Practical steps for SMEs to take climate action

View our summary and top takeaways from SME Climate Action, a CCE and Institute of Directors (IoD) East of England event held on 28 April 2022.

In May 2019, Cambridgeshire declared a climate and environment emergency. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region has 25% higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than the UK average and is an area particularly at risk to the impacts of climate change, including more frequent and severe flooding events, water shortages and more extreme summer temperatures. If the region continues emitting GHGs at the existing rate, it has only six years left until it has used up its emissions allowance to 2050, as set out in the UK’s Net Zero target. Local action is urgently needed. IoD East of England and The Centre for Climate Engagement (CCE) are collaborating on an event series throughout 2022, with regular events for non-executive directors, board members and business leaders in the East of England to accelerate business climate action.

This first event focused on Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) engagement – building awareness of climate issues, the need for SME climate action, good climate governance, and sharing best practices.  Below is a summary of top takeaways, including key points from the SME speakers. You can also watch the full event recording.

Top Takeaways

  1. Take climate action now – don’t wait for perfect data. By understanding your business’ carbon footprint and establishing a baseline, you will see the decreasing trend in emissions as a result of your action, even if the numbers aren’t fully accurate straight away.
  2. Understand the full value chain of your company – which parts of your business activity contribute most to emissions?
  3. Engage all members of your business community – approach the sustainability journey from both bottom-up (employees and supply chain actors) and top-down (board and senior management).
  4. Collaboration is key – are other businesses in your industry asking the same questions to your (shared) suppliers?  Are those businesses on a similar sustainability journey? Working together will accelerate the pace of change  and sharing best practises avoids ‘reinventing the wheel’ for each obstacle you face on your climate journey.

Background and Introduction to the event

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership 

Viola Jardon
Senior Programme Manager, Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

Viola spoke about why climate action in SMEs is needed, why the East of England is particularly at risk, and simple steps SMEs can take to make their business more sustainable.

Changing weather patterns, rising sea level and more extreme weather events are disrupting global economies, affecting lives and livelihoods, and increasing costs for people, communities, businesses and governments today and into the future.

The East of England is the driest region in the UK, with annual rainfall only 70% of the national average. An estimated 250,000 properties are at risk of flooding in the East, with a fifth of the region below sea level. The geology of the coastal areas mean it is also an area particularly vulnerable to erosion. It is a region severely at risk to water scarcity, flooding and sea level rise.

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s Canopy Incubator and Accelerator: CISL’s new Canopy offers space and support networks for sustainable SMEs to thrive and grow, whether you are an entrepreneur looking to test ideas, a start-up ready to scale up or a small business wanting to increase impact. Canopy programmes will be run throughout the year to provide support workshops, sustainability knowledge, roundtables and networking opportunities for SMEs.

SMEs account for 99.9 % of the business population in the UK according to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

Are you an SME who made a commitment to make your business more sustainable?

CISL offer a FREE online training course: Climate Fit – to help SMEs reducing  their carbon emissions and join the collective race to net zero

For SMEs struggling to know where to start with the numerous challenges ahead of them, coupled with the lack of information and limited resources available to them, the course aims to help small and medium businesses navigate to net zero in seven achievable steps.

‘This is the time for transformation. And no one can do this alone.’

Viola Jardon, CISL

How do you align your goals with your business plans and strategy?

Look at the top layer of the whole business operation. Setting the governance and strategy right from the start gives you a North star to follow. Having a strong mission allows you to set what the most important things that your business won’t compromise on while considering revenue or business development.

How much do you engage in the circular economy in your business?

The business model has to shift for your company to achieve a circular economy. The infrastructure needs to be in place to support the circular process.

Practical Advice from SMEs on their sustainability journey

Case Study – Frog Bikes

Shelley Lawson
Strategy Director – Frog Bikes (manufacturer of lightweight children’s bicycles)
Top Tip: Start Now
Consumer behaviour is beginning to shift and within the next couple of years, they will be more responsible and discerning. As well as some substantial legislative and tax changes which will make emissions even less desirable within the value chain.

