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Sustainability for business

We endured an uncomfortable week at home last week. A big leak in the bathroom meant we had to turn off the water and there was a three day pause in life as we know it while a plumber was found. After a relatively quick visit from a man who can, our cocooned life was reinstated.

The day after the leak was repaired I attended the Accounting for Sustainability Wales Forum: “The Value of Sustainable Business” Conference in Cardiff and the ridiculousness of our leak experience became apparent. We hadn’t dealt with the water shortage; we’d simply consumed our way out of the problem by eating out and washing at the swimming pool and I’d just delayed dealing with the twelve loads of washing that had stacked up over the past week.

Lloyds Group Community and Sustainable Business Director, Paul Turner highlighted some shocking statistics such as it takes:

  • 13 litres of water to grow a tomato
  • 208 litres to produce a Starbucks coffee
  • 2,400 litres to produce a McDonalds Big Mac
  • 10,000 litres to produce a McDonalds Happy Meal

All in comparison to a person’s average water consumption in Rwanda which is 13 litres per day. Alarming when what people around the globe are aspiring to is the western economic model.

The conference was aimed at anyone working in the field of sustainable development and was supported by all the accountancy bodies (ICAEW, AAT, ACCA, CIMA, CIPFA), and the Welsh Government. The speakers were from an impressive array of mainstream organisations such Lloyds Group, National Trust, PwC, Castle Leisure, Wales and West Utilities, and Business in the Community Wales; demonstrating how central to business and charities alike the sustainability agenda is becoming.

Rosie Sweetman, Deputy Director of Business in the Community, Wales explained the evolution of the “responsibility” slogan from its origins in “corporate and social responsibility” in the 80s. The “social” tag was dropped in the naughties and the agenda became known as “corporate responsibility”. The “corporate” has now been dropped as it’s too narrow and excludes SMEs. The agenda is now defined as “responsible business” and is about being a better business and “achieving commercial success in ways that honour ethical values and respect people, communities and the natural environment” according to Sweetman.

With the “corporate” tag dropped, and responsible business being for all organisaitons, what’s the relevance for SMEs? There are compelling reasons for SMEs to a sustainable approach into their business strategy even without shareholder pressure and even if SMEs are outside of the current sustainability legislation.

It’s what customers want; market differentiation

In a report entitled “SMEs Set Their Sights on Sustainability”, the experience of the Canadian based Rocky Mountain Flatbread company clearly demonstrates how SMEs have the chance to build a business based on sustainable business practices from scratch. The Rocky Mountain Flatbread company includes a pizza restaurant, a wholesale business, a mobile caterer and an educational society. The founders, Suzanne Field and her husband deliberately chose the pizza business as it is often done very badly.

They brought in a top chef, created a zero-waste menu, use 90% local produce including vegetables from the schools where they teach children how to grow food, tracks the company’s carbon footprint with the aim of reducing it every year. In 2011 they switched to biogas to fire all the pizza ovens which is captured from a local sewage plant and put into the gas grid.

Fielden says “People are looking for meaning, for companies that are doing something positive.”

It’s what employees want

In addition, the Rocky Mountain Flatbread company have found that staff retention has been fantastic; in an industry where employees are notoriously transient. The sustainable business approach creates a positive work environment where people feel proud to work for the organisation and want to stay.

It’s what suppliers want; tendering process

Speaking at the Accounting for Sustainability Wales Forum, Keith Jones from the National Trust stated that the National Trust requires all suppliers to undergo a full sustainability audit if they are going to do business with the NT. For organisations wishing to win tenders, a sustainable business approach and strategy is essential.

It’s good for business

Another SME included in the SMEs Set Their Sights on Sustainability report is UKOS plc demonstrating how through a sustainability strategy organisations can differentiate themselves from competitors by being environmentally friendly. Customers like suppliers to have a sustainable approach as it “credits their own environmental strategies”. In addition, UKOS plc cut its energy costs by an average of 5% year on year

Ways for SMEs to get started

An initial sustainability internal audit is a good place to start identifying what you are already doing that can be highlighted as sustainable and identifying gaps in your sustainable business strategy.

The next step would be to review your business strategy and integrate a sustainable approach as a central theme across the whole business.

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