Report: Majority of UK SMEs struggling to embed sustainability

Almost three-quarters of UK SMEs are struggling to embed sustainability practices, citing costs issues and unfavourable government policies as major stumbling blocks, according to a new report.

 Less than a third of respondents felt that ethical practices should include stakeholder engagement outside of financial backers

Less than a third of respondents felt that ethical practices should include stakeholder engagement outside of financial backers

The Uprising Report was released earlier this week by advertising agency 18 Feet & Rising, polling 100 chief executives of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on approaches to sustainability. While 88% of respondents claimed to value sustainability, 70% had struggled to embed practices and strategies.

The report noted that eight in 10 SMEs plan to introduce more ethical and sustainable practices within the next five years, but that many were struggling to accelerate progress in the current climate. Notably, 40% thought that sustainable practices were too costly to implement, while 42% claimed that the UK Government wasn’t doing enough to encourage sustainable business practices.

Respondents highlighted high consumer demand for business ethics – which can be viewed in the current wave of business pledges to reduce plastics use – as a primary reason for wanting to implement sustainability measures. However, more than half (53%) of respondents were yet to seek advice for their sustainability strategy.

In a reflection of more brands attempting to find their purpose, 38% of respondents cited “making a difference in the world” as a key motivator, which ranked higher that differentiating business from the competition. Around a quarter of chief executives claimed that sustainability would attract and retain staff.

When chief executives were quizzed on what makes a business ethical, three quarters ranked “treating people fairly” as the highest option. Sourcing manufacturing materials responsibly was second (58%) with maintaining energy efficiency (51%) in third. Less than a third of respondents felt that ethical practices should include stakeholder engagement outside of financial backers.

SMEs and SDGs

SMEs have also been encouraged to play a role in meeting the most “economic” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); like promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for all (Goal 8) as well as promoting sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation (Goal 9).

With the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Mary Creagh labelling attempts from Government to address and implement the SDGs as "a total fail", SMEs and large businesses may have to pick up the slack.

Fortunately, small businesses in Scotland have been encouraged to take advantage of a new "cashback" scheme that could enable them to cut annual energy usage by a quarter and save up to £10,000 in the process.

The loan will target SMEs that have energy efficiency projects in the pipeline that can lower emissions, energy usage and demonstrate cost savings. The 30% cashback offer can generate up to £10,000 for SMEs, while the energy efficiency improvements could create savings of up to £8,000 on average each year.

Matt Mace


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