Author - Lois Anderson, Great British Entrepreneur Awards

Recently, The Great British Entrepreneur Awards partnered with GS1 UK to host a sustainability roundtable with 10 of the best and brightest entrepreneurs in the UK to share their triumphs and challenges when attempting to achieve sustainability goals within their businesses. 

Sustainability in Business- The Challenges and Opportunities for Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs

In today’s world, sustainability is no longer a choice but a necessity for businesses that want to remain relevant and competitive. However, committing to tangible efforts to increase business sustainability can pose challenges. Small businesses, in particular, face new challenges in today’s market. Education, cost, control and competition are all factors that can impact a small business’s sustainability journey. 

A report conducted by GS1 UK and FuturePlanet found that of the more than 5.5 million SMEs operating in the UK, over four million lack any ambitious carbon targets. Access to funding is a big factor resulting in the low uptake of sustainable business practice, with 63% of surveyed SMEs claiming to have a limited sustainability budget, or no budget at all. It is no surprise that with the lack of funds and specialist support business can be dissuaded from taking action on sustainability issues.

Starting off the conversation, was Sarah Atkins, Chief Marketing Officer at GS1 UK, who asked the question: 

“Can you start a business and be sustainable from day one or is it just too difficult? Is it now a critical part of the business model or just too challenging when first you start out?”

Beccy Dickson, Owner and Director of The Eco Foundry was the first to admit that the lack of understanding of sustainability in business can have a negative impact on businesses that have made a concerted effort to make sustainable choices. She said:  

“It is hard to change people’s perceptions of sustainability, and I think there still seems to be a lot of people that just don’t understand sustainability. When you go out and talk to people, they’re not quite ready to spend the money yet. So for us, it has been difficult, but I think things are just about to change. We’re just on the edge of a big boom.”

Kat Pither, Founder of Yogi Bare added: 

“I don’t think it’s people’s fault that they don’t understand what sustainability is. The problem is the commentary is creating a false impression of where every SME is starting from, because people don’t feel like they can be honest and say, hey, I’m just starting, and I have sustainability as a pillar of the business, but this is the journey that I’m going on. Instead, they feel the need to present this really slick image, when the reality is that businesses aren’t actually able to make all sustainable choices.” 

The roundtable had representatives from a variety of industries from fashion to construction and gifts to food and drink but all agreed that there was an increasing level of greenwashing and consumers are finding it harder to make informed sustainable choices, as even attempting to identify which businesses are truly making sustainable choices, is difficult. There is a risk that consumers become confused at best or mislead at worst, by the recent popularity of green consumerism to create false narratives about the actual sustainability of products. This confusion can make it difficult for consumers to make informed purchasing decisions, and for truly sustainable businesses to grow in competitive markets. 

Emma McDonald, CEO and Co-Founder of TBCo shared her previous experience as an employee of a fast fashion company, and how company ethos can either help or hamper sustainability efforts. She said:

“I previously worked in the fast fashion industry. The conversations about sustainability centered around margins, profit, and what was selling - all of which were prioritised above ‘what is best for people and the planet?’. Although the conversations were technically happening, there was very little follow-through and not enough pressure to change anything.

For them, the conversation itself was enough, but TBCo was created with a purpose to do and to be better. I took what not to do from my previous experience, and created a brand that was sustainable at its core. From our Positive Impact Pledge, where 2% of revenue is donated to charity each month, to our ongoing commitments to being a B Corp brand, being a sustainable business is challenging but necessary. Having these certifications is a badge of pride; we’re a brand that doesn’t greenwash, but is dedicated to actioning real change to help have a positive impact on the world.”

When competing with other companies in saturated markets, cost poses a difficult challenge for businesses committed to sustainability. As Charlotte Morley, Founder of thelittleloop adds: 

“I sat on a panel recently with an investor in the circular economy space, and he said that in order for sustainable businesses to survive, they have to be both better and cheaper than what exists already. You can start a sustainable business and you can do everything sustainable from the start. It’s hard, but we’re all capable of doing it. The biggest challenge is getting consumers to then buy it, adopt it, change their behaviours to do it.

As long as there are fast fashion businesses or cheap kitchen businesses or whatever, there are businesses benefiting from the cost savings of damaging the environment. They are always going to be cheaper than we are. It is so difficult, especially in a cost of living crisis where ultimately money is king.”

Entrepreneurs like those at the roundtable are finding ways to tackle these challenges head-on in their own businesses. For Sian, Head of Buying and Design at Scamp & Dude, it’s all about remaining committed to sustainability, even with the threat of larger, unsustainable brands:

“I think you’ve got to choose your battles, pick what’s right for your brand, your consumers, and really own it, believe in it and be really quite open about the challenges.” 

For Gary GIles, Founder of OGEL, it’s about creating a superior sustainable product, and demonstrating that it works better than what is already available. Speaking about creating building materials from waste plastic, he says that key to OGEL’s success is demonstrating that their product is strong, rigid, and better than what’s currently in the market, this helps to combat some of the commercial challenges. 

Alan Hunte, Co-Founder of Thoth London has been harnessing the power of data and state-of-the-art technology to stay current and compete with industry giants. He says:

“Recent technological advancements have created a level playing field for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), offering us the agility to readily adopt new innovations. Conversely, larger organisations are often challenged with transitioning from traditional business models, impeding their ability to remain agile and competitive. This is only coupled with the current scarcity of skilled talent, these firms are encountering hurdles when seeking to recruit qualified personnel capable of leading the adoption of new technologies or sustainable practices.”

Alan uses the latest technology and big data to map the benefits of sustainable development in an easily-understandable format. Thoth London uses VR and immersive spaces to visually explain to stakeholders the benefits of sustainability in construction. He adds: 

“Utilising a virtual immersive space, we are able to provide stakeholders with a visual representation of a project in virtual environments. This allows us to demonstrate the advantages of utilising specific products or brands, as well as the potential cost savings associated with sustainable building practices. By employing VR walk-throughs, we can offer an inspiring glimpse into the appearance and performance of a sustainable building at the concept stage, providing valuable insights into the decision-making process.”

Sara Roberts, Founder of Healthy Nibbles has had similar success by harnessing data. She adds that by using data, Healthy Nibbles can get to know who’s buying, when they are buying, what demographic they’re from, roughly where they’re heading and the frequency of purchasing behaviour. They then use this data to adapt their business to stay both sustainable and competitive. 

Despite the challenges, these entrepreneurs remain committed to sustainability within their business model. They recognise that sustainability is not a one-time achievement but a continuous journey that requires transparency, accountability, education, and a long-term commitment. By working together and making connections with others in the industry, they are creating a more sustainable future for themselves, their customers and for generations to come.

To discover more about GS1 UK and FuturePlanet’s sustainability report, click here to read the full article. 

Full List of Roundtable Panellists: 

Alan Hunte, Co-Founder of Thoth London

Beccy Dickson, Owner and Director of The Eco Foundry 

Charlotte Morley, Founder of thelittleloop

Cherish Reardon, Co-Founder of Popsy Clothing

Emma Macdonald, CEO and Co-Founder of TBCo

Gary Giles, Founder of OGEL

Kat Pither, Founder of Yogi Bare

Looeeze Grossman, CEO of The Used Kitchen Company 

Sara Roberts, Founder and CEO of Healthy Nibbles

Sarah Atkins, Head of Marketing at GS1 UK 

Sian Farrell, Head of Buying and Design at Scamp & Dude