Everyone’s trying to save the world these days. It feels like you can’t move for philanthropists, activist CEOs, XR warriors and zero waste influencers. The past few years have seen an explosion in ethically founded, positive impact companies that base their entire business proposal on their contribution (financial or otherwise) to society. Entrepreneurs are becoming social or eco champions and visa versa.
What to do though, if you’re a small company that works in an entirely unrelated field? Just because your business passion lies elsewhere, it doesn’t mean you don’t care about social justice/environmental degradation/climate change/ fast fashion etc etc…
It can be genuinely overwhelming when it comes to deciding what to do that will help but doesn’t mean a complete life overhaul or somehow finding several billion in spare cash.
Actually, small businesses are ideally placed to contribute positively to their communities and world around them. You don’t have to go through a protracted procurement process and can involve yourself directly in things you care about. The key is to put measures in place that won’t distract you from your core business mission or feel like a chore. If something is too difficult or daunting, you just won’t do it. If however you try a few things that are both manageable, meaningful – you’re on to a winner.
Whilst any changes you make to your business have to be voluntary and appropriate, I would add that consumer choice is trending very strongly towards brands that have demonstrable positive impact, whatever their main company focus. For now it has the feel good factor and a certain competitive edge, but in short order it will become a matter of business hygiene. If you can’t point to a robust set of practices and values that prove your company does more than simply turn a profit , clients will look elsewhere for alternatives to make them feel as if they are contributing to ‘the greater good’. I say this not to stress you out – far from it – but to highlight that we’re at an inflection point. Moving now will put you in a far stronger position a few years down the line, rather than scrambling to jump on the already departed bandwagon.
With all that in mind there are SO many simple ways to tweak your business habits and processes to give a bit back. The sky’s the limit.
I’ve put together some of my favourite pointers when helping small businesses get off the ground in terms of positive impact. They’re roughly in descending order of commitment/complexity and can be done by themselves or as part of a wider plan. Remember that whatever you do, it’s part of a cumulative effort – you’re not alone!
An underrated freebie but it’s astonishing how un-seriously many people take it. Up to 80% of what we throw away could be recycled. Similarly, a poorly washed plastic container can contaminate the entire bag. If you do nothing else, pay a little more attention to what you’re using that could be reused and make sure anything recyclable is properly washed and binned according to your local council instructions. It’s one of those things where one small behavioural change by a lot of people adds up to a major shift in consumer habits.
If you do any sort of mail-out or packaging, you’re contributing to the almost 15 million deliveries the Royal Mail makes every year (2019 figure). Just imagine if every sender in the UK was a little more considerate in their packing materials. If you’re already using recyclable packaging, try sourcing compostable. If you’re using compostable, see how you can reduce how much you need per transaction. And if you’ve reduced that as far as you can, look into your suppliers (more on this later).
Give your time, expertise and experience to someone a few rungs down the ladder from you. It’s completely free aside from time, but will have an outsized impact on the person you are mentoring. You’ll help them find their confidence, explore ideas, hone their skills and – ultimately – flourish. You might also learn a few things along the way.
Donate a % of sales
This is something we can all do. (4leaf donates a % of profits to clean energy micro-entrepreneurs in Uganda). You might not make masses but a small contribution to a worthy cause is a. better than nothing and b. money they probably have to work harder than you do to earn. Choose a cause that’s genuinely close to your heart.
Sponsor a community group
Sponsoring an organisation that’s working to improve your local area is an amazing way to build on your existing ethical business development. Anything from a children’s dance club or volunteer clean-up group – whatever you find, you’re contributing directly to the lives of the people around you whilst adding to your list of potential customers and creating an added layer of appreciation with your existing customers.
Lend your space
If you have a little extra room and a community group needs somewhere to meet (possibly the same group as you sponsor??) then why not? It costs nothing to help. Obviously mid-Covid we’re keeping our communities alive over Zoom and giving real people a wide berth. But humans are social creatures, we need to see each other face to face, give hugs and be hugged. Once it’s safe, groups and local initiatives will be back to in-person meetings and decision making over hot beverages. Perhaps you can provide a place to make those meetings happen.
