SMEs are integral to us achieving our global sustainable development goals

Andrea Collins, eScalate Programme Adviser

COP26 has dominated our newsfeeds, radio waves and television screens in recent days, and rightly so. We are on the verge of no going back; time for ideas and negotiation has passed, we need action.

Perhaps influenced by this coverage, but also inspired by a spell in the most spectacular Scottish Highlands recently, has made me reflect on what we as small business owners can actually do to influence the future. It is very easy to think of sustainability as being a government responsibility where little is achieved without legislation or large corporations implementing radical changes.

Armed with my iPhone and 4G that could only be reached by perching on a rock jutting out into Loch Sunart, I started to read more and more, my only distraction being the most amazing sea otters bobbing up and down in the water. I came across the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their individual targets, and to be honest, I felt completely overwhelmed and disheartened. What impact could my micro business ever have? How could I as a business owner ever contribute? Very quickly I felt myself reverting back to my longstanding view that little is achievable without the huge scale commitment and cooperation of global administrations. And whilst that may still be true …

I started to think about the sheer volume of Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) not only in the UK but across the world. There are over 6 million SMEs in the UK, and almost 213 million globally, with most OECD countries reporting that they contribute anywhere between 50% and 70% of GDP. Staggered by the global statistics, I started to wonder about our ‘collective’ power. Instead of wondering what was achievable without large scale government legislation and corporate buy in, I started to wonder whether anything was achievable without the understanding and commitment of the world’s SMEs.

Thinking pragmatically, no business can attack all 17 goals. However, I think the key is small changes in volume. So, as an SME, can we focus on 2-3 of the 17 and commit to having our company understand, prioritise and measure our impact. Some companies may already have aligned themselves with certain goals such as climate change, empowerment in the workplace, diversity, etc. but do they have full stakeholder buy-in and are the measuring, reporting and communicating their impact? A recent YouGov poll actually uncovered that 40% of SMEs do not have a sustainability plan and 30% have no plans to become sustainable at all.

It is easy to see how these 17 goals provide a best practice framework, that when followed closely can lead to innovation and competitive advantage for SMEs as well as the ‘feel good’ factor that they are contributing to a more sustainable and prosperous world for all. But the truth is, as small cogs in large supply chains, SMEs will sooner or later be forced to follow stringent sustainability requirements like reporting on labour practices, reducing carbon emissions, reducing use of harmful materials, etc. this is our chance to get ahead of the game. Taking action now to make small changes to our operations will mean that we are optimally prepared for when regulation is enforced, and the inevitable fines are introduced.

In terms of other advantages, you could argue that sustainability initiatives also deliver cost efficiencies. Through effective management of resources like water and energy; and reducing waste, we can help drive down our overheads. Some businesses are already switching to energy-efficient lighting and having a company ‘switch off’ time. COVID must also have helped in some respects with the increase in remote workers, that in turn reduces CO2 emissions caused by the daily commute.

But perhaps one of the biggest benefits lies with our customers. We have all witnessed in recent years the emergence of the socially conscious consumer who actually cares about issues like human rights and eliminating slavery; and who would rather pay a premium for a product that protects nature than a lower price for one that contributes to its destruction. Deloitte reported recently that almost one-third of consumers have ceased buying certain brands due to sustainability concerns; this figure is even higher among Generation Z (population born between 1997 and 2015), rising to 45%. Alignment to a selection of the 17 goals will result in improved brand perception and a greater ability to attract and retain this growing tribe of enlightened customers.

Once you’ve selected your 2-3 focus goals, I think establishing a measurement and reporting framework is key. This allows us to set targets and share important benchmarking information with our suppliers, customers and regulatory bodies, demonstrating that however small the business, we can all make a vital contribution.

When you have 5 minutes, just take a look at 17 Sustainable Development Goals and have a think or brainstorm with your team about which ones you feel an affinity with and which you could align the business to and how -

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