What small businesses want from COP26

What small businesses want from COP26
Dan Martin
Dan MartinDan Martin Content & Events

Posted: Tue 2nd Nov 2021

The eyes of the world are on Glasgow as the COP26 climate change conference takes place. Leaders from across the globe are gathering in Scotland in the hope of reaching an agreement on tackling the planet's climate emergency.

"It’s one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock and we need to act now," warned UK prime minister Boris Johnson at the event's opening ceremony. "If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow."


Boris Johnson at COP26


The stark reality of why the world need to act on cutting carbon emissions was highlighted by this summer's report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The UK government summarised it in its recent net zero strategy document:

"It showed that if we fail to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the floods and fires we have seen around the world this year will get more frequent and more fierce, crops will be more likely to fail, and sea levels will rise driving mass migration as millions are forced from their homes.

"Above 1.5°C we risk reaching climatic tipping points like the melting of arctic permafrost – releasing millennia of stored greenhouse gases – meaning we could lose control of our climate for good."

The role of business in tackling climate change

There is a huge focus on the world's biggest businesses and largest sources of carbon emissions to play their role in tackling the problem. Last week, the government said the UK's biggest firms will be required by law to disclose climate-related financial information, ensuring they consider the risks and opportunities they face as a result of climate change.

But smaller businesses are vital too. A recent report by the British Business Bank showed that small and medium-sized companies are collectively responsible for around half of the total carbon emissions from UK businesses and 30% of all the emissions that the UK produces.

Encouragingly, 57% of SMEs said they were aware of the government’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and 47% rate cutting carbon emissions as a high or very high priority over the next two years.

However, the study found that 76% are yet to implement a strategy for reducing their impact with only 3% having measured their carbon footprint in the past five years.

Help is out there to support small businesses in defining and achieving their sustainability goals including Enterprise Nation's Plan It With Purpose sector guides which help founders understand the opportunities for impact and measures you can implement in your small business.

What small businesses want COP26 to achieve

Lots of big headlines will come out of the COP26 but what do small businesses want the conference to achieve that will help more small firms become more sustainable?

We put a call out and had one of our biggest ever responses. Here's a selection.

Fiona Scott, founder, Scott Media and Enterprise Nation adviser member

"I would like COP26 to consider how to offer a more carrot, rather than stick approach with more incentives to small and micro businesses across the world to be more green. This would look different for different countries of course as their challenges around the climate emergency will be different.

"This means investment and incentives to drive change in behaviour such as making it cost effective to go green with transports (EVs for example which are very expensive to buy) so tax concessions or VAT exemption if leased through a company or 'grants' back per year for buying a green fleet. Grants for car chargers at workplaces, subsidies for public transport use, benefits for using sustainable packaging, benefits to using 'green' servers, or 'green' energy suppliers, a much greater emphasis on the value of recycling and reusing.

"Once a reward system is worked out to help people make those changes (ie. the carrot) then there could be penalties for not making the smarter choice (eco unfriendly taxes).

"In other words to be more green, there must be a monetary carrot to push people to make those first steps. Cash flow is king in business and helping with that will help SMEs lead the green way."

Ruth Bradford, founder, The Black & White Book Project and Enterprise Nation member

"The climate crisis is a funny one for governments to navigate. Sadly, most of it comes over as posturing and a blame game, lots of talk of targets and well-crafted soundbites rather than tangible actions. I want to see our government push to take unpopular decisions because it's the right thing to do rather than chase the popular vote or looking good at a conference.

"There are so many small businesses like mine who put the planet at the heart of their offering. I think in the current market consumers want to feel good about their decisions and their spending so you'd be foolish to ignore the demands of conscious consumerism. If we can do it on a small scale then governments can do a lot more on a bigger scale to prove that they are actually serious about the future of our planet."

 Hortense Julienne, founder, Miss Nang Treats and Enterprise Nation member

"It would be great if the UK has special agreements with countries that are advanced in #SustainablePackaging. This could help UK small businesses to switch to sustainable packaging faster without extra taxes for buying them abroad. UK is still behind on sustainability."

