Sustainability for small businesses

Posted by Jim Hitch, chief executive of Legal Futures Associate Casedo

Hitch: This is what a modern business should be about

As a business we agreed recently that it was imperative to become a sustainable business. We did a presentation with all the colours and charts you’d expect, though of course it boiled down to the following: why would we do that, how long is it going to take, who’s going to believe us anyway and, most importantly perhaps, what is sustainability?

We’re a tech company whose main market is the legal sector – after all that is the genesis of the product itself.

As a tech company and a newish business looking to take over the world (five year projections that on closer inspection give us the an income in year four that equates to the GDP of the inner solar system, etc etc), we can be prone to jumping onto the next big thing. After all, we are early adopters almost by definition.

So are we just bandwagoning and, if not and we end up practising what we preach, will anyone believe us? Isn’t sustainability just for the big fish?

What is sustainability?

This is not new, but with the current focus on the climate emergency I’d argue that many people still mistake sustainability for something purely environmental, which it isn’t.

In a bigger firm, sustainability is corporate social responsibility (CSR), which seems rather grand given our current size, but should be just as important for everyone from tech businesses like Casedo to high street legal practices.

As Sophie Gould of Flex Legal pointed out in her Legal Futures blog How to see if a company is eco-friendly and socially responsible, this is also something that investors will want to know in the guise of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG), and in a business like ours investors are in many ways as key to our survival as customers.

What with the obvious changes to the global environment that we see daily on the news, and the need to put out the recycling on a weekly basis, I think most of us now ‘get’ environmental sustainability, going ‘green’ if you will, even if we disagree with it. It is increasingly difficult to insulate oneself from the environmental changes going on around us.

We also know the kind of things that adopting a company-wide strategy in this area will entail; policies around energy use and waste, for example.

Social sustainability is another thing entirely, though a clever strategy can link the two. Social issues are part of being human, and so it’s easy to be relatively oblivious too given other pressures and priorities. But in the light of the pandemic and the climate emergency itself, social issues have become more important than ever.

It’s a pity, however, that both of these things are to some extent politicised, so a business can need to tread carefully.

In the sense that environmental sustainability is about both not making the planet a worse place and actively making it a better place, I would argue that social sustainability is the same but substituting ‘society’ for ‘the planet’. I’m sure some may argue for a more nuanced approach.

Why ‘do’ sustainability?

In 1987, a United Nations commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, the three pillars of which being economy, enivronment and society.

This on the face of it is sustainable development stuff, but in a changing world is how businesses should be run. Businesses have traditionally focused on economy, sometimes to the detriment of the both environment and society, but now should be making all three the core of what they are.

In short, I would argue that this is what a modern business should be about – it should be about doing more than just ‘working within the bounds of the law’ (cf. tax ‘avoidance’).

However, if that doesn’t wash, and there are purely profit-orientated partners and/or shareholders champing at the bit for the next quarter’s results, sustainability is good for business in the purely economic sense. There are many that have pointed this out, not least here, in the recent article by CTS, Building a business case for sustainability.

How long will it take?

How long, in fact, is a piece of string? This is an internal question for us and for everyone. A strategy can take time to plan, write and implement. But I would argue the sooner it’s begun, the better.

We are a small business and purely digital. Part of our approach is about being paperless, so that aspect of the environmental aspect of sustainability is relatively straightforward. But we do mostly work from home, so we need to work out how to calculate our environmental footprint in a way that takes this into account. Plus, it makes implementation more tricky.

In terms of social impact, we are much further off this. I wear another hat as the secretary trustee of a grant-giving mental health charity – does that count? I’m not convinced it does. Does giving away our software to pro bono practitioners count as a social good or a marketing ploy? Arguably both.

Like with any project, this is going to need some milestones, but we need to agree those milestones first.

Who’s going to believe us anyway?

My initial thought on this would be, well, who cares? If we’re doing the right thing, then that should be enough. Of course, it isn’t. The negative impact of not being believed on sustainability is worse, I think, than not doing anything at all.

Greenwashing is supposedly rife in the corporate world, but as with MPs expenses and consultancies, one must always be wary of tarring everyone with the same brush.

Being open about what you’re trying to achieve, hearing from both employees and customers by publishing impact reports etc goes someway to alleviate this issue, as Sophie Gould mentions. She also talks about accreditations, which are a relatively simple solution and let others do the work for you, as well as guiding you through the process. Accreditation by a respected organisation goes a long way to putting the ‘believability’ problem to bed.

Everything talked about in this article so far leads to B Corp Certification, accredited by the B Lab organisation that believes “the business community can be part of the solution to global problems like wealth inequality, climate change, and social unrest”.

This can be a stretch for a small business, but it doesn’t need to be. Aiming to work within B Corp parameters for the time being could be enough, and there are other accreditation stepping stones on the way to this, which are very attainable by smaller organisations, like the Good Business Charter, as discussed as last month’s Legal Futures Innovation Conference.

In terms of social impacts, the Living Wage Foundation accreditation is a very simple process, which also includes buffers for implementation. Environmental accreditations include both Green Small Business and Green Seal. These can act as a stepping stone to B Corp Status, or at least to working within that.

Of course, there are resource implications to the above, but in terms of attracting both future business and future employees, incremental changes to the way we approach what business is and is for could just turn out to be the mythical free lunch we’ve heard so much about.


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