in the green corner: david versus goliath

Corporate sustainability definitely has something of the cool factor about it. In recent years it has been styled into a spiritual concept almost, by big brands eager to prove their business models are worthy of soul.

Whether you’re “doing the right thing” at Marks & Spencer or creating “a better environment, inside and out” on Airbus, the green sheen is there to be admired. What boggles the mind is just how much money and time is spent on polishing that sustainable halo.

If we climb down a few rungs of the CSR ladder, where small and medium-sized enterprises lurk, a very different picture emerges. What you tend to find here is more of the doing and less of the preaching.

Many SMEs are quietly making their own positive contributions to greater resource efficiency, often with simple actions. Whether that’s installing recycling bins, switching off the office lights at night or installing a baler outside in the car park.

For a company with less than 50 staff, taking such steps can make a huge difference to the bottom line. Perhaps because it makes such an impact, they don’t tend to label it as sustainability, but as sound business sense.

As Paul Adderley, a sustainability consultant writing in The Guardian, points out: “For SMEs that engage with the sustainability agenda, the focus is on measurable actions that deliver a rapid return on effort and the bottom line.”

He goes on to quote an example of one organisation that went from zero to recycling over 90% of its waste. This generated cost savings of £21,000 in the first year – or the equivalent impact of £325,000 in new sales. For a SME, those figures are not to be sniffed at.

When talking to these smaller organisations, there is a certain reluctance to shout about their success. It’s almost endearing. Take this week, for instance. I spoke to a waste manager from a NHS trust who told me about how they had boosted recycling levels and were now tackling food waste with gusto.

When I told him it was all very positive and worthy of some coverage, he sounded surprised. “Oh, I’m not sure about that,” he replied. “I just wanted to tell you about how we do things up here.”

Now if he were to court some publicity, he would not only raise his own organisation’s profile, but help share best practice which can encourage others to act. This would prove invaluable as many SMEs feel they don’t have the resources to put their sustainability agendas up in lights.

In these greenwashed times, it’s somewhat ironic really. If we look back at that ladder, perhaps it’s a case of less puff up top, and more oomph down below.

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