Environmental checklist for small businesses

We've outlined an environmental checklist for UK small businesses to help make your company more sustainable and achieve its carbon-cutting goals.

The central message from COP26 was clear: we need to act to help the environment now.

Businesses play a significant role here. Here is a checklist of environmental actions that small businesses can take to reduce carbon emissions, become more sustainable, and have less of a negative impact on the planet.

Improve the energy efficiency of your workplace

In 2016, energy use in industry and in buildings (both residential and commercial) accounted for 41.7 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, so there’s room to cut this down.

“For most companies, the starting point is going to be around energy efficiency. Not least because it is environmentally advantageous, but also cost saving to the firm,” Stephen Roper, professor of enterprise at Warwick Business School, told Small Business.

Here are some straightforward areas to begin with.

  • LED lights – they last longer, use less energy and have lower maintenance costs than traditional lights
  • Insulation – lower your emissions and spend less money on heating
  • Laptops – they’re more energy efficient than desktop computers
  • Switch off as much as you can as often as you can – you could even go as far as switching off the power at the wall for items like computers
  • Review your appliances and replace them with more energy-efficient models, at least A+ rated
  • Install a smart meter – a great way for businesses to monitor energy use, take control of energy bills, and potentially save energy

Another obvious win is changing to a renewable energy tariff. It can seem especially daunting right now as a number of the smaller (and some of the more ethical) providers have gone bust. “I think that there is no guarantee at the moment in the in the gas and energy markets,” said Roper. “The safest way to go is with one of the largest suppliers at the moment, and they all have green tariffs now that tend to be a little bit more expensive than the other tariffs. At least then you can be pretty sure that you’re going to get some sort of continuity in terms of the cost line and the budget line for it. Whereas what’s been happening in many of these situations is that smaller firms have suddenly found their costs going up, or doubling, and that’s not that’s not helpful for anybody trying to budget.”

Louise Palmer-Masterton, CEO of restaurant Stem & Glory, agrees that complementing an energy supplier switch with smaller steps can really make a difference. “If you combine this move with energy saving actions, such as LED lights and energy saving devices, the increased cost of these tariffs can be offset by behaviour change within your office or factory.”

Encourage staff to take greener transport to work

It must be said that you should be setting an example to your staff first, but ideally, you’d be wanting them to follow your lead.

Above all, shaping employee habits is about encouragement rather than force.

“I think people are very keen where they can to try and do something about this and minimise the environmental burden. As an employer, I would be very much building on that and trying to bring people together within the firm to try and say, ‘How can we work together as a company to try and reduce our own our own carbon footprint?’”

“I think the most powerful kind of reward for people is seeing their suggestions being considered by management, or the owners of a business, and being taken seriously.”

For staff who drive in, encourage them to carpool rather than drive in separate cars. You could even set up a car share or ride share scheme, depending on how many employees you have.

You could try subsidising less environmentally damaging transportation like the cycle to work scheme. You could also subsidise season tickets and travel passes, as these can clock up hundreds of pounds for staff. You don’t need to declare this to HMRC so comes as a tax break, unless it’s part of a salary sacrifice arrangement.

Be understanding to those who must use a private car for location, mobility or another practical reason. “I think that for many people there often isn’t much choice,” said Roper. “I think as an employer, you have to recognise that some people will need to use their cars, or they will need to catch a lift with somebody or whatever they do. I think you’ve got to be fairly understanding about individuals’ choices around that first.”

He does add that some larger employers offer bike and/or bike repair grants. But even a smaller employer could offer bike parking space or some shelter for cycling staff to keep their bikes.

Encourage home working staff to be more eco-minded

Working from home often has a number of environmental benefits. It reduces congestion in concentrated areas like city centres, plus it minimises pollution from commuting. On top of that, staff may be more inclined to use food they have at home rather than buying lunch and coffee in single-use containers. However, a number of home offices can leave a bigger carbon footprint than a central workplace, depending on your staff’s actions.

Suggest switching off their electronics (both on the device and at the wall) when they’re not in use. It could also be a good idea to encourage them to look into recycling in their local area and see if they can recycle more. Why not suggest a day once a week where you all eat a plant-based lunch?

Minimise use of paper and stationery

Try and go paperless as far as you can – this goes for invoices, bills, company announcements and other stationery such as sticky labels. Ask staff to only print files when necessary and do presentations using digital technology, limiting paper handouts where possible.

Note-taking apps are suitable for mobile and tablet, ideal for you and your employees. Finally, use file storing software rather than physical file storage.

As with many of these tips, making environmental habits easy for employees is most likely to lead to lasting change. When motivating staff, Palmer-Masterton said: “ You can retrain your mind to question if every single energy use is necessary.”

She advises you to ask yourself the following three questions:

  • Does the business really need this?
  • Where was this made?
  • What happens to this when we no longer need it/want it? and what happens to the packaging?

“It’s not about being 100 per cent perfect, but in this way, you can train yourself (and your team) into better buying habits, and it’s amazing how fast this process can change your mindset,” she told Small Business.

