The impact of small businesses on the Global Goals

What impact can SMEs have on the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK? "A lot" says Carolina Karlstrom, in this blog she explains why and suggests some simple actions SMEs can take.

 There is no universal definition of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). It is however generally undisputed that the overwhelming majority of private-sector businesses in the world are SMEs and that they account for a very large share of world economic activity in both developed and developing countries. Small and medium enterprises make up 99% of businesses in the UK and they make a significant contribution to the UK economy. In fact, the contribution that SMEs will make across the top 10 UK cities, is forecast to hit £217 billion by 2020.

SMEs are not a group of businesses to be forgotten or ignored when it comes to implementing something as important as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I would even argue that the SDGs can only be achieved if SMEs are on board and can make a useful contribution.

Why should SMEs care about the Sustainable Development Goals? 

SMEs have a leading role to play in meeting the most “economic” of the SDGs; like promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for all (Goal 8) as well as promoting sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation (Goal 9).

We live in a changing world, where the enlightened consumer wants to make sure that they buy products with less packaging, less plastic, that has been produced and manufactured in a way which does not harm the environment, and where the people  producing it are paid a decent wage. A world where people are increasingly concerned about the state of the coral reefs, of the number of bees, about the amount of plastic on deserted islands, about climate change, drought, and flooding.

If a business wants to win tenders or win a corporate or government projects, attract loyal customers, or appeal to an engaged workforce like the so-called Millennials, looking at the SDGs is quite useful - even essential.

The SME challenge 

The biggest SMEs usually have are to do with cost and return on investment. Another big challenge is lack of resources and time. It is therefore very important to recognise that interventions that reduce a business’s negative impact, like reducing carbon emissions, can also be a saving in cost.

There is also an argument that business unusual is a requirement for long term business survival. We need to change how we do business if we are going to tackle the environmental and social challenges that threaten us the most. 

Engaging with the SDGs will provide a clear way to differentiate a business and offer a way to stand out. They provide a longer-term vision – so a small business doesn't need to invest resource thinking up one for themselves.

If the understanding and the interest is there, the question becomes: how can we make the SDGs accessible to SMEs?

Making the SDGs accessible to SMEs

A first step for a small business may be as simple as looking at the 17 goals and identifying the top two or three that really resonate and can be used to engage staff and other stakeholders in discussions, to create buy-in from the beginning.

The size of an SME makes it easier to implement new principles, new ways of doing things, to measure impacts. And it’s possible that we may also see results quicker than in big corporate organisations.

Alongside Goals 8 and 9, there are lots of other goals that matter to SMEs, below I suggest a few simple solutions for how a small business could implement these in practice.

Goal 2 - to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

At a first glance, it is easy to think this is related only to developing countries but the fact is that one in 10 school children go to school without breakfast and 9 million people in the UK live in food poverty. If you work in the hospitality, retail or food and beverage industry it is worth considering what you could be doing with any surplus food to prevent it from becoming waste. If you don’t work in one of those industries perhaps you can initiate a campaign or activity internally that encourages staff to look at their food habits to ensure they’re eating a healthy and nutritious diet. Or perhaps you could encourage them to donate to, or even volunteer at, a local food bank.

Goal 3 - to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all

It’s a no-brainer that healthy staff, are more productive staff – and happier staff. Encourage staff to go for a lunch walk. ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking’ as Nietzsche said. Ask your staff what other ideas they have for activities that offer them a break and reenergise them during the day

Goal 12 – to ensure responsible consumption and production

The Goal includes a target to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction and recycling by 2030. Implementing actions to achieve this target could help save money. A simple audit to see where money is being spent, what waste it relates to and what you can do to prevent it is the first step for developing a reduction plan.

Goal 13 - to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

There are recent reports that suggest we are on course for an average 2-degree increase in global warming. There are several small things you can do to take responsibility for your carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. Added to those of your business partners, supply chain, competitors and clients it will make a difference. These could include: creating a Green Travel Policy to encourage your staff to use more sustainable forms of travel; hold business meetings via video or Skype and have an open attitude to home working to cut down on the need to travel; do a simple energy audit to identify how you can save energy - did I mention this can also save money?

Goal 5 - to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

An important issue for gender equality in the UK is that of similar pay for similar work. Unequal pay for men and women has been illegal for 45 years in the UK and yet there is a still a gender pay gap of above 18% (this number refers to all employees, full-time and part-time). For full time employees, the gap was 9.4% in 2016. This is not huge  but it is still there. As of earlier this year, employers with more than 250 staff will be required by law to collect data so they can publish their gender pay gap. If you are an SME, there is really no excuse to not adhere to the same principle. At the very least, understanding whether there is a gender pay gap in your organisation and what it is, empowers you with the information you need to do something about it.

Goal 17 - revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

As I mentioned in a blog earlier this year (My 5-key take-aways from the frontline of sustainability), collaboration is what sustainability is about. Maybe there is a local charity that your organisation is close to that you could ask how you can support their work? Or a collaboration with a local start-up who could use your waste as input? Now that could be considered innovation and yes, there is a Goal for that too.

As a first step, you could join UKSSD which supports organisations to work in partnership in the UK to achieve the SDGs.

Your business - our future

It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you look at the Sustainable Development Goals, even the name sounds a bit daunting. The beauty of the SDGs is that they are connected to each other. Focusing on one or two could very well lead to support of other Goals or targets.

I hope I have showed here that the SDGs are more accessible than you might think, even if you are an SME. Please get in touch if you want to find out more about my work to support SMEs with the Goals.