 Jarmila Yu, founder, YUnique Marketing and Enterprise Nation adviser member

"One of my hopes to come out from COP26 is that for once and for all we drive home the awareness and true understanding and appreciation for businesses of all types. I also hope we get the acceptance and action that provides relevant models (tax, funding, relief, support schemes certifications, hiring, etc) that relate to businesses of all types so we can be supported to play the valuable role we can and must play towards moving forward in a new era of responsible business that is climate and society friendly.

"Models in many regards still only really exist for traditional business sectors and for only a few industry sectors. This excludes many businesses from an easier path to full participation and growth.

"Let's make it easier for the 99% of the market that is made up of small businesses to be part of a well oiled functioning economic system and let's unlock their true potential to support our economy, society and the planet."

 Gareth Dinnage, managing director, Seacourt (sustainable printing company)

"I urge leaders at COP26 to see that the time is now! Targets need to be meaningful and ambitious to reach net zero by 2050. As an SME who is already carbon neutral, I would like to see more practical discussions on how governments will support small businesses in this.

"For instance, allowing a corporation tax benefit for SMEs who deliver more sustainable practises. Showing an annual reduction in overall carbon footprint ought to be a passport to corporate tax breaks, and corporation tax could even be graded according to footprint. Leaders should see that SMEs power the UK economy and can power positive sustainable change too."

Amanda Evans, founder, Obki Productions

"We want COP26 to ultimately encourage businesses to take actions that have a positive impact on our environment. There are simple steps we can all take every day to make life more sustainable and they all add up. We all have a part to play in going greener.

"As a business we want to work closely with the government, fit closely with their campaigns, offer new ways of engaging in environmental issues and see support from the government for helping to do this via online tools.

"Ultimately for our business, which is an animated series targeting children age 5-9, we would like to push for reform of climate teaching in the UK curriculum and for there to be a review of climate education across the curriculum so we create environmental leaders for the future."

Jay Rahman, co-founder, JM Socials

"Almost every small business wants to reduce their carbon footprint, but there’s a cost that comes with sustainability that makes it unfortunately inaccessible for many. JM Socials has recently switched to a zero landfill policy, and although this of course improves our sustainability practices, it isn’t without added costs. This is on top of the sustainable packaging we use, which also costs more than traditional plastic.

"Recently, there’s been a big push for businesses to go green, but in a post-COVID environment, involving sustainable practices can cause added financial strains. There has now become a bridge between what businesses want to do for the environment, and what they can afford. From COP26, we hope to see governments make sustainability more accessible by perhaps offering sustainability grants to small businesses.

"Another outcome we’d like to see is tailored advice from the government on how to implement cost-effective processes in order to lower carbon footprints. By combining these changes, we believe that government can help all small business owners create achievable, cost-effective plans to reduce our impact on the planet."

Annabel Thomas, founder, Nc’nean Distillery and speaker at COP26

"My aspiration is that COP26 will continue the work to raise awareness of the issues caused by climate change and highlight the various ways companies can seek to change their own operations to help to address the issues. Following our success of achieving net zero for our own operations (scope 1 and 2) earlier this year, it is my hope that our work will inspire others in our industry to make further progress. Scotch whisky accounts for 75% of Scottish food and drink exports, so it’s significant for us that the summit is being held in Glasgow this year. We want more companies to look at their mode of operating and make improvements where they can, as we will also be continuing to do across our business."

Stacey-Rebekka Karlsson, managing director and founder, Goho

"As an agency working mainly with small businesses, we have noticed huge changes in founders' mentalities in terms of their businesses' impact on the world. Small businesses can be important agents of change. Compared to big established companies, our processes and culture are still a "work in progress", and it's much easier to change quickly. We can choose sustainable initiatives and implement processes to be a net-zero company far quicker than huge companies. We hope that COP26 not only increases awareness and contextualises the problems, but also allows connections to be created between companies and people working together to reduce the impact on the environment, and being committed to creating initiatives around the circular economy."


