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Baby steps to decarbonisation: how Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the UK are on the rise to prioritise net zero initiatives

To understand more about the barriers and motivations for decarbonisation, ARU along with the University of East London (UEL), delivered our first workshop with SMEs in the East Anglia region through the ENE (Eastern New Energy) and SENE (South East New Energy) project.

Findings: Based on Miro Board and Workshop

We conducted a two hour online workshop, gathering representatives from 10 SMEs who are in green initiative roles. The workshop consisted of two sessions. First participants filled in a Miro board with what sorts of decarbonisation actions were taken or are in planning stage, followed by what motivates these companies to pursue these initiatives. In this section, we observed two common plans which have either been implemented or are in the organisation’s pipeline:

  • installing solar panels
  • converting transport facilities to electric based vehicles (EV).

Some companies were also focussing on improving process control and organisational change. These include

  • implementing intelligent building controls
  • upgrading to more energy efficient systems
  • reducing travel by utilising online calls
  • repurposing and reducing raw material consumption.

Prior to the workshop, we also supported firms in working through carbon footprint assessments of their present daily operations.

Reasons to pursue decarbonisation

Some of the reasons to pursue decarbonisation efforts were motivated by improving the environment in general and complying with regulations, especially for manufacturing companies. Others were driven by market positioning - a desire to position themselves as leaders in carbon neutrality, cost efficiency for business continuity and complying to environmental demands from their own customers.

Icons showing decarbonisation actions presently undertaken and planned for (solar panels, green vehicle, reduce/reuse materials, research and development, measuring and process control) and reasons for pursuing decarbonisation efforts (big thinking, business continuity, customer relations and market positioning, regulations and cost reduction)

Figure 1: Workshop outcomes on general objective and approaches for de-carbonisation

We assigned participants to two focus groups in the second session to talk about barriers, causes, experiences, and support needed to achieve decarbonisation activities. Among the common barriers faced were:

  • being overwhelmed by large carbon footprint analysis data and being unable to integrate information of suppliers and customers into these calculations
  • difficulty to get buy-in from decision makers
  • time allocation
  • short term commercial priorities
  • the complexity of products
  • environmental consciousness among staff in general.

However, some companies found that switching to meatless or reducing meat in menus for their charity were some of the small steps which helped make a difference. The remaining chose to focus on repurposing unused spaces, powering facilities with sustainable electricity, appointing specific roles to champion green programs, ongoing messaging and incentivising staff for green efforts and even educating suppliers and customers.

Lastly, the focus group were asked to discuss what forms of support SMEs could possibly benefit from. Many expressed that having support to understand their own data on their carbon footprint was valuable. They also wished to see more awareness on social media, amongst business associations driving green solutions.

Final thoughts

Net zero initiatives have resonated positively with SMEs and it is definitely an interest if not a strategic priority for many. These firms are cognisant of making environmental changes in their daily operations but there are still plenty of barriers to committing to more radical or extensive transformation. One main challenge seems to stem from the conservative organisational cultures – in which many found it difficult to get top-level approvals on investing in technology. Despite the existence of carbon footprint tools available to companies, there is still a high demand on needing additional training and consultancy support to implement best practises.

Through our academic research and collaboration, we intend to create a consistent messaging and share knowledge on support available to accelerate zero carbon emission strategies with SMEs across sectors.