As we strive to be carbon neutral, zero-waste, vegan, diverse and ambassadors of our cause, we sometimes overlook the physical reality of our space. For those of you that have a ‘real life’ shop or office area, make sure those less able bodied can actually get in. How can people in wheelchairs or with impaired vision move around, get to the meeting room, find what they’re looking for or have a browse. You might have certain planning or spacing constraints but as much as you can make your floor space accessible and inclusive.
Diversify your network
You may be a small company or one woman band, but look at who keeps your business in business; contacts, suppliers, contractors and helpers. Even your clients. If you can’t be a diverse employer, you can always be a diverse thinking company. Our supplier network is often a compromise between convenience and a genuine desire to work with them. But there are constantly new products coming to market that might solve your business needs and be more satisfactory in terms of company values… a bit of research goes a long way. COVID has turbo-charged the world and his wife online; the opportunity to find suppliers outside your regular ‘go-to’ network has expanded exponentially. Depending on the size and complexity of your company, this might be super-straightforward or it might involve a serious amount of research and auditing. If you’re in the latter camp and this seems like a step too far, remember you don’t have to do everything in one go. Start by looking at just one of your suppliers, see what values they champion, what they themselves are doing in terms of positive impact and how you could work together to create a bit of a change. It could be something as simple as changing your energy supplier to a renewable provider. We’re all pretty sensible at F+F so know that throwing the baby out with the bath water is rarely the best idea – inform yourself first, have a think and go from there.
Switch your bank account
This feels far more onerous than it actually is. I’m not a financial advisor so wouldn’t dream of telling you what to do with your money (I’m sure you can find a brilliant one through F+F). However, if you’re serious about societal and environment impact, this really is important. Bank accounts are part of the background apparatus of our lives and provided nothing goes wrong, we barely notice them. The money you put in your account is used in investments entirely of your bank’s choosing to produce the returns expected of shareholders – profitability is their only metric. Records available from 2013- 2019 show that British banks provided more than $2 billion to Brazilian beef companies linked to Amazon deforestation. From 2016-19 Barclay’s funnelled $118.1 billion to non-renewable energies – making it Europe’s biggest financier of fossil fuels. At its AGM in May this year, over 75% of Barclays shareholders voted against ending the company’s investments in non-renewables. HSBC has the worst gender pay gap of any UK bank, with women earning just 52p for every £1 paid to men. It has publicly backed China’s recent anti-democratic legislation in Hong Kong. You may not have particularly significant savings but would you really want any of your hard earned cash going towards forest clearance or new petroleum extraction technology? Probably not. For me it’s a question of principle rather than quantity. Also remember that your money is added to the savings and assets of many, many other bank customers. You might not have squillions but your cash forms a fractional part of a much larger financial network that has enormous investing power. Triodos Bank invites its customers to “Live by your values. Bank by them too.” They only invest in projects that have a net good and you can choose what your money goes to fund.
This sounds great until you run up against the cold, hard reality of getting the switch done. Fortunately, the Current Account Switch Service makes changing your bank account pretty simple. Small business accounts with a turnover of less than £6.5m are eligible, with over 40 participating banks and building societies.
Shifting our thoughts from simple consumerism to active citizenship means participating in the world in a completely different way. Without getting all high falutin, as consumers we make choices on what is best for us and our family; a citizen is someone who expresses her agency in the world by considering her impact on others in the choices she makes, and understanding how that impact could be different. Once you start seeing the world through the eyes of a citizen, it’s almost impossible not to start second guessing your choices and the implications they might have further down the line – so whilst this isn’t a physical change, it’s probably the most profound one you can make..
These are just a few ideas to scale up your social impact without having to scale back on your focus. I hope they provide a new perspective on how small changes can make a big difference.
Where to find me
Julia Fawsley Grant
About your author
Julia works with entrepreneurs to increase their positive social impact without compromising their business focus. She loves a good chat.
You can find out more about Julia and her business here.
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