Big ambitions: How SME’s can become sustainability leaders

Next up in the series of contributed articles for edie's Sustainability Leadership Month, Andy Wood, chief executive of Suffolk-based brewer and distiller Adnams, outlines how small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can incorporate sustainability in their business agenda.

Growing economic pressures, an uncertain political landscape and increasing competition means sustainability has in some cases fallen down the business agenda. This is often true for SMEs, who may feel they have other areas in greater need of focus.

However, in a world where trust in business is low, pursuing sustainability and demonstrating strong business ethics and values can help to develop trust with customers, suppliers and staff and make the business more innovative. This is in addition to the obvious benefits that becoming more environmentally friendly can bring, such as streamlining processes, reducing waste, becoming more energy efficient and cutting costs.

While it can be a daunting prospect to start with, environmental impacts span almost all areas and some steps that might be taken are: –

1) Be bold

Make a statement and aim high. It is often easier to pursue one particular area and focus on making a difference there rather than spreading yourself across multiple initiatives. When you spread yourself too thinly, especially as a smaller business with fewer resources, you are less likely to see an impact. This can be disheartening. Being bold and focused will kick-start your initiative and inspire your workforce to support it.

Our environmentally-friendly distribution centre, which opened in 2006, was just such an initiative. It brought our values to life for all to see. It not only kick-started our environmental programme, it also gave us the confidence to grow, based upon a clear purpose and set of social and environmental values. We are a more innovative business as a result.

2) Support a higher business purpose

Be clear about your purpose and the revenue and profit will take care of itself. That’s the theory. Establishing a purpose can really help to guide all of your activities and developments. At Adnams, we strive to ‘do the right thing’ making sure our impact on society and the environment is positive. This sentiment is supported across many areas of the business from our work within the community through to the Adnams Charitable Trust and Pennies, the electronic cashbox, through to our drive to reduce our carbon footprint including such things as light-weighting the 10 million beer bottles we use.

Being purpose-led and values driven provides direction in turbulent times whilst enabling you to be adaptable, agile and responsive through a better understanding of what is driving value in your business. 

3) Determine what’s important to your workforce; customers and stakeholders

For an SME, often focusing on one particular activity is the way to build confidence and make an impact. Understanding the beneficiaries of your purpose such as; customers, staff, or the environment will begin to set you apart. At the other end of the scale, Unilever has ‘making sustainable living commonplace’ as its purpose. From there, it believes it can accelerate business growth at the same time as reducing its environmental footprint. SMEs are often part of an extended supply chain. Are there others in that chain that you could work with to amplify your impact?

Adnams has worked in this way with a large High Street retailer taking our environmental knowledge and using this to help them transform their beer category. This has achieved business growth for both our partner and us, as well as a reduced environmental footprint, and built an enduring relationship based upon shared goals and trust. We also seek new and interesting supply chain partners. We are currently working with an SME, Diesel Dynamics, which has a technology that enables us to retro fit our vehicle fleet to run on natural gas from the onsite anaerobic digester located at our distribution centre or from the grid. Although still in a trial phase, early signs are that we are seeing a 9% reduction in CO2, in nitrogen oxide of 63% and a fuel cost saving approaching 22%.

4) Learn from others around you

Few ideas are really new. Opening the mind of the company to what others are doing and adapting it to fit your business can be a great first step. Often the best ideas can come from outside of your sector. This may require reimagining a process or processes and adapting them to what you do and this can be worthwhile. We recently visited a confectioner to share ideas, look for collaboration opportunities and to generally learn.

We will be adapting some of our business processes as a result with all the attendant benefits for efficiency, the environment and business growth. Many of our sustainability innovations stem from our relationship with the University of East Anglia. In particular our team works with the Adapt Low Carbon Group who have helped us with understanding the carbon emissions and water footprint of our products.

5) Communicate your values through action

It is important that everyone understands what you are trying to do, from shareholders through to customers. Communication of your purpose through actions as well as words is so important. We regularly hold shareholder open days enabling us to have a more intimate conversation with our owners around what we do and how we do it. Reaching out in this way improves understanding, develops support and provides the Adnams team with the opportunity to demonstrate the pride they have for all that they achieve.

We extend this to more fun events too. Very simply, we organise a clean of Southwold beach, a stone’s throw from our brewery and headquarters, a couple of times a year. It encourages employees and their families, local residents, shareholders and anyone else who wants to get involved to work alongside us to improve our surroundings; it’s a simple event to organise, involves fish and chips and a pint in an Adnams pub at the end of the day and effectively reminds everyone how important it is we look after our own backyard.

6) Keep an open mind

Consumer and customer demands, employee demands, investor demands and societal demands means business today is in a state of perpetual change. Accepting this as normal and navigating through purpose and values is one way forward. Adnams has been on this journey for more than 10 years and the approach has stood us in good stead through volatile and uncertain times. Volatility and uncertainty are likely to be watchwords in business and society for some time to come.

Being an SME has obvious downsides in terms of scale and access to markets. However, if you can be quick to learn and change, those downsides become strengths. Being purpose led and values driven with an environmental emphasis has enabled us to better understand the ebbs and flows within our business and identify opportunities to eliminate waste in all its guises and importantly recruit a great team of like-minded people. We will never be content and say we have completed this journey although we are undoubtedly a stronger and fitter business for setting sail on it.

We’ve grown from an SME to a mid-sized business. We will never forget our roots and we don’t take ourselves too seriously either as we make wonderful beer and distill great spirits in a beautiful Suffolk coastal town. It’s a rotten job, but someone has to do it.

Andy Wood is the chief executive of Suffolk-based brewer and distiller Adnams

edie’s Sustainability Leadership month and Sustainability Leaders Forum

The month of December sees edie shift the editorial spotlight from skills to leadership, ahead of the Sustainability Leaders Forum in London on 25-26 January 2017 – which Adnams CEO Andy Wood is speaking at (find out more and register to attend here).

Taking the conversation beyond the operational, this month is dedicated to the leading edge of sustainability thinking. We’ll meet the organisations and the individuals that are driving the agenda forward, discuss the hot topics that are keeping the UK’s chief sustainability officer’s awake and night, and showcase some of the suppliers and technologies that are driving the green industrial revolution.

Read all of edie’s sustainability leadership content here.

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