Research consistently shows that many smaller businesses do not know how to access support and information about clean growth and sustainable business practices. Our own recent research shows more than four in ten firms (42%) in the East Midlands do not feel well informed about support for clean growth and nearly three in ten (29%) are not engaging with the clean growth agenda.
Since its launch in 2017, the Low Carbon Business Network (LCBN) has provided over 600 hours of dedicated business support to more than 40 SMEs in the D2N2 region, with interventions including specialist support for environmental accreditation, business value mapping, strategic marketing as well as ‘Green Growth Accelerator’ workshops and a ‘Dragon’s Den’ experience that allowed business leaders to rehearse their business pitch with procurement managers from public and corporate sector organisations, resulting in 5.4 tCO2e savings. The Network has hosted three sustainable business marketplace events and four sustainability summits (jointly with the East Midlands Chamber of Commerce). It also provides a dedicated website with searchable network map (www.lowcarbonbusiness.net) that allows SMEs with environmental aspirations to access state-of-the-art resources and connect with larger organisations. Since 2017 membership has grown steadily (reaching 170 firms in June 2021) and continues to sustain a healthy social media following on Twitter and LinkedIn.
In November 2021 it launched an online SME Zero Carbon Pathway resource, that signalled the growing range of information, resources, advice and support available locally and nationally for pro-environmental SMEs pursuing zero-carbon targets.
For smaller, entrepreneurial businesses, the facilitation of new contacts and networking with like-minded business colleagues has been one of the most valued outcomes of the Network. Members noted the benefits of information and knowledge shared within the Network (for example about grant funding), access to leading edge thinkers through keynote presentations, workshops by industry specialists and direct interaction with University staff. Equally valued, however, was interaction with 'like-minded' business-people, the opportunity to 'sound off' to people who understood their circumstances and get practical advice about the most mundane of business challenges (taxes, staffing and suppliers).
Firms from diverse sectors (such as wood recycling, environmental accreditation, hospitality, engineering, electrical distributors and transport companies) also acknowledged the Network as a source of new business and business partnerships - either with other Network members or contacts made at conferences or market-place events.
The LCBN provision has been research and evidence-based from the start. So, it was clear from the initial needs analysis that SMEs had low levels of awareness, were unclear about accessing support and that their needs went far beyond energy efficiency.
Although we had a clear focus on delivering pro-environmental outcomes for SMEs, attributing CO2 reductions to business process innovation is problematic, so we focused on four further levels of impact: supporting SMEs to attain green business credentials, successfully marketing pro-environmental goods and services and accessing low carbon goods and services markets have resulted in increased sales of low carbon goods and services; increased awareness of pro-environmental business practices, such as environmental value mapping, confidence to pitch green business opportunities to corporate buyers and the skills to develop and review eco-innovation projects; research outputs have informed the University’s new MSc in Sustainable and Ethical Business Management by Derby Business School; and our work has informed the LEP Energy Strategy and the Local Industrial Strategy.
A key lesson has been the importance of developing mutually beneficial relationships with key regional stakeholders. This has included the LEP Growth Hub, regional Energy Hub, other regional pro-environmental support programmes, local University teams and the East Midlands Chamber (EMC). Coordinated scheduling and promotion of events has resulted in a greater degree of engagement from the business community in pro-environmental themed events across the region. EMC, for example, reported a 5% increase in the average participation rate since 2016 and ‘Investors in the Environment’ (IIE) also reporting increased interest from SMEs participating in the LCBN. Ongoing research collaboration with East Midlands Chamber has resulted in useful regional trends data showing the growth in pro-environmental business over the period 2016-21. The percentage of businesses in the East Midlands supplying pro-environmental goods or services increased from 16% in 2015 to 37% in 2021. 36% of the companies surveyed stated that clean growth is already wholly or partly integrated into their business growth strategies; up from 29% in 2020.
LCBN Academic staff have used the lessons learned from running the Network to develop a number of research outcomes, hosting research-based events and providing advice about how to support SMEs with pro-environmental practice to LEPs, Universities, local enterprise initiatives, and local authorities nationally. A key message for the funding, design and delivery of future programmes is that a ‘wide-spectrum’, multi-disciplinary approach is likely to reap the greatest and most sustainable benefits for SMEs.