COP26 climate change conference


Julia Linehan, founder and managing director, The Digital Voice

"Our team of eleven all work remotely – and always have done. This is a win both in terms of sustainability and productivity. Personally, I welcome sustainability being baked into law and our model is one that I believe more should emulate. I’m hoping that COP26 will compel urgent action – not in six months, nor in two years – but now.

"Sustainable business practices are often considered a barrier or an inconvenience but they can represent a win/win - attracting clients, attracting talent and enabling significantly lower running costs. Our business is focused on outputs rather than presenteeism and we deliver rapid-fire communications consultancy by leveraging technology. Much of it is about state of mind.

"We must not forget, too, that the small business community will play a significant role in combating climate change. Collectively, we have a huge impact on the UK economy, society and local communities. As such, business owners have a massive role to play. Fortunately, the pandemic has shown us just how tenacious we can be.

"There’s no doubt that COP26 will lead to new regulations, innovations and business models and I sincerely hope it will drive changes in consumer behaviour, too. Anything else will represent failure. Companies which keep abreast of such developments when it comes to sustainability will find themselves more than one step ahead as we continue to navigate significant upheaval and change. Potentially, the pandemic was just a warm up."

Peter Miles, co-founder and CEO of eHempHouse and an exhibitor at COP26

"Building sustainability into your business does come with an upfront cost but should be viewed as a longer-term investment. It is nevertheless rather galling to see larger corporates abdicating their moral duty and looking to profit from their polluting practices. I'm hoping that COP26 will correct this market distortion against smaller, environmentally friendly businesses. COP26 can do this by declaring a carbon pricing regime. This would ensure that all businesses bear the weight of the pollution they are responsible for. This would create an environmental level playing field and will definitely favour those small businesses already committed to sustainability."

Kari Sherman, founder, Tom Pom Organic

"With the UK pledging to be net zero carbon emissions by 2050, now is the time to work from the ground up on how we can achieve this and keep businesses moving forward.

"The advantage of being a small business is change is easier as we are more agile. We need clear and achievable targets to make our supply chains net zero. We can’t do it alone, but we can work together. For example, making the use of electric cars and delivery vans tax deductible.

"There are companies and apps which help businesses understand how to reduce their carbon footprint. Why not make these government funded or fully tax deductible helping us make changes from light bulbs to industrial equipment? For some small businesses, we could be net zero by 2030 if we had the government’s support."

Simon Daniel, founder, Moixa (energy technology company)

"COP26 needs to find the funds to address climate change. The key to this is re-imagining the pension system to unlock the trillions of pounds needed for funding climate infrastructure, and electrification of the energy system.

"Typically over 1/7th of pension income is spent over retirement on energy and travel costs, which need to become net-zero services. The pension system could aid this by encouraging investment in renewables, storage, electric vehicles and smart grid infrastructure - to ensure energy and travel in retirement are delivered as net zero services. A major innovation would be to assign a portion of unfunded state pension liabilities to build green infrastructure to deliver net-zero energy and transport as pension benefits. In the UK this could release over £1 trillion pounds, and also reduce future burden on tax-payers, and ensure Net-zero is funded and delivered.

"The ideas and technologies developed by enterprises are critical for helping to achieve climate transition. By collaborating with large companies, UK enterprise acts as a lever, or rudder helping to change the direction and carbon trajectory of global companies and nations. This is the opportunity for individuals and small companies to share ideas and help the debate, to change the world, and deliver net-zero before it’s too late. Only through collaboration across automotive, trading, and energy storage industries can the 2050 net-zero targets be met."

Kate Tilbury, co-founder, Rowdy Kind (plastic free skin and hair care for kids)

"The biggest struggle with being sustainable as a small business is accounting for and clearly tracking our own carbon footprint. Large companies can afford to pay expensive consultants and there are multiple platforms for individual consumers, but small companies fall between the cracks.

