This article is part of our collection on Renewable Energy
The government’s clean air zone proposal represents significant environmental and financial opportunities for the SMEs prepared to take positive green action.
Last updated: 21 Jul 2020 6 min read
With more than 40 towns and cities around the UK currently at or exceeding air pollution limits set by the World Health Organization, the government has launched plans to introduce clean air zones around the country by 2020. It’s an ambitious scheme but one that 75% of UK SMEs are in favour of and will play a large role in fulfilling. According to the Carbon Trust, small businesses could save 2.5m tonnes of CO2 emissions by reducing their carbon footprint, and enjoy savings of up to £400m in the process. Here’s how your business can play its part.
“A lot of SMEs are put off pursuing sustainability measures because they think it’s expensive,” says Laura Timlin, director of the Green Business Fund at the Carbon Trust. “But there are lots of no- or low-cost measures that can make a big difference, and for things requiring some investment there’s financial help available.”
The Green Business Fund, for example, gives SMEs up to 15% of the capital costs of energy-efficient equipment (capped at £5,000), while the Enhanced Capital Allowance Scheme provides attractive tax breaks on energy- and water-efficient technologies.
“You can’t reduce something unless you know what you’re starting with,” says Timlin, “so you need to work out how much energy you’re already using. Get your bills out, understand your consumption and how much you’re paying, and make sure you review this regularly.”
An energy monitor – often provided for free by your supplier – can also help make energy use more tangible. “Being able to see the instant effect of turning lights and equipment off helps to reinforce reduction opportunities,” says Timlin. This measure alone could shave 10% – 20% off your annual energy bill.
Heating and lighting are two of the easiest areas to tackle – simply turning lights off and powering down equipment at the end of the day can make a noticeable difference to your usage. Next-level action will require a modest investment, but the payoff can be significant. Investing in energy-efficient bulbs, for example, can reduce office lighting costs from £3.75 per square metre a year to just £1 per square metre.
Between 10% and 30% of a building’s heat is lost through its walls, so cavity-wall insulation is another easy win, according to the Carbon Trust. An office with 200 square metres of wall space would cost around £900 to insulate, yielding savings of £150 per year. Similarly, taking steps to draught-proof an office can give big results for little effort; heating systems don’t have to work so hard, employees are more comfortable and the outlay is likely to be less than £100.
“Renewable energy is very much an option for small business,” says Timlin. “Costs for solar panels are coming down quickly, so SMEs can expect a payback period of around six years.
“A business generating its own power benefits in lots of ways, including supply security, revenue from exporting unused electricity back to the grid, and a very visual environmental credential that can be appealing to clients and customers.”
“A flexible work policy can make a massive dent in your business’s carbon footprint”Alasdair Marks, director, Simply Sustainable
“Businesses are generally clued up when it comes to saving paper and recycling where possible, but there are big carbon and financial savings to be made around hidden waste,” says Mark Hilton, head of sustainable business at environmental consultancy Eunomia.
“Companies might think that since their waste is taken away for free, it doesn’t cost them anything – they might even get some revenue from a particular waste stream,” he says. “But they’re forgetting the inherent value in the material they’re getting rid of. Take waste from a bakery, for example. Raw materials, labour and energy costs all go into making a cake that’s thrown away at the end of the day, so that cake is probably worth 20 times what you’d actually sell it for. Look at the waste your business creates – tackling this can be a bigger win than traditional energy efficiency measures.”
“A flexible work policy can make a massive dent in your business’s carbon footprint,” says Alasdair Marks, director of consultancy Simply Sustainable. “Allowing employees to work from home reduces emissions associated with travelling to work, and reduces energy consumption within the office.” In fact, Marks suggests re-examining your approach to all elements of travel within your business.
“The Cycle to Work Scheme is popular with employees and makes a big difference to local pollution levels,” he says, “while businesses with a fleet of cars could consider moving to hybrid or electric vehicles – this is even simpler if you lease your vehicles.” If upgrading your fleet is out of the question, sending drivers on a safe and fuel-efficient driving (SAFED) course can result in significant fuel and CO2 savings.
“SMEs have a real advantage when it comes to sustainability, because they tend to employ local people who care about their local area,” says Marks. “Plus, small businesses can be more flexible and nimble than larger organisations, so talk to your staff, find out what matters to them and get their input.”
He suggests drawing up a basic sustainability policy as part of the staff handbook. “It doesn’t have to be long or complicated,” he says. “Even just turning the lights off at the end of the day reinforces your approach and lets people know what’s expected of them.” He adds that a lot of SMEs have benefited from nominating ‘green champions’ – people who work in different functions across the business who are responsible for reminding employees of its policies.
A solid approach to sustainability is no longer an “added extra” when it comes to business, says Carbon Trust’s Timlin. “People are increasingly attracted to environmentally conscious companies, which can give you a competitive advantage. Plus, many larger businesses are taking action on their own carbon footprint through their supply chains – if you’re not considered green then you could miss out on future opportunities. So if you take steps towards improving your environment, make sure you tell everyone about it.”