We continue our series on pragmatic and fit-for purpose ESG advice for SMEs. In this article, we go to the next stage of the “plan, do, check, improve” tool that you can use to identify and manage the environmental and social (E&S) impacts of your business and enhance your E&S benefits.
In our last article, we covered the planning stage. We took you through how to prioritise your E&S risks and opportunities using free tools, and guided you through writing an effective sustainability policy (along with a free template). Once you have completed these two steps, you can then move on to the ‘doing’ stage.
The Doing Stage
Step 3: Responsibility and Leadership
First of all, define who in your company will be responsible for overseeing progress on E&S issues.
There are no set rules about who should be responsible. However, we’ve found that business leaders - CEOs and executive teams - are in the best position to drive sustainability and encourage team collaboration.
Take for example UKOS plc, a stationery and office equipment supplier, whose sustainability journey has been driven by its CFO who took a personal interest in the topic after joining the “Hertfordshire Resource Efficiency Club”.
You could also consider creating a voluntary steering group. Zero Carbon Business believes that steering groups offer the best chance of success because workloads can be shared and keep going even when employees move on.
Ideally, a steering group would consist of at least five people with representation from across the business and at different levels of seniority. But we recognise that for small companies this might be too many people, so we would recommend at least three. Typically, the group should aim to meet every 3 months. Read about how Companies House formed its environmental working group.
Someone or a handful of people may need E&S training to take on this responsibility. There are a number of free resources to help, but we’d recommend starting with Microsoft’s series of free modules and those provided by the SME Climate Hub.
All employees should be given the opportunity to pose new ideas and feedback. This could be as simple as asking employees to email in suggestions on how to manage an identified E or S impact or enhance a benefit, having team strategy sessions, or creating a free survey with Survey Monkey or Smart Survey – maybe with a reward or some form of recognition for the best ideas.
Step 4: Action Plans
The second step in the ‘doing’ stage is to design action plans. Action plans are a series of short statements that set out how you will address the E&S risks/opportunities you have prioritised.
They provide clarity for you, your employees, and external stakeholders on the actions you are taking to improve your E&S performance. They can also be published on your website to demonstrate your E&S commitments to customers, partners, and potential investors.
We have created an Action Plan Template with examples that you can use as a guide. Your action plan should answer the following questions:
1. What E&S risk/opportunity are you addressing?
Clearly state each E&S risk/opportunity you are prioritising. For example, carbon emissions caused by inefficiencies in your building/office.
2. What actions will you take to address this risk/opportunity?
If your risk is carbon emissions caused by inefficiencies in your building/office, you might address this by installing LED lights with controls.
3. What human and financial resources will you need to address this risk/opportunity?
You need to know how much time and/or money is required to address each risk/opportunity. You could start by getting quotes from contractors or talking to the employees who will oversee the changes for time-estimates. Check to see if you are eligible for grants or loans from the government or your local authority to help with energy efficiency improvements – you can check here.
4. When will the action(s) be implemented?
Set realistic and clear timeframes. Some actions, such as changing to LED controlled lights or installing new windows to better insulate your office, can be completed relatively quickly. In contrast, other actions such as increasing the number of women in senior management roles can take much longer.
5. Who is responsible for implementing the action(s) and overseeing progress?
Clearly define who has responsibility for ensuring the action is carried out and that progress is being made. As we stated earlier, this can be anyone so long as they have the authority to implement changes and access to the necessary resources.
6. What results are you expecting / what are your goals?
For example, how much carbon or water are you expecting to save through your action? Or how much are you expecting your employee retention rate to increase by due to your new flexible working strategy?
7. How will you measure progress towards this goal?
You need to know how you are going to measure and demonstrate your progress. For example, keeping a spreadsheet of energy bills and smart-meter energy usage recordings to compare overtime. Or if one of your priorities is to improve gender parity in pay, you could compare baseline data about pay gaps with endline data (the Workplace Gender Equality Agency has a useful gender pay-gap calculator)
8. What are the expected business benefits of addressing this risk/opportunity?
There are tools available to help you calculate benefits, such as The Carbon Trust’s business case calculator. But remember some benefits are less tangible and more difficult to quantify than others.
Top Tips for your action plans:
Remember to be SMART:
Specific: Be concise and precise about the E&S risks/opportunities you have chosen and how you’ll address them.
Measurable: Make sure you factor in a way to measure your progress – you’ll need figures to demonstrate your progress.
Achievable and Realistic: Commit to targets and actions that can be met. To start with, aim for actions that are easy and high impact such as removing gender bias terms from job descriptions and installing automatic/sensor taps.
Time-Delimited: Set clear and realistic timeframes – this means that everyone at the company will be aware of when actions begin and when they’ll be completed. This will also allow you to monitor progress and set mid-way benchmarks.
In our next article we will go through steps five and six the “plan, do, check, improve” tool covering monitoring and reporting.
Written by Rosalind Kainyah MBE, an authority on Sustainability and responsible business with over 30 years of combined legal, international, executive and board level experience, and Helen Stickler, Co-Founder of Triplo ESG.