Planet vs profit: what are current SME attitudes towards environmental sustainability?


In 2019 the pressure grew on all of us to smarten up our green credentials. But businesses were also asked to step up their game and adopt more planet-friendly ways of working.

Considering there were 5.8 million small businesses in the UK at the start of 2019, the combined weight of SMEs means that they could make a substantial contribution towards a greener way of life. But what do SMEs think about environmental sustainability? To take their temperature, we went and spoke to them. The results were then produced in our report: Reduce, reuse, recycle: what SMEs are doing to save the planet.

Environmental impact pie chartOne planet

Encouragingly, our survey revealed that many businesses have placed the environment high on the agenda, with only 10% of our respondents saying that environmental sustainability was the least important business factor to them. Indeed, out of seven areas of business development, environmental sustainability came in second place, right behind staff morale.

SMEs placed such emphasis on it that it even rose above customer satisfaction in the list of priorities. Also encouraging was the fact that the vast majority of our respondents thought that it was ‘very important’ that SMEs considered the environmental impact of their businesses.

However, of those who classed it as ‘slightly important’ or of ‘neutral’ importance, it is interesting that the vast majority were in the Construction, Manufacturing, IT and Engineering sectors. As these sectors tend to come with large carbon footprints and are often cited as ‘problem’ industries for the environment, this response could be a cause of concern.

Environmental bar graphReduce, reuse, recycle

There were a pessimistic 7% of respondents who believed that it was unrealistic for a business to be environmentally friendly, but the majority overruled them. This is also reflected by the large range of measures businesses have enacted to make their work a little greener. For instance:

  • 70% purchase recycled products
  • 84% turn off their electrics every evening
  • 89% turn off lighting and heating every evening
  • 82% use energy-saving products
  • 31% have a paperless policy
  • 90% have separate bins for recycling
  • 46% encourage green commuting

SMEs were also taking other steps to reduce the environmental impact of their business. For example, 61% had made changes to reduce the impact of their use of natural resources and 37% had worked to reduce air pollution. Another 69% also had an Environmental Management System such as ISO 14001 in place.

Investing for sustainability

However, a more varied picture emerged when we questioned SMEs on the level of investment needed.  From their answers, it was apparent that there was a divide when it came to determining the size of the investment and the level of action required. Some SMEs maintained that investment should be based on the size of the business, but others argued that investment should be based on how much of a problem that business is to the environment.

Graph resultsOur business has minimal environmental impact,” said one respondent. “There is no chemical use or production. Heat, lighting, office and workshop waste are all managed to be low. We [therefore] don’t need to invest in this.

Others deemed that as long as the business was adhering to environmental regulations, then investment should be put into profit-making instead.This suggests that the Government may need to issue more guidance or even legislation to help businesses decide whether to invest in environmental sustainability, and how much to invest.

In total, 10% of our respondents did not think that they needed to invest, but 74% believed that an annual investment of between £1,000 and £10,000 should be made. What was heartening was that of those who suggested an investment of more than £10,000 per annum, 54% were in Construction and 23% were in Manufacturing – industries that can have a significant environmental impact.

Goal or strategy?

Our survey also revealed that many SMEs saw environmental sustainability as a goal that was to be achieved rather than an ever-evolving, long-term strategy. For instance, one respondent replied that “our carbon footprint is 0.01 –  there’s not much more needing to be done”. While this is admirable, it does suggest that some SMEs are not taking a strategic view or acknowledging that goalposts and regulations can change, sometimes rapidly, depending on the political will.

Planet or profit – what can your business do?

Businesses of any size can take significant steps to reduce their impact on the environment and promote sustainable practices. This could involve recycling, reducing the use of natural resources or using environmentally friendly construction materials.

Businesses can also show their clients, customers and suppliers that they take the environment seriously by investing in an Environmental Management System, such as ISO 14001.

ISO 14001 helps to demonstrate that we’re trustworthy and committed, as well as focused on making a difference for the future,” said Nigel Glover, HSBQ Manager of WMQ Building Services. “It’s not a ‘nice to have’; it’s essential for us to have this.

Having ISO 14001 means that your business can also be prepared to meet any changes to environmental legislation as well as find ways of reducing waste, energy and water consumption. This could have the added benefit of saving you money.

Find out more about Environmental Management Systems

If you’d like to find out more about ISO 14001, you can visit our dedicated web page or get in touch with us on 0333 344 3646. You can also get an idea of price with our free quote calculator. To find out more about SMEs’ views on environmental sustainability, you can also download our in-depth report.

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About the author

  • Name:

    Claire Price

  • Company:

    Content Marketing Executive

  • Bio:

    Claire worked for Citation ISO Certification between 2020 and 2022 writing creative and informative content on ISO certification and consultation to help businesses reach their potential.


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