The sustainability journey taken by Frogbikes:

  1. Step 1. Measure and benchmark: first the emissions directly in your control, scope 1 & 2 emissions – how do we heat our building? How do we light it? How do we travel? There are many free carbon calculator tools available, from here Frog were able to convince landlords of their factory and offices to switch to renewable energy for all tenants. Measure the scope 3 emissions – those associated with supply chain and not completely in the company’s control making them harder to measure. These dwarfed Frog’s scope 1 & 2 emissions.
  2. Step 2. Start the conversation with your supply chain and look at product design. Frog, for example, asked for recycled over virgin aluminium, as well as tweaking products based on parts which contribute majorly to emissions.
  3. Step 3. Collaborate with others in the industry – Frog found that many others in the sector wanted to improve their sustainability, and demands become far more powerful when several companies are asking the same questions.

Throughout the journey:

  • Engage every single employee – Frogbikes found employees appreciated that however much they may do at home, they can have a substantially bigger impact on the planet at work. They also found that many newcomers are attracted to Frog due to their sustainability initiatives.
  • Communicate what you’re doing – Frog made a commitment and talked people through how they plan to achieve. The financial services are driving this change, which Frog discovered through their communication and then support from HSBC.

How are you building climate resilience into your companies and taking steps to adapt to climate change?

One of our offices is surrounded by woodland which had a big fire recently for the first time in decades. So to protect all of our intellectual property and ensure the business could survive if the office were to burn down, everything is on the cloud.

We have also looked at the supply chain and whilst trying to find suppliers that are lower carbon, we have spread the risk associated with geopolitical or climate related disasters, by developing relationships with several new suppliers.

How have the conversations with suppliers gone?

We have seen the engagement change over the past 6 months, before it was quite hostile, but now more doors are opening up when discussing lowering emissions in products. We are now not the only customers asking suppliers these questions. Also due to the increase in shipping costs and the disrupted supply chains, we have been talking to suppliers to the oil and gas industry in Scotland who see a decline in their market but already have the skills in place to make a bicycle frame, so we’re beginning to pass business their way, in collaboration with several others in the industry.

How do you align your goals with your business plans and strategy?

We have four P’s: People, Planet, Profit and Product. They are all equal pillars and reflected in everyone’s objectives.

How much do you engage in the circular economy in your business?

Becoming truly circular is the end goal for us. Currently this is not cost effective, and will have to be done collaboratively across the whole of our industry as lots of regional hubs will be needed. In the meantime, our aim is to elongate the life of all our products, by encouraging local servicing through providing lots of spare parts and an MOT service where we collect data to understand which parts are beginning to wear.

Case Study – Grant Instruments

Mark Davison
CEO – Grant Instruments (scientific instruments manufacturer)

Top Tip: Don’t worry about getting the data accurate
more important to benchmark emissions and then see the trend decrease.

Practical Advice and Learnings:

  • Talk to your supply chain – for Grant these are the majority of their emissions.
  • Engage the whole business – Grant appointed a carbon-coordinator to champion the sustainability initiative, which builds the approach from the bottom-up and everyone buys into it, encouraging innovation and improving efficiency of processes.
  • Use a strategy framework to measure, monitor and eliminate emissions – Grant use ISO 14001, to keep them on the straight and narrow, with recording and auditing.
  • Treat the environment the same as every other aspect of your business – as an entrepreneur, you try new things and not everything pays off but keep trying and moving forward even if you fail a couple of times along the way.
  • Sustainability is a big attractor of new employees – over the past couple of years it is a common question at Grant from interview candidates who value a forward looking business. The company is currently moving building, as not only does it leak heat and money, it doesn’t present a company with a sustainable future. The new building will be more carbon efficient, have better logistics and cheaper energy bills.
  • Start now – ‘so many things you can do at almost no cost to start the journey today, you don’t have the luxury to wait and plan it into next year’s budget.’

‘It’s the logical commercial thing to do, it makes money or it saves money, not just the right thing to do for the planet’

Mark Davison, CEO – Grant Instruments

How are you building climate resilience into your companies and taking steps to adapt to climate change?

