Tom Levitt is an active advisor for whatCharity who has collaborated with us over the past 2 years of our existence. In the following article he reveals 30 ways small businesses can become more conscientious in everyday operations and beyond.

When I talk about ‘company citizenship’ I often hear ‘But we’re only small, what can we do?’ ‘We don’t have time or money to spare!’ Small businesses are often ‘time poor’ and lack sophisticated management structures so opportunities for really making a difference are limited. Or are they?

Fundamental change isn’t what’s needed. If all of UK’s three million employers, most of whom have fewer than 20 workers, just did something then a lot would change! Don’t compare your company wistfully with big corporations and their ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ programmes (‘Not for us, we’re not corporates’), just get down and do it! It’s also the case that many SMEs instinctively engage with the communities in which they employ people or sell products and services without adopting a strategic approach, though the companies may benefit from adopting one!

Where an SME employs no-one, or just one person, the values, mission and purpose of the company are clearly those of the proprietor. What follows is aimed at the company with up to 20 employees, addressing the question: ‘How can this company citizen make a difference?’ 

(Follow the links in the text for more information).

You are What you Buy

  • Fair trade tea, coffee, biscuits and sugar deliver a fair price and basic civic essentials to the producers of raw materials in poorer countries.
  • Low impact cleaning products reduce the negative effect of the chemicals you put down the drain on the environment, helping to keep our wildlife, rivers and oceans safe.
  • Certifiable sustainable products – such as wood (in our furniture) or palm oil – makes sure we will still have such resources available in the future (and our consciences are clear).
  • Pay your bills within 30 days in line with the Prompt Payment Code. Gently insist that your customers do the same.
  • Don’t artificially reduce your company’s tax liabilities unreasonably, as the less tax the government gets in the higher tax rates have to be kept. Apply for the Fair tax mark.
  • Consider buying products and services from social enterprises, companies with a social purpose. You don’t have to compromise your standards or your wallet to buy from them! (‘Buy Social’).
  • Sourcing goods and services locally helps boost the local economy, reduces your carbon footprint and even builds up useful business relationships. The Social Value Act allows public sector bodies to choose more conscientious suppliers so if you sell to the public sector it will help if you can demonstrate that your company creates ‘social value’.
  • Do you buy your energy from a ‘green’ provider? (They’re not as expensive as they used to be). Do your company’s vehicles pass the ‘low emissions zone’ test? Can you reduce vehicle usage, perhaps by sharing with another company?
  • When you’ve finished using stuff does it go to landfill or to help a good cause? BHF will take your old office furniture, other specialists take computer equipment and find them a new home. Some companies now send zero waste to landfill – could yours?
  • Don’t buy non-biodegradable ‘single use’ plastic cups, cutlery, straws, bags, etc. We’ve all seen The Blue Planet… At the very least, wash them and use them again! This saves money in the long run, too.
three men sitting on chair beside tables

Actions not Words

  • What does your company do that might help community groups? Legal advice, web site design, auditing, marketing or cycle maintenance, perhaps. Could a small amount of pro bono work help others?  (And it would boost your company’s reputation too).
  • Look at the stuff you throw out: your waste might be someone else’s raw materials. Schools, charities, playgroups, even elderly people’s day centres might appreciate a gift!
  • Similarly you may have surplus goods: charities like In Kind Direct find homes for such products, even, for example, if incorrectly labelled. (Also Globechain).
  • How close are you to running a paperless office? Do you minimise food waste and sort your recycling properly? Reduce your landfill (again!) and refuse collection costs.
  • Tell others what you’re doing. Join ‘Trading for Good’ to keep a public record of your company’s gifts, donations and volunteering record (it’s free!). Talk about being a company citizen in your local networks. (OK, this is words not actions but you need the actions first).
  • Do you have intangible assets which community groups might occasionally use, on a reasonable basis? Perhaps a meeting room, a public address system, a stall, a photocopier?
  • ‘Adopt’ a local charity. Can your company help them to be more effective? Helping write a business plan, auditing their accounts or spring cleaning their premises. Publicise your successes. Try to find one that reflects your own company ‘mission’.
  • Corruptionmodern slavery and bribery are all illegal but did you know that businesses have a responsibility to ensure that their supply chains are clean in these respects? Worth taking advice on this one; getting it right can change people’s lives for the better.

Your People: your Biggest Asset

  • Encourage team work on charity projects and reap the reward in the workplace.
  • Don’t be prejudiced against employing ex-offenders; don’t ask job applicants to confess to criminal records (without good reason). Take advice, but remember that ex-offenders can be very loyal and appreciative of the confidence you show in them. (The same goes for people leaving care or the armed forces, or with mental health problems or learning difficulties).
  • Similarly, your company structure and procedures shouldn’t avoidably discriminate against employees (or customers) with disabilities, children, different lifestyles or caring responsibilities at home. The Gender Pay Gap is an example of this (see note below). Happier employees and customers are better employees and customers!
  • Plan your volunteering strategy carefully; if there’s a local business volunteering network join it, to save costs and organising time. Take advice. Don’t feel the need to have all your employees out volunteering at the same time – which can be very disruptive to smaller businesses. Three days per year per employee is a good benchmark but averaging half of that is doing well.
  • Help your staff develop their skills through skilled volunteering in the community. Skilled volunteering generally takes less of your valuable time than unskilled or time volunteering and helps staff learn new skills in different contexts
  • Encourage some employees to serve the community as regular volunteers, councillors, charity trustees or school governors. Take an interest in their work and allow them (some) time off to engage with their role. They are your company’s ambassadors!
  • For employees on low pay the Living Wage provides a more realistic basic living standard than the legal minimum wage – and could reduce your staff’s dependence on benefits or even on foodbanks. The Living Wage boosts employee engagement (and thus productivity) too! And give equal pay for work of equal value.
  • Do you do any in-house training which might benefit someone from a local charity to join?
  • How could you work better with local schools (such as one your employees use)? Send a team to help out at sports day, or listen to children read, offer to take a lesson on computing, host students on work experience, help leavers practice job interviews, take part in a careers fair…
  • Employee wellbeing is more than ‘Health & Safety’. Help staff live healthier lifestyles – provide fruit, bike racks, communal walking events. Ban doughnuts and salt from the kitchen. Set up a workplace slimmers’ group. Reduce stress – ask employees how they might work better.
  • Involve your employees more in the company – ask them how to do things better at work, how to save costs, how your company can be a better company citizen.

If all else fails…

  • Ride a bike, do a sponsored walk or bake a cake to raise money for charity, donate a raffle prize or write a cheque. Find out about local charities from your library or Council for Voluntary Services, but remember that raising money is only an arm’s length way of doing good! Your company can reap rewards from acting more positively, enhancing both your company’s reputation and levels of employee engagement. 

NOTE: some regulations in respect of the above – such as reporting on the Gender Pay Gap – only apply to larger companies. However, these actions all reflect good practice even where not obligatory, and all are consistent with long term business success.

Based on a strategy created for Circles 2 Success, Cheltenham, October 2018

Tom Levitt is a writer and consultant on responsible business and the author of ‘The Courage to Meddle’ (2020) and ‘The Company Citizen’ (2018). A former Member of Parliament and a serial charity chair, his clients have included major businesses, think tanks, councils, social enterprises and others. He’s the co-founder of the award-winning social enterprise, Fair for You, and chairs a Taskforce on ‘Business Schools and the Public Good’ for the Chartered Association of Business Schools. He was a member of a BSI committee looking at enhancing social value.

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