How to waste less energy, save money and become more sustainable

Making simple changes could reduce a business’s energy costs by 5%-10%, according to the Carbon Trust1, yet many UK SMEs could be doing more to use less energy.

“We’ve just published the results of a survey of 564 UK SMEs2 we commissioned, asking them about their attitudes toward sustainability and actions they’ve taken to reduce their energy consumption. It gives cause for optimism,” says Laura Timlin, Director, the Carbon Trust.

“More than 80% of the SMEs we spoke to have taken action to increase their energy efficiency and 51% say they want to do more. More than 60% were very or fairly concerned about their energy spend – up from 46% when we conducted a similar survey of SMEs in 2016.” 

The Carbon Trust helps organisations to “contribute to a more sustainable future through carbon reduction, resource efficiency strategies and commercialising low-carbon technologies”.

Significant energy savings

“Savings can be made in many areas,” she adds, “lighting, heating and cooling are areas in which most businesses can achieve significant energy savings.”

Behavioural changes, such as switching off equipment when not in use, and closing windows, are no-cost actions that can make a big difference, Timlin says. “There are also various cost-effective technologies with short payback periods, such as LED lighting, that can have a significant impact.”

Agreeing and then communicating a business-wide energy policy is the first step to getting staff on board, Timlin says. Having such a policy, signed by a senior manager, underlines the importance of not wasting energy, while setting reduction targets can motivate employees to think about where energy is consumed and how reductions can be made. “Simple communications or labels on energy-using technologies helps to guide employees on simple actions they can take to save energy,” she advises.

Free resources for SMEs

The Carbon Trust offers publications and interactive tools that are specifically designed for UK SMEs. They provide a step-by-step guide to reducing energy bills and include the:

  • SME Energy Benchmark Tool3 – to find out if you’re using more energy than comparable businesses in your sector
  • SME Carbon Footprint Calculator4 – to measure and report your greenhouse gas emissions and
  • Lighting Business Case Tool5 – to assess your current lighting usage and find out how much you could save by upgrading to more energy-efficient lighting and controls.

It has also published The Better Business Guide To Energy Saving6, which is free to download from its website.

Spot ways to use less energy

Having an “energy walk-around” can help you identify where your business is wasting energy. Typically, Timlin reveals, lights can be left on when meeting rooms, spaces or toilets aren’t in use. Photocopiers, monitors and printers can be left on standby when not in use, while doors and windows can be left open during colder weather, causing heat loss and drafts. “Conducting a walk-around at the end of the day can identify equipment left on needlessly overnight,” she says. 

Assigning responsibility for energy saving and sound planning are both essential to reducing your energy use. “Having a systematic plan for energy reduction – supported by a policy and reduction targets – will help to secure long-term, sustained savings. Energy plans help to distil your energy policy goals into practical, measurable actions, so you can track overall progress. 

“The government is committed to reducing UK emissions to net zero by 2050, so it is imperative that all businesses take steps to reduce their environmental impact,” Timlin stresses. “Energy savings not only lower a business’s carbon footprint and energy bills, but customers are increasingly attracted to environmentally-conscious companies.”

Plastic waste

Businesses are also being urged to rethink their plastics use. According to government estimates7, five million tonnes of plastic are used in the UK every year and nearly half of it is packaging.

Much plastic waste will not decompose when sent to landfill, while a high volume of plastic litter blights our natural environment, polluting our soil, lakes, rivers and seas, harming and killing creatures that inhabit them. The government has a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2043.

Claire Potter8 is a Brighton-based sustainable design, circular economy and marine litter expert. “There are so many single-use plastics in our daily lives and all of us should do as much as possible to stop using them,” she says. “Use recyclable materials for packaging and other things. Responsibly dispose of all materials that enter your business and recycle where possible.”

You could have fewer general waste bins around your premises, to prevent employees and customers from not recycling plastic, cardboard and paper. Your business should have plenty of clearly signposted recycling bins. You could also choose to buy from suppliers who are also committed to minimising their plastic use.

Sustainable alternatives

Potter recommends looking closely at how your business uses plastic, to find out how much waste is generated and how it is disposed. “Some plastics can be eliminated totally,” she says. “Make sure that those that remain can be recycled. Getting your employees on board is critical; often staff themselves are frustrated that their employers aren’t more sustainable.”

Being a more sustainable business also help you to attract and retain staff who prefer to work for sustainable businesses. “Consumers are also much more savvy nowadays: they demand that businesses act against single-use plastic,” Potter adds. ”So, the more sustainable your business is – and the more transparent it is about what it’s doing and striving to do – the more some customers will be attracted and become ambassadors for your business.”

As many UK SMEs are discovering, being less wasteful cannot only provide a welcome cash flow boost, but it can also make you greener, which is better for our planet. Win-wins don’t get much better.