How to *really* engage SMEs in climate action
I nearly choked on my coffee the other morning when I saw a COP28 session entitled ‘How to use international standards to engage SMEs in climate action’ sponsored, unsurprisingly, by the International Standards Organisation. I mean, what the actual…
First off, the vast majority of Small/Medium-sized Organisations (SMEs) are micro-businesses like mine and any form of international standard is far too onerous. Secondly, ISO standards are a tool, not an end in themselves, and tend to promote incremental improvements, not step changes. They are designed for big, complex organisations, not small agile ones. The wag who said “ISO140001 allows you to destroy the planet in a well documented manner” wasn’t exaggerating too much. Thirdly? Well, they’re the teensiest bit dull, to be brutally honest.
I like to think I know the SME market when it comes to Sustainability. I cut my teeth running European-funded projects in the 2000s, supporting a few hundred SMEs on Sustainability. We’ve had countless SMEs on our Green Academy (now Net Zero Business Academy). During the pandemic, I ran Sustainability workshops for a couple of hundred SMEs as part of the Small Business Leadership Programme, and this year I’ve been supporting and coaching SMEs as part of the To Net Zero programme. And through it all, I’ve learnt that SMEs aren’t like what most bureaucrats think they are.
In my experience there are three main reasons SMEs embrace climate action (in rough order):
1. The passion of the business leader. I’ve long quoted AEA Ltd, a small leaflet distribution company who were way, way ahead of the curve on renewable energy and electric vehicles. No systems, just the owner, Glen Bennett doing the right thing. More recently, while working with the NHS in Somerset, I met the team at Frome Medical Practice, who are leading the country in Sustainability in primary care. Again, the drive came from inside, rather than externally.
2. Entrepreneurs sensing a business opportunity. Almost 25 years ago, I was invited to a Hartlepool coal yard by Vikki Jackson-Smith, who had inherited the family business, J&B Fuels, from her father. The domestic solid fuel market was in terminal decline and she desperately needed to find something new. She had realised that J&B’s facilities/expertise in handling, grading and selling loose, dirty and flammable materials could be applied to recycling. Today J&B Recycling employs more than 200 people over 2 sites and is thriving.
3. Customer demand. As more and more large organisations take responsibility for their supply chain impacts, their targets are being driven down to suppliers. Adapting to this demand, whether on internal processes or through greener products and services, is essential to keep your customer base on board.
The main advantage that SMEs have over larger organisations is agility. Small business owners are very sensitive to the business environment around them and can adapt rapidly. The last thing that would help with agility is a documentation-heavy environmental standard. More often they need a sounding board who can help them turn a hazy ambition into a concrete action plan.