Is sustainability an expensive nice-to-have? Or are there green actions that can also benefit the business?
For small businesses struggling to survive the energy crisis, supply chain disruption and inflation, tackling sustainability can seem like a luxury they can’t afford.
Last year, officials gathered for COP26 in Glasgow hoping to accelerate climate action. Meanwhile, a survey of SMEs by ACCA and the Corporate Finance Network found they lacked the time and resources to initiate sustainability strategies and were struggling to know where to start.
“‘I’m extremely apprehensive about the trends this data revealed on the state of UK SMEs financial restrictions are the number one reason holding businesses back from putting a sustainability strategy in place,” commented Claire Bennison, Head of ACCA UK.
Ellen McKee, an advisor with the sustainability advisor Anthesis, sympathisers with their plight: “With the continued challenges of doing business during a global pandemic compounded by supply chain volatility, rising costs and wider economic uncertainty, it’s no wonder that sustainability is often pushed to the bottom of the daily task list in small businesses.’
So why should you make the effort?
But there are many reasons why businesses should think about their sustainability, including improved brand, sales and recruitment. Also, the UK has a legal requirement to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, so it’s a good idea to get a head start.
Alongside this, the energy crisis and rising costs also provide a fresh incentive to look at reducing waste. Here are some green ideas that can contribute to sustainability while making business sense.
LED light bulbs might seem pricier than traditional options at first, but they use far less energy, have far lower running costs and considerably longer lifespans. Dan Firmager, one of the leads on Kreston Reeves’ recent achievement of carbon neutrality, says that the return on investment on LED bulbs is a lot sooner than people generally assume.
Compare LEDs to traditional incandescent bulbs. According to The Lightbulb Company, a 10W LED costs £2-15, lasts 25,000+ hours at a yearly running cost of £3.60, compared to a 60W incandescent bulb costing £2-6, lasting only 1,000-2,000 hours at a cost of £23.88 per year.
Also, while the incandescent pumps out 172.68kg of CO2 emissions per year – the demand on your energy supplier to power the bulb – an LED bulb emits only 28.8kg, hence the lower running cost.
Couple LEDs with motion sensors, which help to avoid the unnecessary use of electricity and therefore help to lower your bill. They can save as much as 60% on lighting costs, which often account for up to 50% of a commercial building’s energy bill. A decent sensor can cost as little as £5-20 and are easy to install.
Save money on your heating bill by installing a smart thermostat. These can automatically adjust the temperature in a business according to its needs and, as they’re connected to the internet, can be controlled remotely. Some can even learn your daily activity and movements and set temperature based on these habits.
Google estimates that in the UK people can save between 8.4% and 16.5% of their heating’s energy use with its Nest smart thermostat. Competitor Tado estimates up to 31%, while Hive reckons people could, pre-Ukraine crisis, save up to £110 per year. At a cost of between £100 and £200, a smart thermostat could pay for itself in the first year, then provide annual savings thereafter.
Water sensors and tap adaptors
Businesses can save up to 30% on water bills by installing devices such as tap adapters and sensors, according to Water Plus. Efficient taps mix water with air meaning 50% less water will come out, while sensors that turn taps on when they detect close movement, when washing hands for example, can cut water usage by 70%.
You can get UK government help through the Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme, which lets businesses claim 100% first year capital allowance on water efficiency products from an approved list.
Printing and paper
According to consultants Gartner, as much as 3% of a business’s revenue is spent on paper and printing costs. Now the good thing about seeking to reduce these costs is that many of the solutions are inherently better for the planet — double-sided printing, refillable ink cartridges, for example.
Let’s say your business per year prints 2,000 pages of black & white (B&W) A4 all single-sided. At 2.75p per sheet of A4 this would cost £550. If you were to print all these double-sided, using 1,000 sheets instead of 2,000, the cost per sheet would be 4.5p for a total of £450 — a saving of £100 per year. By setting all printers to automatically print double-sided you’ll save money and reduce paper usage.
Now look at the price and usage of ink and toner. Ink is generally cheaper than toner, but needs replenishing more frequently. Let’s say a business’s average ink costs £120 per year, or £300 for toner. If you bought refilled cartridges instead of brand new ones, you could make a saving of 30-50% on inks and toners, according to the European Toner & Inkjet Remanufacturers Association, which would equate to a maximum saving in the case above of £60 per year for inks and £150 for toners.
Combine these with your double-sided paper savings and you’re looking at potentially hundreds of pounds in savings a year, while also reducing paper and plastic usage and waste.
“We have always had the approach that doing small things can be very effective. For example, changing to LED lighting, changing stationery supplier to one that uses more sustainable products, using less paper. We print everything double-sided by default, for example, and we do more over email with electronic letterheads,” says James Peach, Audit and Assurance Partner and Kreston Reeves.
Green champions and busy bosses
All this might seem like a lot of extra work, but within all businesses, there will probably be at least one “green champion” — someone waiting for the opportunity to start making a company greener, says McKee. “Providing them with the authority to take that first step might be all it takes to start realising sustainable performance and financial savings.”
And if you’re a green champion in waiting, but faced with an overworked or skeptical boss or client, McKee recommends a few ways to get people on board: “Communicate how implementing sustainable practices will generate value to the business. Consider 1) reduced costs; 2) improved performance, eg a growing customer base; and 3) cost of inaction (eg regulatory costs (such as taxes), loss of customers, loss of staff etc)”.
While small can be beautiful at the start, Peach cautions about the limitations of a piecemeal approach to sustainability. “Be clear about what you are doing and why. Take clear and conscious decisions about what you are doing and how you are going to do it. Avoid doing things half-heartedly or you may miss out. You need proper buy in to get the full benefits.”
He adds that the prize can be worthwhile: “You can ultimately grow your top line if you are an advisor in the professional services market doing something to stand out. It can register with prospects. They might think these guys are doing something good that’s in line with us. So let’s work with them.”
Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.