A monthly exploration into the world of sustainability in the built environment with commentary and input from UCEM’s Principal and academics.
Small businesses have a crucial role in the battle against climate change
Posted on: 20 September, 2023
Think your small business is too small to make a difference on climate change and sustainability? Here’s why you may want to reconsider.
Small businesses are the backbone of commerce in the UK. According to GOV.UK, there are around 5.47 million businesses in the UK with 0 to 49 employees, making up more than 99% of all businesses in the private sector.
These businesses are the key drivers of growth and innovation – they account for over half (52%) of the private sector’s overall turnover and their growth directly affects the UK’s economy. They’re also instrumental in supporting local communities and are central for recruitment, too, creating jobs for millions and increasing employment rates across the country.
So, while they might be made of small numbers (some even as sole traders), they have enormous influence as a collective. However, when it comes to the environment and the importance of sustainability, there’s often the perception that these companies are too small to have any meaningful and positive impact on climate change.
This is simply not true.
If you own a small business, you hold a unique opportunity to support the UK’s environmental goals whilst contributing to a more sustainable future. And, with rising concerns about the environment and the potential impact climate change can have on your operations, it’s crucial to take proactive steps to protect yourself and reduce your carbon footprint.
In this comprehensive guide, we will dig into the risks of a changing climate for small businesses and provide you actionable measures to combat climate change and foster more sustainable operations.
What does climate change mean for small businesses?
Climate change is the long-term alteration of weather patterns and global temperatures caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from human activities. It leads to a range of impacts, including rising sea levels, extreme weather events, shifts in precipitation patterns, and ecosystem disruptions.
Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Many businesses need adequate weather conditions to function properly. Additionally, if you’re struck by a natural disaster, limited resources may affect your ability to recover.
Below are some of the biggest risks of climate change for small businesses:
Flooding, as a result of intense rainfall and rising sea levels, can have a devastating impact on businesses. In the UK, damage from floods costs around £1.3 billion every year. For small businesses, floods can lead to:
Significant damage to stock and/or property
Power loss for your in-person and/or online operations/communications
Disruption of your supply chain
Staff being unable to travel
Reduced or zero consumer footfall
Increased greenhouse gas emissions are warming the earth’s climate, creating more severe heatwaves more frequently. In July of this year, small businesses in the US were forced to close early and reduce paid worker hours as a result of temperatures reaching dangerous levels.
Extreme heat has and will continue to have a major impact on small businesses. Not only can it be dangerous for the health of workers, but it can also reduce consumer footfall as businesses are forced to close their doors altogether. This will likely lead to business interruption and reduced sales which, coupled with higher energy costs, can make the summer a challenging time for your company.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, warming temperatures are pushing stronger polar winds towards southern climates. This is creating colder winters and more frequent instances of ‘cold snaps’ – short, intense periods of extreme cold.
Colder winters present a number of challenges for small businesses, including:
More risks of slips, trips and falls thanks to icy surfaces
Employees ‘snowed-in’ and unable to travel
Increased sickness in the cold and flu season
Business closure in countries and areas not used to arctic conditions
Business interruption through impact on supply chains and suppliers
Increased energy costs
There are risks from climate change that aren’t so obvious, too, including:
Disruption to communications: Solar flares – intense explosions of radiation from the Sun – can disrupt and knock out your communications systems thanks to our weakened ozone layer.
Electrical fires: Flooding can cause fires if it’s able to reach your circuitry and cause short circuits.
Why small businesses are so important in the battle against climate change
The message from the above risks is clear – climate change is here, and it has the potential to disrupt or even destroy your business altogether if action isn’t taken.
But what, you may ask, can one business do to combat climate change? And what’s the point in trying to make a difference when anything that can be done will have such a small impact?
As Hazel Lobo, Programme Leader and Academic Tutor in Real Estate and Management at UCEM, says:
“Just as many drops of water are needed to create a flood, we need many small businesses doing little things. Those little things can combine to have a big impact.”