"As the majority of businesses in the UK are small or micro enterprises, this is a serious deficiency. We can't improve what we can't understand. I'd like a commitment to create a consistent and free to use tracking and monitoring system for carbon emissions for all companies, irrespective of size, in the UK. It won't be a popular opinion - who wants that bureaucracy, right? - but it's 100% necessary.

"We need firm commitments to achieve net zero, but we also need consumers to understand that it's not just their carbon footprint at home that matters. China and India are major carbon producers because they are making things for us here. That's our carbon footprint. I'd like to see wider publication of that fact and a globally agreed system for communicating carbon footprint of consumer goods - so we can all start making conscious choices."

Faye Wilson, founder, Happier Beauty (100% recyclable toothpaste)

"As a small sustainable business owner, I'm hoping that COP26 generates some new thinking about how to support SMEs trying to make their businesses more sustainable. Ideally, support tailored to every part of the supply chain, support for greener delivery services, support for improved insulation of office buildings, support for greener public transport, support for accessible electric vehicles charging points and support for greener energy solutions. All these initiatives will roll up to make a significant impact on the amount of carbon every small business generates. As we all know, every little helps!"

Matt Barker, CEO at Jetstack, entrepreneur-in-residence for OpenUK and speaker at COP26 on 11 November

"I want to help towards the goal but don't yet feel there are easy ways to engage around it. I'm looking for leadership and direction on how I as an entrepreneur can take part in making a change. In general, I think business leaders want to feel that there is an overall plan in place around the net zero goal, and then how this will filter down into the industries and markets that they work in. They want optimism that this is a hard but achievable goal.

"There needs to be openness around and visibility of the environmental impacts of decisions we take in business. i.e. which business services have a better or worse position on their environmental impacts? Taking an open approach to how this is built and delivered will help everyone take part in this, rather than feeling shut out or unable to make that difference.

"Although I generally know what is bad and good for our footprint, I’d like a framework in which we are able to consistently measure the impact of our environmental decisions."

Dominie Fearn, founder, The Wild Hare Group

"The COP26 climate summit is arguably one of the most important political meetings in history and is set to ignite an era of large scale climate action that illuminates the core values that small businesses like The Wild Hare Group were born out of. We would like to see an acceleration in the transition to sustainable agriculture through innovation and policy change with the overarching aim of protecting nature and keeping to within 1.5°C of global warming. We want to see an era where transparency is key and businesses have a responsibility to disclose their carbon footprint. Our sustainable approach is often overshadowed by consumptive multinational corporations — however, we would like to see a level playing field where everyone in the food industry is working towards one common goal, that of protecting our planet for future generations."

Caroline Macdonald, CEO and founder, OggaDoon

"At COP26, the main target should be explaining how interventionalist actions are costed with clear explanations as to how they will be financed.

"The private sector needs to make substantial climatic adaption surrounding their supply chains as the longer they wait, the greater the long-term impacts will be on both labour mobilisation and their flow of goods. Furthermore, the private sector needs to engage more in conversations with the community sector to implement the best policies for the communities where they are based. At current rates, there must be an international fundamental change in policy to reach the 1.5° target."

Emily Whitehead, founder, Simply Great Britain

"I have a long list of things I'd like to see but for starters: all business support for start-ups and small businesses to have sustainability as a core subject alongside finances and marketing etc. All financial backers/banks etc to mandated to support small businesses with green credentials over those without. Schemes or financial support for all small businesses to easily access affordable renewable energy. Financial support for small businesses to invest in green infrastructure e.g. electric vehicles, building upgrades etc. A nationally recognised green accreditation for business across all sectors (see The Environmental Quality Mark Community Interest Company). Preferential procurement opportunities for green small businesses from local and government authorities - mandated."

Mahira Kalim, founder, Spruce (refillable cleaning products)

"Just like marginalised communities, small businesses bear more of the cost of climate change. Small businesses are at the forefront of the green revolution innovating with products and business models, so their representation at COP26 is key.

"We need to regenerate the damage we have already done to the planet, which will not happen if we don’t turn off the plastic tap and stop digging into Earth’s non-renewable resources. Our current consumption far exceeds our ability to regenerate its resources.