The new building for the company has infrastructure in place to deal with the increased rainfall we are now seeing in the region, this is not something that we would have needed 30 years ago or something we can stop, but mitigate. We have also started to look at our supply chain processes and understand and plan for the risks associated with this.

How do you align your goals with your business plans and strategy?

2 of the 4 words which make up our strategy are Simplicity and Sustainability. These words are what we define everything else by as we cascade down into the detailed strategy. 

Case Study – EPI Group

Jenni Nicholls
Marketing & Sustainability Manager, EPI Group (Energy Consultancy)

Top Tip: Simple changes can have a huge impact
e.g. EPI Group reduced their energy consumption by a third, simply by ensuring plug sockets, heating and air conditioning etc were turned off at the end of the working day.

Drive of EPI Group: To ensure the business will survive in the future and that the current processes wouldn’t impact the ability of the company to generate money and thrive in the future.

Focus of EPI Group: Scope 3 emissions: as an intellectual service provider, the biggest contributor to emissions for EPI group was the travel associated moving consultants across the world.

EPI changed their method of working with consultants, by providing clients with local consultants which improves efficiency, reduces cost and eliminates quarantine issues in light of the covid pandemic. The company now has KPI’s which look at business travel, including encouraging public transport over use of private cars.

Offsetting is something EPI Group have had to invest in to be accredited carbon neutral for the second year by Gold Standard, where each of the carbon credits must support at least four of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) , as well as show an ongoing lasting impact in the area being invested in. EPI Group invest in United Purpose, more specifically CO2 to H20, a project in Mali which builds boreholes to pump out clean water and offers training to the community to ensure ongoing maintenance. This has had a huge lasting impact in the area.

How do you align your goals with your business plans and strategy?

Our business model is now starting to pivot having worked with almost exclusively oil and gas companies, we now work with a lot of renewable companies, and looking into geothermal energy too. The skills are very transferable. Looking at sectors which are adjacent is really valuable in strengthening and diversifying your business to make it future-proof.

Event Video

SME Climate Action Event – 28 April 2022

Next Event

The CCE will be collaborating with the IoD East of England for an event on Green Technology on 14th July, 1 – 2 pm BST. The event will be focused towards businesses in the green technology sector in the local region, giving practical advice on taking climate action and the opportunities available to them. More details to follow.

CISL Canopy and Accelerator:

Canopy and Accelerator provides the space, support and networks for innovations in sustainability to thrive and grow. This collaborative community is open to entrepreneurs creating innovative sustainability solutions, as well as SMEs wanting to integrate sustainability into the core of their business operations.

Climate Fit – free SME training course:

Developed by CISL and BSR for the SME Climate Hub, this free online training course is designed to help SMEs future-proof their business by reducing carbon emissions and addressing climate impacts and resilience.

UK SME Climate Hub:

The SME Climate Hub, founded by the We Mean Business Coalition, Exponential Roadmap Initiative, the International Chamber of Commerce and Race to Zero, helps small businesses deliver on their climate goals.

Cambridge Carbon Footprint:

Cambridge Carbon Footprint works to raise awareness of climate change issues and to support people in moving to low-carbon living. The organisation has specific advice for how local businesses can take climate action.

Environmental Checklist:

Environmental Checklist from Carnstone, an independent management consultancy supporting companies on their sustainability strategies, to help SMEs understand the typical environmental impacts of business, and how to measure and reduce them.

Carbon Calculation tools – advice from Frogbikes:

To calculate Scope 1 & 2 emissions:

Scope 3 emissions: these are more individual for each business. Frogbikes built a spreadsheet-based tool to capture all the emissions throughout the supply chain and built-in industry-specific data (e.g. aluminium emissions per tonne typical to their source region from the Aluminium Federation). Shelley recommends the following tools as a helpful place to start, although not too comprehensive for the harder to calculate areas:

*Note: if the tools calculate emissions based on spend, they will need regularly updating. With the cost of logistics rising massively in the last 18 months, the tools could make your emissions look drastically higher year on year, just because of increased costs, so activity-based tools are better but often harder to find.