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11 April 2018

Do SMEs feel the heat on Sustainability?

This month's Ask Gareth is slightly different as it reflects on a conversation on Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) with fellow Sustainability consultant Michelle Marks of Coral Mountain (@losetheplastic) rather than a direct question from a viewer. The topic was such a good one, and we haven't done many Ask Gareths on SMEs, I thought I would cover it.

What do you think? Comments in the comments, please!

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions of Ask Gareth here.


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12 February 2018

Small is Sustainable?

Interesting report from advertising agency 18 Feet & Rising this week. They polled 100 CEOs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) about attitudes to Sustainability. 88% said they valued Sustainability, but 70% were struggling to do so.

I found the former statistic encouraging but the latter baffling. Having worked with a couple of hundred SMEs over the years, I've found their agility often makes it easier for them to adopt Sustainability principles than their larger competitors. Of the 18 interviews in my book The Green Executive, I quote the SMEs examples more than the others. Instant decision-making, short levers of control and relatively few assets mean change can happen very quickly indeed.

In my experience, the difference between those doing so and those who aren't is almost always the attitude of the boss. Leadership is the critical factor as usual.

So perhaps many of those 88% aren't being entirely honest with themselves – or the interviewers.


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10 June 2015

Supply Chain Sustainability for SMEs

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I'm asked how a small, local shop can compete with larger retailers when it comes to supply chain sustainability. The ideas I respond with apply to any small business which wants to take sustainability seriously.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!.


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13 March 2013

Who's better at sustainability - MegaCorps or SMEs?

Great Dane HARLEQUIN and a chihuahua

A recent survey has suggested that while 96% of FTSE100 companies see sustainability as essential to their business, the number drops to 56% when it comes to Small & Medium Sized Enterprises. Both figures came of something of a shock to me - impressed with the FTSE100 results and depressed by the SMEs.

In my experience many SMEs compete for work in a B2B environment where the big corporations and the public sector are pushing sustainability down into their supply chains. So the SMEs have more to lose as the buyers generally have a choice.

Mulling on this lead me to another question: who is better placed to embrace sustainability? Here's a simple comparison:


  • Capital investment is easier come by;
  • Resources can be brought to bear on issues with little impact on the rest of the organisation.
  • Buying power gives corporations the opportunity to build the supply chain and/or technology they want/need.
  • Lobbying power can help get things done in the wider business/political eco-system.


  • Visibility - assessments can be done very quickly and large impacts are usually obvious.
  • Agility - change can be implemented very quickly due to the size of the organisation, its smaller asset lists and short reporting chains.
  • Responsiveness - a small change can have a large impact - e.g. upgrading the sole boiler in the company.
  • Innovation - new ideas are less likely to get lost in internal politics and committees, but can tried, assessed and dropped if necessary.

I have particular scorn for those who assume SMEs struggle with sustainability - many of my favourite case studies feature forward thinking SMEs. Whether a business is big or small, fundamentally it comes down to the mentality of its leadership.


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21 May 2012

CSR and the "myth of the poor SME"

When I was down in London last Wednesday night, I had a light, but delicious dinner in the bar of the rather swish hotel I was staying in and then, over an overpriced beer, took part in the #CSRChat Twitter event hosted by Susan McPherson of Fenton in New York (hence the hour). The keynote tweeter/victim was David Connor of Coethica (from this side of the pond) answering questions on CSR in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) - usually defined as independent companies with less than 250 employees.

It was a superb and fun session and I was very impressed with how David managed to keep multiple threads of conversation going simultaneously with so many participants and still make such insightful points. I picked up a lot on issues I don't have much experience of like social enterprise and cause marketing - all to a live tinkling piano accompaniment (at my end only!).

However, I did go off on a bit of a mini rant in the middle of the session when I felt there was an implicit acceptance in the debate of what I call "the myth of the poor SME". I first came across this in my last job which largely involved running European funded projects to support SMEs take up greener business practices. Inevitably I got sucked into a number of wider attempts to improve the uptake of such business support - all based on the assumption that the region's SMEs were desperate for the help they were being offered but were stumbling about cluelessly trying to find it. I heard the phrase "the poor SME" bandied about by bureaucrats on a regular basis. If these people had actually spoken to a small/medium sized business owner they would have been a lot less patronising - those guys/gals are largely astute, informed and focussed, and perfectly capable of finding the help they need if and when they need it. They run their own business after all.

I hold the same opinion when it comes to SMEs and the corporate social responsibility/sustainability agenda. While SMEs face challenges such as low buying power, they hold a lot of advantages over their larger corporate cousins:

  • They are compact - an environmental audit can be done in hours rather than weeks, a plan can almost literally be written on the back of the proverbial fag packet;
  • They are agile - change can be implemented very quickly due to the size of the organisation, its smaller asset lists and short reporting chains;
  • They are responsive - if the boss decides something needs doing, there is little argument - it gets done.

It is no coincidence that my favourite case studies in The Green Executive are those of the SMEs such as Muckle LLP, EAE Ltd and Boss Paints. These companies have shown how the innovation, focus and agility of the best SMEs has enabled them to tackle problems in really creative ways. These guys can show you how to do CSR/sustainability properly.

This is because the key success factor for any organisation is not access to finance or knowledge, but the attitude of the business leader. In an SME if the owner decides to aggressively pursue environmental and/or ethical goals, it will get done. If they're not really interested, it won't. It's as simple as that.

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5 October 2007

SME awareness of legislation still poor, but improving

This year's NetRegs survey of UK Small and Medium Enterprises has shown a sudden jump in awareness of environmental issues and legislation - but the overall result is still poor. Only one in four small business owners can name one piece of environmental legislation that applies to them - despite the fact that all businesses have a duty of care for their waste and all are expected to recycle their Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). The only good news is that this is up from one in seven last year.

Something I have come across this year is unscrupulous companies trying use this lack of awareness to scare people into accepting their services. One lady, who ran a jewellers' shop, had been told by a waste company that the Landfill Directive now meant that all waste had to be pre-treated before it is landfilled - the implication being only this company could provide a legal landfill service. Pre-treatment is indeed required, but the Environment Agency expects the waste management industry to deal with this requirement - not small businesses and retailers.

So there is a double imperative to understand environmental legislation - to make sure your business is neither hauled up in court by the Environment Agency nor ripped off by the sharks.

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3 September 2007

New Recycling Support for SMEs

WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) has launched the Recycling @ Work scheme to help Small and Medium Size Enterprises (SMEs)* find ways to recycle their waste. There is an advisor in each of the English Regions plus, N Ireland, Scotland & Wales.

This is great news as it can be extremely difficult for small companies to find cost effective collections - mainly because the amount of waste is too small to make it worth the while of recycling companies dispatching a wagon to get it.

I've always thought that a good solution would be to deliver waste collections at a business park level rather than firm-by-firm, so on one day the same wagon could pick up, say, cardboard from dozens of units on the same round, saving time, fuel and money. Someday I will find a business park owner who wants to give it a go.

* as a rule of thumb, an SME has less than 250 employees and is not part of a larger group of companies.

NOTE: The WRAP Website is down at the time of writing so links may not work... Update - now working fine!

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