Driving the sustainability agenda is impossible without SMEs

17 Sep 2022 | Author: Marta Bigio

Rising sustainability priorities can push SMEs to innovate effective and economical sustainability solutions

A version of this story first appeared in the official website of the Association of Small & Medium Enterprises (ASME). Click here to read it.

Globally, there is little doubt that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the driving force and backbone of economies, representing 90 per cent of businesses and contributing to 50 per cent of employment. Given their vast numbers, it stands to reason that meaningful change in the sustainability agenda cannot be achieved without them – and they can even be a key champion and driving force in industry transformations.

Historically, amongst SMEs, there have been few resources allocated towards sustainability, given that often limited resources must compete with other, perceivably more immediate, business priorities. There has also been minimal support to effect real or tangible practices. Now, however, there is growing recognition that prioritising resources toward sustainability drives business growth, and organisations with unclear sustainability agendas could face higher reputational risks.

SMEs are therefore increasingly on the lookout for opportunities to embrace sustainable practices – no matter how small – and incorporate them into their everyday operations. Recognising that this is not just part of good business in building resilience and driving long-term growth, they can be empowered to not just transform internally, but also impact their surrounding communities and industry ecosystems with positive social and environmental benefits.

Overcoming the “iceberg syndrome”

Talking about corporate sustainability is sometimes referred to as the “tip of the iceberg”. There is far too much time spent talking about the goals, ambitions or measures that are going to be put in place versus actually implementing the actions that address the root and delve beneath the “iceberg”. Ideally, there should be 95 per cent of the “doing” in solutions and only 5 per cent of the “talking”.

Yet, there is sometimes inertia when it comes to the “doing” – because SMEs may not know where to begin. Either there is a lack of know-how or they are confronted with multiple potential solutions, which can be just as overwhelming as having no options at all (often referred to as the paradox of choice). This inertia might be compounded by uncertainty as to how to prioritise available resources.

However, a global assessment of the future readiness of organisations has revealed that in fact, what sets SMEs apart and remains a potential to be harnessed is their ability to influence internal processes and their immediate external environments. These advantages can be leveraged and optimised to re-imagine solutions that not only benefit the environment but also the SMEs themselves.

Re-imagining solutions

There are several ways SMEs can unlock greater action to support the sustainability agenda and encourage innovation without incurring significant investment or upheaval:

a. Self-reflection

Knowing “where you are at” in the sustainable journey can help identify what can feasibly be accomplished. For instance, are you at the start of the journey, or has the board already approved a strategy? Do you have a plan for an individual, team, or someone in the organisation to dedicate time to this agenda? Who are the sustainability champions that can initiate this agenda?

b. Leveraging existing frameworks and resources

There is a growing number of platforms SMEs can leverage to support their sustainability journeys without reinventing the wheel. For instance, B Corp’s tools can help companies prioritise areas they estimate will have the most impact and relevance for their sectors, and Climate Hub’s free online course helps SMEs take climate action in seven achievable steps.

c. Spreading organisational awareness

By treating sustainability as a vector of SME growth, organisations can empower internal shifts in employee attitudes and mindsets, reinforced by strategic messaging. For example, whilst encouraging partnerships with sustainable stationery supply sources, the why of this could be communicated. It is also helpful to refer to any changes as a journey, and not in absolute terms.

d. Setting expectations

Given that time, cost and resources are often kept lean in SMEs, setting employee expectations might be required whilst changes are being put in place. For instance, letting executive assistants or management know that extra time and hours may be required to research sustainable supply chains or approve budgets might be necessary.

e. Harnessing the “multiplier effect”

As SMEs have close relationships with vendors, clients, and others in their immediate external environment, there is the opportunity to impact a wider marketplace. For instance, in a food business, there could be incentives offered to consumers if the option for recyclable cutlery is exercised, or credits provided to those who bring their own containers.

Enabling growth by giving more than you take

SMEs play a much bigger role than we realise in influencing communities and the surrounding industry ecosystems. They can easily debunk the myth that only large organisations with impressive resources can act for sustainable impact, and create even greater influence by strategically fostering thoughtful collaborations and partnerships (especially given two-thirds of ESG commitments lie with suppliers).

As brands on a mission to protect the environment with defined principles and a sustainable agenda are more inclined to attract and retain talent, this additionally builds organisational resilience whilst benefiting bottom lines, contributing to all-round sustainable growth. They have the potential to therefore impact and influence organisations of all sizes to be sustainable, and future-ready.