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Guest blog: Becoming a sustainable business – closing the value-action gap

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By Camilla Sherwin, Senior Sustainability Consultant and Partnerships Manager at Investors in the Environment (iiE)
23 Apr 2024

It is increasingly evident that improving an organisation’s sustainability performance makes good business sense.  Reducing environmental impact and making a positive social contribution result in cutting costs, improving an organisation’s profile, attracting and retaining motivated staff, gaining more customers, engaging principled investors, demonstrating compliance and minimising business risk. Those organisations which have successfully rewired themselves to embed sustainability into the heart of what they do, instead of it being ‘on top of’ what they do, are accessing new opportunities and strengthening their economic positions as a result.

It is also clear that the business sector must play a vital role in helping the UK to reduce its Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Many organisations have set Net Zero targets and, in order to measure and reduce their indirect emissions, are requiring carbon emissions data from their supply chains. Likewise, those seeking or fulfilling public sector contracts are being asked to report their carbon reduction plans to meet the requirements of PPN 06/21. 

Furthermore, being an environmentally and socially responsible business is the right thing to do. The planet and its people must not be forsaken in the quest for profit.

However, whilst the desire and willingness to act is becoming more widespread, many organisations do not know where to start, what to do and how to ensure their actions have impact. Well-intentioned efforts which are not part of a coherent plan can lead to a scatter gun approach; the office recycling system is upgraded, the light bulbs are changed, a charitable donation is made, and staff participate in some voluntary work – but this does not bring measurable results and progress is difficult to track. 

On the other hand, whilst it might be tempting to shoot for the sustainability stars and charge headlong into setting a net zero carbon target or going for a high profile award, this cannot be done overnight. Laying the foundations for such achievements takes time as it involves adopting policies, establishing systems, measuring baseline performance, developing action plans and taking staff on the journey. Trying to move too fast risks a greenwash PR disaster which takes a long time to rectify, but taking simple steps on firm foundations leads to steady progress and proven results.

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How to start 

As with most initiatives which involve change, breaking it down into smaller elements makes getting started much easier. The following actions will set any organisation on its way to managing and reducing its environmental (and to a certain extent, social) impacts and are the bedrock of any environmental management system:  

  1. Adopt an Environmental or Sustainability Policy – it should be signed off by senior members of staff and provides the foundation for performance improvement. 

  2. Recruit a team from across the organisation who will help to introduce or improve sustainability initiatives and encourage colleagues to adopt them. Anyone taking a Green Champion/Leader role might require some training to ensure they feel confident to guide the team. 

  3. Review environmental aspects and impacts – consider which resources are being used by the organisation and the impact of using them. 

  4. Gather baseline data - measure the use of those resources, ideally from meter readings, mileage returns, staff surveys and invoices to get actual, rather than estimated, consumption figures. 

  5. Create action plans, including both quick wins and longer-term aims which may require financial investment or staff development. Set targets to reduce the use of key resources, with a particular focus on limiting carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, reducing or stopping activities which threaten or damage biodiversity or which promote inequality. 

  6. Monitor progress – compare performance figures with those from previous periods, adjust plans to ensure improvement targets are reached and work with suppliers to ensure they are supporting objectives. 

  7. Encourage staff-wide engagement through activities and projects that can be supported by all, which build team morale and have beneficial outcomes. Being a more sustainable business is part of everyone’s job. 

  8. Communicate your progress to staff and wider stakeholders. Getting a well-respected third-party evaluation of performance lends credence to sustainability claims and avoids greenwashing.  

Introducing good sustainability stewardship into any organisation will involve change and present challenges, but any organisation starting on this path will not be the first to do so; there is plenty of advice and support available about how to resolve any issues and smooth the path.

How Investors in the Environment can help

For those wanting a structured approach and to bring green action under one metaphorical roof, the national, not-for-profit environmental accreditation programme, Investors in the Environment (iiE), provides an excellent framework with the chance to gain a well-respected accreditation. Developed using knowledge and experience gained since its inception in 2009, the iiE programme is suitable for businesses of any size and from any sector and has helped hundreds of organisations improve their sustainability performance. 

The programme is very good value, easy to follow, action-focused, results-driven, and can be implemented by non-specialists. It provides a good vehicle for those needing to set net zero carbon targets and/or to report their environmental performance to stakeholders. Participating organisations are required to measure and analyse resource use, calculate their carbon footprint and provide evidence of staff engagement projects, communications with stakeholders and plans for further improvements.

Crucially, the programme provides support, guidance, resources and tools though its e-learning platform, which is backed up with support from its team of sustainability experts as well as other organisations on the programme.

Those who subscribe to the audit pathway of the programme will undergo a regular (generally annual) evaluation of their performance. This is an ideal way to receive detailed feedback on progress and useful advice about steps for further improvement. Having met the requirements of the audit, members receive an accreditation stamp, which can be used on their website, social media, and promotional materials, which demonstrates their commitment to being a responsible business to customers, suppliers, and employees.

Human activity of the past century has led us to this point:  we are living beyond environmental limits and on deteriorating social foundations; the global climate is changing; biodiversity is suffering, and social inequality is growing. We need all hands to the pump; governments, businesses, communities and individuals must all play a role in rebalancing social and environmental systems.  The need for action is urgent; the time for action is now and, if achieved, the results will benefit all.  

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This article is the first in a series of articles which will be published in Ecotricity’s Transformer e-newsletter over the year.  Subsequent articles will cover how business can reduce environmental impact through resource management, top tips to cut carbon emissions and protecting nature and encouraging action.   

It was written by Camilla Sherwin, Senior Sustainability Consultant and Partnerships Manager, on the national green accreditation programme Investors in the Environment (iiE). iiE has 15 years of experience of in helping businesses of all sizes and sectors to improve their environmental management and gain recognition for their achievements.  

iiE has also developed its own green champion training, delivers Carbon Literacy training and is an IEMA certified training provider.   

To find out more, visit the website www.iie.uk.com or email info@iie.uk.com and request a meeting with one of the iiE team.

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