SME Sustainability: Your journey so far and future action plans

Sustainability is an increasingly important issue for many people, especially in the business world. Climate change continues to affect our lives as well as the fate of all other species around the planet, so it is more important now than ever that people take action to help make the world more sustainable.

One of the most influential factors in sustainability is how businesses are working and the effect that their products, services, and operations have on the planet. If every business could do at least one thing to be more sustainable the world would be in a far better place for the future. 

The latest roundtable hosted by GS1 UK and the Great British Entrepreneur Awards saw a group of founders and experts discussing how SMEs can become more sustainable, covering topics such as what they’ve done so far, what they have planned for the future, and all of their tops and tricks. 

One way of showing your commitment to sustainability as a business is to become a B Corp certified business (B Corp) – these are companies verified by B Lab that meet high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability. Being a B Corp shows that your business is truly committed to sustainability practices. Read more about B Corps here. 

John Pritchard, Founder of Pala, discussed his experience with becoming a certified B Corp, saying, “We reached out to our local Body Shop as they have a great CSR team. So I’d go and sit with them once a month and go through the process and understand the kinds of situations, and questions I would face during the process – and it does take time, but don’t let that put you off. I would probably say in terms of my hours on the preparation it was around 40 hours in total. It is a long process and took nine months to be certified in total. So it probably took me two to three months to assemble the work and then waited around four months for the interview phase, and then around six weeks for confirmation.

“Now I’m hearing it can take somewhere between 12 and 18 months because of a vast amount of companies going through the process – which is a great sign because everyone is finally recognising, the value of a B Corp, and they are becoming far more popular in the B2B world.

“There’s a statistic that of the 150,000 companies that have created an account on the B Impact Assessment, the number that have certified to date is just over 5,000. So it’s important to remember, it’s not easy, it does take a little bit of time and effort, but the rewards are well worth it.”

Namrata Kamdar, Founder of Plenaire agreed with John as she explained Plenaire are currently in the process of becoming B Corp. “The good thing about going through the process at the startup phase is that the operations are smaller: large topics like employment, pensions, and if you don’t own your own factories, these things may be less relevant currently. However, completing the certification at this nascent stage gives you a great preview into best practices from business ethics or employee welfare standpoint when you go on to hire or create your own manufacturing facilities. 

“So if a big company like Nike or Unilever certifies for B Corp it’s going to be a far bigger, more complex exercise because they perhaps own a lot of their own factories and the very scale of their manufacturing is on a much larger scale. For companies like us that are smaller, we’re starting from a blank canvas, which makes the process somewhat simpler, because you can exercise far better control on your supply chain, and sourcing – to ensure the highest ethical standards and balance profit with social good. Being an older and bigger company it can be much harder to undo some of those decisions you’ve made as a business in the past.”

Cata Gorgulho, Co-founder and CEO of Tarwi Foods, added how being a B Corp should be at the heart of everything you do as a business , and it should be something that is implemented from the offset. 

“I knew I wanted to be a B Corp so I used it as a bit of a guideline of how I wanted to set up our operations. If you do this you won’t need to go back into everything once you decide to go through the process, because from day one, that’s what you’ve decided to be. Also if you’re bringing in investors they have to sign up to all of your sustainability policies and values, which is really important – you want to have people on your board that also have the same goals for your business. At an early stage, you’re really in control of your business, then as things go on your control dilutes, so it’s crucial to have those goals set up before you go out for external investment.”

In recent years consumer behaviours have changed massively, and customers are increasingly looking to purchase from more sustainable businesses. 

Discussing the importance of the customer, and how making the customer aware of your values is crucial on the journey of sustainability Lisa Lessware, Co-CEO & Co-Founder of The BShirt says, 

“We became B Corp certified in February and realised that we needed to tell people about this, so we had our website redesigned. But people don’t know what it means, so you’ve got to find a balance between showing the product, and showing the information that search engines and SEO need you to say about this product to help it get to your customers, whilst also highlighting your brand values.

Louise Palmer-Masterton, Founder & CEO of Stem & Glory added to this saying how sustainability should become the norm, and to do this you need to lead with more than just the fact that you are sustainable. 

“We do vegan by stealth,” she said. “People come in the door and they don’t realise that we’re a vegan restaurant until they open the menu, and some people never realise at all – and I think that’s how it should be everywhere.

“A long time ago, I read some research that said 88% of consumers want brands to help them be more sustainable, but most brands actually make it harder for people to be more sustainable. So I think that being sustainable is getting to the point where it’s not really an option anymore, it’s what consumers expect. Similarly with online shopping people probably bump into a site and buy stuff when maybe they’re not looking for sustainable items specifically, but when they find it, it’s good and they like it – and to me that’s what creates loyalty.”

The journey of an SME is never easy, but especially when trying to navigate the world of sustainability and B Corps certification, so it’s important to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing and focus on bettering the world for you, your customers, your employees and everyone else around you in mind. 

Sarah Atkins, Chief Marketing Officer and Membership Director of GS1 said, “The panel had great ideas on how a sustainability focus is a business priority. BCorp certification has been seen as a task for big businesses, but often it is an easier journey if embedded as an approach from the start. As a result, it could be a real point of difference for SMEs. Even if you don’t get all the way through the certification it will help you pick the right partners and provide guidance on how to build your business.

“We rewrote the fundamental 4 Ps of marketing, to Product, Place, Price, and Promotion, adding Persistence,  Patience, and Profit (takes time!).

“My favourite quote of the session, ‘we must remember to celebrate the wins large or small something we often forget to do when running a business.’”

In partnership with Great British Entrepreneurs, GS1 UK are pleased to offer new members a 20% discount on their first year’s membership.  Please click here and use discount code GBEA20 at the checkout.