Apologies for the slightly inflammatory post title. Of course they do. What I really mean is “do small businesses feel that they matter?” In other words do they believe their voice is being heard amongst the big boys and do they feel supported in their efforts to maintain and grow their business?
On a big-picture level, small businesses (those up to 50 employees) matter hugely to the Scottish and UK economy. In fact they account for over 99% (!) of all businesses and over 60% of the workforce in Scotland. Just imagine what condition the country would be in without them! Basically you won’t find many people who disagree that small businesses are vital to the future of Scotland.
However it is much more difficult for the Government and its agencies to communicate with smaller businesses than larger businesses and this can create an impression that smaller businesses are being overlooked. This is due to a number of factors. For example, the marketing power of bigger companies can squeeze out the “good news” stories from smaller businesses who are working hard to make a difference. I’m sure we all know how many plastic bags M&S have saved over the last year (80%, a fantastic achievement) but do we know about the number of small shops that have achieved the same percentage or banned them altogether?
Another difficulty is that larger companies have communications departments who keep an eye out for the latest Government initiative and therefore know exactly what Government wants to hear. They also have marketing budgets to make quick changes to the messages they want to put out. It also tends to be easier to achieve quick wins with big companies as the agencies helping them can quote impressive headline figures for tonnage of waste diverted from landfill. That’s not to take anything away from this work, after all big business is important to the perception of the country as a place to work and live in so they deserve to receive their fair share of support. However it’s well worth remembering that the combined waste output of small business is likely to equal that of big business (with the notable exception of the construction industry).
I believe the single biggest difficulty is the fact that there are simply so many small businesses out there, covering a whole range of different business activities.
In an environmental context, many small businesses must wonder how they are supposed to contribute to the environmental aims and ambitions of the country when the cost of choosing the more environmentally friendly option is often higher than the cost of choosing the non-sustainable option. For example, large companies can actually charge companies to collect their paper waste for recycling (at around £50 a tonne at current prices) small companies have to pay for it to be collected, often at a higher rate than if they send it to landfill via their local authority.
I have first hand experience of this problem. I ran a small business (an organic food shop in Edinburgh), from 2006-2008, and I made the choice to recycle the cardboard (mainly the secondary packaging around the produce I sold). It cost me around £8 a week to have it collected separately from my non-recyclable waste. Had I just folded it up and shoved it into the Trade Waste sacks provided by Edinburgh Council (at a cost of £1.50 each at the time) I could have fitted it into one or two sacks, therefore saving between £5 and £6.50 a week. Not exactly a big dent in profits. However, whilst cardboard only cost me an extra fiver or so, when added to the paper, cans, glass and other packaging it soon became very expensive to be as environmentally friendly as I wanted my business to be. On top of that I also made the decision to have other eco-extras such as eco-lightbulbs, compostable shopping bags, renewable energy and to use natural paints in-store.
I did this not, as you might think, because of some crazy experiment to see how quickly I could go bust (and, at two years, it was pretty quick) but because I believed the additional costs were unlikely to be the difference between success and failure (they weren’t) and, as someone who tries to be a committed environmentalist, I just couldn’t face choosing the obviously unsustainable option.
So, if being 100% environmentally friendly costs small businesses money and takes more effort and time, why on earth would any small business choose what’s better for the planet over what’s better for their profit margins? And how do we, as a campaigning organisation, try to make the case for change?
Well it’s not easy but, crucially, there are many steps small businesses can take which do save money and which don’t use up resources, effort or time.
What we need to do is make this advice easy to find, easy to follow and easy to implement. That’s the challenge, and although we currently offer some useful generic advice on Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, we want develop this further to really make sure all small businesses can quickly find ideas on waste reduction whether by hosting our own content or linking more effectively to advice that’s already out there. Ideas on the kind of information you want are, as always, very welcome.
To get you thinking, here’s an example of the kind of impact small businesses could make overnight:
If every individual working in the financial or estate agency sector in Scotland reduced the amount of paper they print by an average of just 4 pieces of A4 paper a day the total saving would be over 450 million pieces of paper every year. This is equivalent to over 500 acres of land being forested for paper or over 2250 tonnes in weight.*
· 469,000 employees in Financial sector or Estate Agency – (BERR Enterprise Directorate Analytical Unit.)
· 4 pieces a day, 5 days a week, 48 weeks per year = 450 million.
· An acre of forested land yields around 900,000 pieces of paper.
· 80gsm paper weighs roughly 5 grams per sheet.