A study in Sweden estimated that 30 per cent of paper consumption is determined by the default option. Even as little as switching the default to the double-sided option, paper consumption could be reduced by 15 per cent, compared to a single-sided print option which consumes more paper and more energy.

Use refurbished or second-hand goods

Similarly, minimising purchases of new tech is less damaging to the environment. Plenty of shops and websites sell second-hand goods as well as refurbished. If you want something new, some shops sell display models of items like laptops at a reduced price.

When you’re kitting out your office social areas, consider second-hand furniture which not only offers a quirky off-beat look but doesn’t create demand for new products.

When you’re buying second-hand, it’s the retailer’s responsibility to make sure it’s in good enough condition to sell to you. That said, it still helps to go to a reputable seller who is knowledgeable and easily contactable if something goes wrong.  

Read more in Upgrading business technology – new vs refurbished.

Improve recycling

A lot of workspaces already have recycling facilities, but you can go one step further by making it easier for staff by putting bins in places that are convenient to recycle. For example, having paper and card recycling near the printer. A clear desk policy (possibly even hotdesking) will lead to more efficient use of paper as staff can’t leave it lying around.  

Check with your waste contractor to see if they recycle what you use because the waste taken can vary between providers. It’s also worth checking how regularly they collect and if they have any small print you should be aware of, like how it should be divided. Check up on costs before you sign anything too – these are often dependent on what kind of material you’ll be recycling.

Just remind staff to wash out containers before putting them in the recycling because food residue can’t be processed and the container they were hoping to recycle might end up in landfill.

Start composting

Depending on where your workplace is situated, composting could be an option for your company. Check for permissions from the owner of the property to see if there are any problems with this. Coffee grounds, tea bags (as long as they don’t contain plastic) and other food waste can be put in a compost bin or in a sealed container.

Adopt digital technologies

Of course, you’ve got the typical tech such as video conferencing software rather than travelling internationally for events and meetings. We all know this can seriously reduce emissions.

But Roper believes there are other, more unexpected, technologies that can help you cut your carbon emissions.

“If you’ve got digital controls on machines, for example, and the machines are sensing when they’re not being used, the machines can shut down,” he said.

Make sure your packaging is sustainable

If you run a takeaway food and drink business or a business that involves sending goods in packaging, e.g. an Etsy shop, then you could look into greener packaging options. Some more unusual examples include mushrooms, seaweed and cornstarch, but there are also other biodegradable and recycled options available.    

Get an external audit

Bring an expert in who can take a look and see where you could improve. This isn’t just reserved for big business either – research from the Warwick Business School carried out last year showed that one in five SMEs had had some kind of environmental report done.

Where do you find an auditor?

“There are a number of kinds of third sector organisations and charitable organisations who do them and Google’s great for searching these. LEPs or Growth Hubs might be a good way of getting in touch with somebody who might be able to help around that space,” said Roper.

Partner with green businesses and get them in your supply chain

Partner with other businesses that have green initiatives. Modern shoppers are interested in your supply chain’s ethics as well as yours. Before you partner up, research the business to see if their values align with your own.

Green-providers.co.uk has a list of suppliers that have green credentials.

If in doubt, look for an ISO 14001 certification, though if a business doesn’t have it, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not an eco-friendly company.

Get B Corp certified

Once you’ve got all this in place, prove yourself by getting certified. The B Corp certification is lengthy (made up of 200 questions) but may be worth it, especially if your target market is more ethically-minded.

The assessment is free and measures your entire social and environmental performance in areas such as your supply chain, the materials you use and employee benefits. It has benefits beyond environment – it could attract employees, customers and investors too. Be aware that there is an annual cost once you’re certified which is dependent on your annual sales.  

We interviewed Ella’s Kitchen founder, Paul Lindley, about getting B Corp certified.  

Carbon offsetting

We’ve left this until last as carbon offsetting is more of an action to do after you’ve taken other steps to reduce your emissions. If you put carbon offsetting before carbon reduction, you could be accused of greenwashing by consumers.

First, calculate your carbon footprint. Calculate the emissions from your day-to-day operations such as fuel used on-site, for a company car or from industrial processes. The second scope is energy sources that you buy that you don’t own or have any control over, like heat and electricity. The third scope is indirect emissions that occur as a result of your business activity. Think about waste along with emissions from transporting goods that have been purchased as well as the footprint of employees travelling to and from work.

Enter these figures into a carbon calculator online, such as this one from Carbon Footprint. Once you’ve got your carbon footprint, you can make plans to reduce your emissions and offset the rest by planting trees and donating to environmental projects.    

How many have you ticked off the environmental checklist for small businesses?

It doesn’t matter where you start – or how many you’ve already done – there are plenty of ways you can make your business more environmentally friendly and sustainable. If you have any more suggestions, share them in the comments section below.

Read more

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Anna Jordan

Anna is Senior Reporter, covering topics affecting SMEs such as grant funding, managing employees and the day-to-day running of a business.