your business is as eco-friendly and ethical as possible?

Conscious consumerism

3 out of 4 Britains are watching what they buy as they claim to be more conscious of the effects of their purchases.

These shoppers hope that their choices will not further damage the environment or society in terms of human labour. Conscious consumerism relies on the belief that you cast a vote every time you buy something and so, as a consumer, you have the power to be an agent of change.

For example, rather than buying eggs known to come from caged chickens, an ethical consumer will instead choose to purchase free-range eggs. Or the conscious shopper will decide not to buy a jacket from a company after discovering that it doesn’t pay its factory workers a proper wage.

Free-range chickens

As knowledge becomes more accessible in the age of digitalisation, the weight of the responsibility felt by the individual to inform themselves is also heavier. In a survey carried out by the UK’s Ethical Consumer

  • 74% of respondents said they were actively doing things in their lives for environmental, social or animal welfare reasons

  • 29% of 25-34 year-olds stated that they wouldn’t buy something if they knew it had a negative impact on the environment.

This means that the expectation placed on companies to transparently communicate source origins is greater now than ever before.

What’s all the fuss about?

Environmental concerns: why do they matter?

Sustainability

With a record number of natural disasters occurring within the last year, a 27% loss of biodiversity since the 1970s and a prediction that there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish in 2050, the environmental health of planet earth is in dire need of resuscitation.

Plastic waste in the ocean

On a large scale, we currently need 1.6 earths to sustain our current rate of consumption. Whether we like it or not, action is required regarding these environmental concerns, and no longer by scientists or seemingly hippie environmentalists, but by everyday citizens.

Public awareness

As mentioned, the public consciousness of consumer impact on the environment is growing as more and more of us begin to see the earth as a living organism. Many Britons champion Attenborough’s Blue Planet II documentary which tackled plastic waste in our oceans as a turning point for their awareness of plastic consumption.

The responsibility of plastic consumption, however, is now being traced back to the brands who are doing a large part of their manufacturing with plastic. In response to the public shift regarding plastic usage more than 70 major companies, including Coca Cola and Evian have signed the government initiated UK’s Plastic Pact promising to all necessary plastic packaging recyclable by the year 2025.

Promoting a circular economy

With our global connectivity and major global population growth, the underlying reason for our ravenous consumption of our planet is the mindset of the economy which is founded on perpetual growth and the assurance that humans will consume at an ever-increasing rate.

The oldest and most common form of our consumption of goods follows a linear economy in which we take the raw materials straight from production to use and then they end up as non-recyclable waste filling our landfills and oceans.

Recycle linear economy

In contrast, a circular economy model utilises only raw materials that have the ability to be recycled for use again after going through production and use processes, and so there is no non-recyclable waste involved.

Ideally, years ago, all businesses would adhere to a circular model system, but now it remains to be a major goal for all and will require a great change in policies and structures to be implemented worldwide.

Why SME’s should promote sustainability

80% of SMEs say they value sustainability, yet 70% of these individuals mention that they struggle to make it a reality. While the topic itself may seem overwhelming, tackling sustainability will benefit individual SMEs in the long run.

Save money

By far, reducing financial costs is the biggest draw for SMEs to employ sustainable practices.

There are many options depending on your type of business and location. In some places, you can even receive tax deductions for your efforts.

Take time to revisit areas of your company that could be made more sustainable.

Eco-friendly design

Consider building or renovating your storefront using earth-conscious design and materials, such as solar panels or occupational sensors that only turn on lights when an area is occupied. While initially, these installments might seem pricey, they are investments that will save your business money over time.

Renewable energy

Lighting, after staffing, is surprisingly the second highest cost for businesses. This is an easy fix in terms of sustainability. By installing LED lights, small businesses can save up to 60% on lighting costs and simultaneously protect themselves against the inevitable rise in costs demanded by energy suppliers.

Renewable energy LED lights

Another tip: check out your company’s energy monitor that’s often provided by your energy supplier to see where and when you’re using the most energy and then consider energy-saving alternatives.

Green practices

There is a multitude of ways your business can “go green”.

In England 2 out of 3 physical receipts are tossed into the bin. This can easily be remedied. For example, SumUp card readers allow you to simply email or text your customers their receipts after a transaction, saving everyone paper.

Rethink your waste. Most of what we throw out is actually recyclable. Have proper bins—paper, glass, plastic and compost—with signs that help you and your staff categorise your rubbish.

Recycling bins in the workplace

Clean green. The list is growing for cleaning products that use less water, don’t give off pollutant chemicals and are made from natural materials. Consider replacing your SME cleaning supplies and soaps with eco-friendly products.

Brand value

The market for sustainable goods is said to be an untapped industry worth 966£, which is no surprise as 61% of millennials in the UK claim they would rather purchase eco-friendly products. The competitive gains alone make obtaining a reputation as an environmentally-conscious business well worth your while.

With name brands such as H&M and Coca Cola revamping their sustainability practices in production, it’s only a matter of time before smaller businesses are placed under scrutiny as well regarding their environmental impact.

While public accountability is a great thing, to be ahead of it, well, that’s even better.

For example, steel manufacturer company Billington Structures published a sustainability policy and established specific management targets for better sustainability. Soon after, the company saw an increase in a new clientele and recognised that,

“Sustainability gives us a commercial advantage”.

If all of us are already headed towards sustainability standards, it pays to be the first to implement.

How to rethink your business in eco-friendly terms

Certification

Many companies have recognised this change in the public’s heart towards environmental issues and have touted environmental claims on their labels in the hopes of boosting sales. Without proper backing, this claim to be eco-friendly is known as greenwashing.

It might be helpful for you to obtain your ISO 14001 for SMEs as this will help you meet legal requirements, consumer expectations and provide you with tools to help you benefit from the standards you’re actively putting into place.

Check the supply chain

As a company, your environmental stewardship obliges you to know the origins of your products, including all the steps from production to arrival at your storefront. While you might be a small business, you still have the big responsibility to oversee the supply chain of your goods.

Fair trade: check your supply chain

Measure your company’s purchasing efficiency to monitor your inventory, improvement of quality as well as to see if there’s really a reduction of costs. Additionally, tracking shipment can help to solve problems in real-time while offering customers transparency.

London-based restaurant Hood uses local produce and proudly displays its suppliers on a map inside of the bar. Their patrons love the fact that they know exactly where the food for their meal is coming from.

Get started. Now

The rise of the conscious consumer is hardly a bad thing. Sure, it might mean more work for SMEs, but it’s work meant to be done. Take the time to learn from experts as well as other SMEs. We’ll leave you with some points of action:

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Micah McGee