"Personally, I would like to see a concrete plan of action and stricter regulation on the use of fossil fuels, less use of incinerators, and a plan to prevent food waste. We also need stricter labelling of consumer products to avoid greenwashing and tighter rules on single-use packaging which is rarely recycled."

Lee Thompson, managing director, fulfilmentcrowd

"We’d like to see government funding to support the development of more sustainable solutions for our suppliers and carrier partners, which is absolutely crucial. This will ensure that biodegradable packaging options and zero carbon/electric delivery markets become more competitive, bringing down the current costs that outprice our customer base of SME online retailers to allow them to incorporate into their fulfilment and shipping strategies."

Alastair Scott, sales director, Robert Scott

"The government need to introduce a better system for valuing environmental credentials as part of the tender and procurement process for local and national government business. For example, the NHS contract uses (literally) millions of mops per year. Mops that are all imported from China. The fact that they could be bought from a UK manufacturer that uses carbon-free emission energy to make them is not currently recognised as an influencing factor when business is awarded."

Laura Crawford, founder, Mama Bamboo (eco-friendly nappies)

"I truly hope the leaders at COP 26 will commit to their 1.5 temperature target and implement concrete plans to achieve this within such a short timeframe. Time is fast running out and the woolly commitments made in the past have not resulted in actual improvements.

"As a campaigner against the use of plastic in disposable nappies and for the introduction of UK-wide composting facilities for nappy waste, I want to see them committing to taking a firmer stance on carbon production and plastic manufacture. It is not enough to keep pushing the blame and onus onto consumers to change behaviours. Bans, carbon levies, fines and tougher legislation are needed now."

Philip Galloway, co-founder, Ferris (zero waste app)

"We believe that climate-change-fighting digital technology platforms have been heavily underserved by government support, and are often underestimated in terms of the impact we can have in the fight against climate change. Support generally tends to favour capital expenditure in physical assets - an obsolete approach to funding businesses in the digital age. Supporting young businesses that are driving forward the adoption of second-hand shopping will have a seismic impact on emissions: after all, a fifth of all emissions are derived from manufacturing."

Katherine Gunderson, founder, Grand Bequest

"As a B-Corp pending approved start-up, sustainability has always been at the core of what we do. We hope that COP26 will help accelerate the policy and corporate investment strategies needed to support investment in local development plans and bring more funding into community-driven initiatives.

"As a property technology start-up working to empower local empty building projects, Grand Bequest believes that COP26 and the delegates attending, as well as the hundreds of thousands of people around the world tuning in virtually, will be apart of the historical collaboration needed to save our planet in time.

"As a small business owner, I hope COP26 brings about a new level of positive momentum and reinforces the message that planet and people are just as important as profit. I look forward to seeing all the collaboration and excitement translating into action in our local communities and within other local businesses. My team and I are actually going to Glasgow to be part of the historical event and look forward to meeting with people in person again!"

 Images credit: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate (UNFCC)


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Dan Martin
Dan MartinDan Martin Content & Events
I'm a freelance content creator and event host who helps small businesses and the organisations that support them. I'm also Enterprise Nation's Local Leader for Bristol. I have 19 years of experience as a small business journalist having interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs from billionaires like Sir Richard Branson to the founders behind brand new start-ups. I've worked for a range of leading small business publications and support groups, most recently as head of content at Enterprise Nation where I was responsible for the prolific output of content on the company's blog and social media. I now freelance for Enterprise Nation including hosting the Small Business sessions podcast. I'm based in Bristol where I run and host regular events with the local small business community in my role as Enterprise Nation's Local Leader for Bristol. I also have strong connections with other major business organisations in the south west region. In total, I've hosted over 100 events including conferences with an audience of hundreds for international brands like Xero and Facebook and live web chats from inside 10 Downing Street. With my partner, I co-run Lifestyle District, a lifestyle blog focused on culture, art, theatre and photography.

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