How Can We Make European Businesses Greener?

What practical steps can we take to not only prove our green credentials but make a lasting, positive impact on our planet? Let's explore the basics.

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) report released earlier this year gave humanity its starkest warning yet about the direction we find ourselves on. The environment is changing, and we are already starting to see the disastrous effects of that change.

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As Glasgow readies itself for the launch of COP26 at the end of October, the world’s focus will be on political leaders and how aggressive their plans and agreements will be to cut carbon emissions and reset our relationship with nature. 

And whilst around 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 have been produced by just 100 companies according to the Carbon Majors Report, individuals and smaller businesses alike are seemingly more prepared to make bigger changes to help in the global effort to cut emissions and reduce our impact. 

But it’s not all to do with being ethical businesses. 

Consumers expect organisations to do their bit.

Deloitte’s 2021 Sustainability & Consumer Behaviour report highlights just how willing consumers are becoming to make changes to their own buying patterns in a bid to be more sustainable. Forty-five percent have bought more locally produced goods, and almost four in 10 say they’ve reduced air travel and reduced the number of new products they buy. 

The kicker for some businesses though will be the following three stats:

  • 34 percent have chosen brands that have environmentally sustainable practices/values

  • 30 percent have chosen brands that have ethical practices/values

  • 28 percent have stopped purchasing certain brands or products altogether due to sustainability-related concerns 

And you will have seen over the last two years an accelerating trend for businesses to start advertising their green credentials to align with consumer demands. Brewdog is planting forests when you buy their beer. Coffee brands have done away with plastic straws with Starbucks also developing an eco-friendly cup. National Rail changed the colour of its classic logo to highlight how rail travel is a greener mode of transport. There are even marketing agencies dedicated to ‘green marketing’! 

But is all this enough? 

I had an interesting conversation just a few months back with the founder of a new drinks company who said that many green schemes businesses are adopting are purely window dressing, and consumers will start to see through them. Yes, we should be encouraging our most beloved brands to be as green as they possibly can. But it will likely be the startups of today and tomorrow who will really be able to embody what it is to be a truly sustainable business as they can build their sourcing, supply chains and operational models with carbon-neutrality and sustainability in mind, instead of having to retrofit and adapt current manufacturing methods and selling models. 

And being seen to be green won’t just be a consumer issue in the future either — it will become an employee retention issue too as more of us look to work for organisations whose corporate values align more closely with our personal ones. 

But window dressing and green marketing aside, what can we as business owners and decision-makers do to reduce our emissions, strive for carbon-neutral and become more sustainable? What practical steps can we take to not only prove our green credentials but make a lasting, positive impact on our planet?

Let’s start with some of the basics. 

Making our offices greener.

The easiest place to start when it comes to making our businesses greener is our offices. Simple things like discouraging printer usage, using LED lightbulbs, and not leaving PCs on standby overnight are really basic things we can all start doing tomorrow. We could also look at replacing single-use cups at the watercooler by giving employees their own company-branded water bottles.

I think we might start to see more companies adopting sustainability teams too - a group of workers who are tasked with coming up with green ideas and promoting them from within the workplace. 

Larger changes in how we heat and cool our working spaces will take time, and might only be achievable when we build new working spaces in the future through tougher building regulations. After all, no one is expecting you to shell out thousands to improve the insulation of a rented office in an old converted mill. 

Our choice of energy partners.

Going green with our choice of energy partners is a great way we can make our organisations more environmentally friendly… in just a few clicks!

There are many new companies emerging who are offering green energy solutions for the business market offering green power with zero carbon, for companies of all sizes.

And why stop at changing energy suppliers. For some businesses, it may even make long-term financial sense to adopt wind and solar technology at their sites and generate their own sources of energy. 

Our choice of tech partners.

Did you know that every time you stream a movie or send an email, you could be inadvertently harming the planet? That was the ‘internet’s big secret’ revealed by the BBC’s Beth Webb in a documentary looking at how the digital cloud we all rely on is created by a network of energy-guzzling data centres.

Of course, finding technology or software providers who are environmentally friendly is a big challenge, and I wouldn’t expect businesses to move away from operationally critical platforms overnight. But change is slowly coming. 

Some tech and software providers are now investing in greener ways of operating. Wind-powered data centres are now a thing, with one company in Germany testing the idea of building small data centres inside the wind turbines themselves.

And we can use our existing technology to make greener decisions for the future, with the likes of SAP embedding sustainability into its entire product line with software designed to address carbon accounting and track the footprint of products.

Employee schemes.

Next, we can take a look at some of the ways in which we can promote greener behaviours amongst the workforce through employee schemes. 

Some great ideas have been around for decades now, most notable perhaps being the bike-buying scheme that many organisations have adopted. But we can certainly do more. 

Whilst the pandemic has accelerated the shift towards home working which will reduce the carbon footprint of workforces through reduced transport usage alone, businesses can be doing more to subsidise the cost of public transport for the days when employees do need to come in. We could also be looking at being more flexible with working hours to reduce the time workers who can’t commute via bus or train are sat in commuter traffic. 

Operational decisions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, are the operational decisions we make as businesses on how we source products, ship them to where they need to be and then send them to customers. 

How we import and export goods has a huge effect on the environment, especially in the wake of the pandemic as the popularity of air freight has grown with many shipping ports clogged with containers. 

The way we source our products is slowly changing for the better, but deforestation remains a critical global issue. And how we get products to customers needs to change too. Hands up if you’ve ordered something small online recently and it was delivered in a box big enough to fit your sofa in?! 

Changes are being made, of course. The rise of agroforestry by which crops and livestock farming is managed amongst wild trees and shrubs is a key step forward. More and more brands are setting up with the sole purpose of selling sustainably sourced products too, including the likes of the ever-popular bamboo toothbrush. 

Businesses need to lead the way.

In conclusion, there are plenty of things we can be getting on with as businesses to become more environmentally friendly and sustainable — some we can implement from next week, others requiring years of strategic planning and implementation. 

But the private sector must step up, especially as many governments around the world are banking on capitalist free markets to adapt and lead the green revolution — albeit with some legislative nudging. It’s down to us to find and build the greener companies and products that consumers of today and tomorrow will demand, and in doing so, work towards reaching the carbon output and global warming targets which reports like the IPCC’s say we cannot afford to miss.