While the impact from one business may be small, small businesses as a collective have the opportunity to turn the tide on the battle against climate change. Just as your success can make or break the state of the economy and levels of employment across the country, participating in the push to Net Zero can go a long way to helping the UK build a sustainable future.
What’s more, with the risks outlined above, embracing sustainability is essential for ensuring your business can survive the impact of climate change.
5 ways small businesses can help combat climate change
1. Evaluate your carbon footprint
The first and most obvious thing you can do is measure the carbon footprint of your business.
While this might sound daunting, there are plenty of free resources, such as Carbon Trust’s SME Carbon Footprint Calculator, that can help you work this out.
Doing this gives you a specific understanding of your business and the particular challenges you’ll likely face. From here, you can create a checklist of things to manage.
However, as Hazel Lobo notes:
“Think carefully about what this means for your business. In all likelihood, you won’t have a lot of expenditure for this at the beginning – but there are things you can do to save money. You can then use that money to support some of the more costly initiatives.”
2. Assess your supply chains
For various reasons, your supply chain may involve suppliers based internationally. Often, the parts you need simply aren’t available in your country, or if they are, the costs are astronomical.
Instead of removing this supplier altogether, consider building in enough lead time in the process to have things by rail – a far less damaging mode of transport than by air.
We’ve already covered the impact climate change can have on supply chains above. With this in mind, it may be worth reviewing your supply chain to ensure your day-to-day operations aren’t at risk from international climate events.
3. Review your packaging
Overconsumption is one of the leading contributors to the climate emergency, but the responsibility extends to businesses as well as consumers.
For small businesses, be mindful of the packaging you use for your products. Ask yourself: can you swap to a lighter grade of cardboard if you’re using plastic?
Even if you’re not big enough to have to report on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) targets, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t, as this will help you recognise your environmental impact. Less packaging will mean less waste, while lighter packaging can often be cheaper and easier to transport.
4. Reduce your energy consumption
The UK energy crisis of 2022, amid rising living costs, brought greater awareness to how people can reduce energy consumption in their homes. And, as Hazel Lobo states, this same mindset should be brought into your business:
“Turn off anything that you don’t need to leave on… Go round your office environment. Go round and make sure all the plugs are turned off if they’re not supporting essential equipment. You’d be surprised over the course of a year how much energy standby mode uses.”
Lighting is something else that’s in your control, too. As well as not turning them on if you don’t need them, consider switching your lights to LED bulbs.
Even if you’re renting the space your business operates in, you can speak to whoever owns the space, as they may be able to make changes.
5. Adopt flexible working and encouraging eco-friendly commuting
While the COVID-19 pandemic drove workers across the globe out of their offices, benefits such as reduced commuting costs, a better work-life balance and improved productivity have kept many in remote and hybrid work. Global greenhouse gas levels fell during the pandemic, leading many to identify another benefit of remote and hybrid working – reduced emissions.
Along with adopting flexible models, simply encouraging your staff to use other methods of transport can have a big impact on emissions.
Small businesses: Don’t be discouraged
“Sustainability hangs on three pillars, and economic is one of them, so don’t let your business suffer for any of these things. None of these should have a negative impact on your business… we’re looking for positives all round.” – Hazel Lobo
Small businesses, of course, don’t have the budget of huge corporations at their disposal to commit to sustainable practices. But don’t let that discourage you from taking action. While it might seem like a small contribution and you may not be able to do as much as you’d like in your current position, your actions will encourage other businesses to follow suit.
Sustainability is a global emergency, and it has to take centre stage. Failure to embrace the latest sustainable practices into construction will leave businesses and communities at the mercy of a shifting climate. But with the intricacies and paradigms of this field constantly evolving, how can you ensure your knowledge and skills are both up-to-date and future-proof?
UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments will give you the skills you need, both now in the future, to inspire and action change.