Bringing sustainability into the heart of your business

As we mark Green GB Week (15 – 19 October), we look at how companies can enshrine a sustainable ethos into their working practices, culture and supply chain.

Last updated: 21 Jul 2020 6 min read

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  • Major brands like H&M and Marks & Spencer are embracing sustainability as part of their business practice
  • Sustainability means being as efficient as possible with the environment as well as work well-being, social equality and future-proofing your product or service
  • Almost 75% of SME senior managers have reported at least one commercial benefit from sustainability initiatives

There was a new line at clothes retailer H&M this summer. However, it wasn’t a fashion range but a queue of customers bringing in old clothes to be repaired.

Consumers at H&M stores in Paris and Hamburg were encouraged to bring in past-their-best garments – not just H&M ones, but any clothes – for a re-stitch here, a button there and the chance to add patches and embroidery to breathe new life into tired styles.

The stores’ repair stations were part of Take Care, H&M’s sustainability initiative – and it’s not the only high-street brand embracing the concept. Harvey Nichols repairs customers’ handbags; all Marks & Spencer’s key raw materials are from sustainable sources; and the eco-friendly provenance of Dove soap, Hellman’s mayonnaise and Magnum ice-cream is keeping parent company Unilever on target to achieve its 10-year goal to halve its environmental footprint.

But such corporate social responsibility doesn’t just benefit the planet – it’s good for your company. “More and more consumers are turning to organisations that market products from renewable sources,” says Nicola Stopps, CEO of business consultancy Simply Sustainable. “Reflecting a sustainable ethos in your business and acting responsibly to provide a benefit to society and the environment will help to ensure your own organisation’s long-term financial sustainability.”

Almost 90% of UK SME bosses say they value sustainability, and nearly 85% believe their customers want them to embrace it. But how does that happen, what are the real benefits and how do you prove your actions?

What is sustainability?

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This UN definition of sustainable development, coined in the 1980s by then Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, is the perfect description, says Stopps. She says: “It’s about ensuring your business is sustainable financially in the long term by acting responsibly to provide a benefit to society and the environment.”

So it’s about saving the planet?

Yes, but this is about more than going green. “It’s about being as efficient as possible with resources,” says Stopps. “Companies need to think robustly, not just about the environment and renewability but in terms of work well-being, social equality, human rights, supply chains, while making your product or service future-proof by creating new revenue streams. Considering the environment is relatively easy – people and product are more challenging.”

“Sustainability isn’t a phase or a tick box. It’s a cultural shift, which should become part of everyone’s natural way of thinking”Nicola Stopps, CEO, Simply Sustainable

How can my company become sustainable?

“Sustainability isn’t a phase or a tick box,” says Stopps. “It’s a cultural shift, which should become part of everyone’s natural way of thinking. Many companies start from a standpoint of managing risk, seeing sustainability in terms of challenge and cost, but now more and more organisations are realising the potential for return on investment.”

A few ways you could start to become more sustainable include:

1. Ditch the paper. Aside from the reams of unnecessarily wasted paper to print documents that could be sent electronically, it’s estimated nearly 20% of business time is spent physically searching for documents.

2. Be more energy efficient. Install LED lights – they’ll consume 80% less electricity than traditional incandescent bulbs. Use occupancy sensors that can automatically turn off lights. Ensure heating systems come on only below a certain temperature and only during office hours. Switch off electrical equipment when not in use. Insulate your building.

3. Consider green energy. There are an increasing number of energy suppliers providing renewable source electricity and frack-free gas, such as Ecotricity, Green Energy UK and Smartest Energy. Renewable source energy tends to be priced slightly higher than regular resources but with the public demanding corporate responsibility, this is an investment, not a cost.

4. Look at your workforce. “Developing a culture of sustainability will encourage employees to think of ways they can support your aims,” says Nadine Exter, associate director of sustainability consultants Brite Green. “Sustainability is about behaviour and mindset – colleagues could embrace the idea of repair, not replace, or they could car-share, or work from home whenever travelling to work is not necessary.”

5. Quiz your supply chain. Ask questions of your suppliers and where their materials come from. Ask them for evidence that they are sustainably and ethically sourced and that people are paid fairly for what they do.

What are the commercial benefits to my business?

A YouGov survey last year of more than 500 senior managers in SMEs revealed almost 75% reported at least one commercial benefit from sustainability initiatives. More than a third reported lower costs and a quarter believed their company would enjoy a resultant reputational boost. This not only boosts customer engagement but makes you attractive to prospective employees.

How can I prove and report my company’s sustainability?

There are a few international standards. These include the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a not-for-profit organisation that requires disclosure of a ‘triple bottom line’ of social, environmental and economic performance, and the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), a global coalition of businesses, investors and standard setters, identifies six ‘capitals’ to measure an organisation’s value –financial, manufactured, intellectual, human, social and relationship, and natural.

“Increasingly, consumers are demanding transparency on sustainability claims,” says Stopps. “These standards are a recognised index against which to measure, prove and report your progress. Aside from existing environmental laws, some form of legislation on sustainability reporting is increasingly likely to come in. But businesses should always be moving forward responsibly to pre-empt regulation.”

What do I do next?

Draw up a sustainability strategy, carry out audits, think about how things can change, and involve your staff. Says Exter: “People – a collaborative workforce – are integral to building a sustainable business. It’s not a bespoke set of activities, but a mindset and approach that prompts innovation, ideas and opportunities. A truly successful sustainability strategy taps into the power of people.”

Adds Stopps: “Companies can’t expect to do everything overnight but they can focus on certain parts of their business – and get everyone on board. Sustainability is a proxy indicator of how a business is doing. It’s not just about sustaining the planet – robust social responsibility plans will make your business sustainable too.”

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