Michael Groves: Green is good, if only from a purely business perspective

AS WE enter a period of concern over a double-dip recession, the poor old small business continues to fight on in the economic trenches. While the bankers continue to party and play, the case for corporate sustainability would seem to be somewhat weakened.

While the orgy of recrimination surrounding the so-called climategate scandal has muddied the waters around global warming, the fundamental logic for companies to do something about waste, resources and energy remains, regardless of what the carbon footprint brigade or climate-sceptics might be arguing.

At its basic level, small businesses have to respond to a growing raft of eco-regulations which drive up the costs and associated risks of non-compliance.

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By being prepared, there are opportunities to save money, earn revenues, win new business and increase value.

For those companies supplying the supermarkets, take heed. The buyers may not be asking about sustainability now, but they will start doing so over the next few years. This is already happening in relation to certain products, for example, European legislation that targets imports of illegal timber. Suppliers of other products should start preparing for increased scrutiny.

Rather than consign sustainability to the pending tray, this is the perfect time to address it, in preparation for that moment when the legislators, customers or even financiers come knocking. From its eco-roots, sustainability has emerged blinking into the light as a full-blown source of competitive advantage, particularly in a world chasing a diminishing number of public-sector contracts and fighting pressure on margins.

Having recognised the logic, how does the small business proceed if it wishes to take sustainability out of the box marked "eco-freak" or "tree hugger"? Here are some tips:

• Firstly, ensure that it is taken seriously at board and senior management level.

• Secondly, seek advice. There is loads of it out there and much of it is free. Speak to Envirowise, WRAP, Zero Waste Scotland, CarbonTrust, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Ethical Trading Initiative, trade associations and any number of other organisations. They can help with advice, audits, standard setting and contacts.

• Next. Start to measure performance and put in place a simple roadmap to manage in the long term. Also think through the expectations of your employees - and your customers and suppliers.

• At the same time, somehow work out a means of managing and monitoring sustainability in the long term. You may not be able to afford the resources to do this in-house, but perhaps its a part-time role or one that can be economically outsourced.

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• Finally, learn how to communicate what you are doing.This will be required in order to speak and listen to your employees, however, it will also be important when customers and others come calling, looking for a concise and credible summary of your actions in relation to sustainability.

By this stage of course, you will be able to report on how you have saved on landfill costs, found outlets for waste packaging, reduced your water and wastewater bills, saved on energy costs, reduced the risk from poor suppliers and raw materials, won more work and motivated employees.

You might even have developed new products and services in response to the green, eco, ethical or sustainability agenda - whatever you wish to call it. Along the way, you will find and benefit from companies who have taken a similar view, which can only be a good thing.

Like all management and process change, it is not easy. The plethora of support agencies can be confusing, however, in Scotland many of these agencies have been consolidated - which helps.

While there will be up-front cost, some of this outlay will be required for compliance purposes anyway. The rest, if spent wisely, will more than pay itself back through greater resource efficiency, lower bills, more business and a better reputation.

Double dip or not, I would urge directors of small companies to revisit sustainability, not as eco-irrelevance, but as part and parcel of competitive advantage.

• Michael Groves has business interests in environmental management, media and consumer products. Grovesphere.blogspot.com.