By Mark Gold, chair of the Global Forum for SMEs, ACCA
Despite representing more than 90 per cent of global businesses, and accounting on average for 50 per cent of gross domestic product and 63 per cent of employment, SMEs have by and large been marginalised in the debate about sustainable business – both in terms of policy and practice. ACCA Global Forum for SMEs has published a new policy paper that looks at why this is the case and how we can change that. We know that SMEs have been slow to adopt environment-related improvements with only 29 per cent of SMEs in the EU thought have introduced measures to save energy or raw materials, compared with 46 per cent of large enterprises (see here).
The picture is likely to vary across Europe but as an average, the potential for improvements are certainly there, as well as the resulting benefits. So why are SMEs still thought to be slow in terms of recognising the importance and benefits of sustainable business practice?
One aspect is certainly that all too often we end up talking about SMEs as one homogeneous group, which is usually unhelpful. If you consider that this includes businesses with zero employees (only the owner manager) and those that have up to 250 employees, it becomes clear how vastly different these entities are. Their levels of formability, internal capacity and specialisms, not to mention motivations can mean that they end up in fact having very little in common when it comes to sustainability. But all too often we have sought to engage them without appropriately recognising how diverse and disparate this segment or the business population is.
The second question is: are we able to capture all the activities that SMEs do in this area appropriately? Are we asking the right questions? If we ask a business owner what their CSR strategy or sustainability practice is they may draw a blank face. They won’t think to tell us about the local charity they are supporting, about providing young people with work experience nor will they think about the cost savings they are seeking to make in their energy consumption as relevant answers. So are we capturing all the ‘business as usual’ activities that they are already doing?
Finally, are we giving them the right tools to communicate these and to engage? We talk about sustainability reporting, assurance, environmental management systems not to mention all the ‘jargon’ that has developed over time in the sustainability field. It is no secret that much of this has been developed with large businesses in mind so it is therefore no wonder that we are not seeing many enough SMEs engaging.
What I know from my own practice that specialises in creative industries and deals with thousands of SMEs each year is that these are responsible businesses, with a positive impact on society and a careful approach to environment. We ought to be able to capture this better.