The New Industrial Revolution - and the role of Irish SMEs
By Máire Fay
“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” In 2022, Benjamin Franklin’s words have never been more meaningful.
As a global society, we’ve known for a long time that the way we live and do business simply isn’t sustainable. Many of us remember being told in school that fossil fuels were finite and that the planet was getting warmer but it seemed a ‘faraway problem’ then. Today we know that this isn’t the case. However, human nature means we can feel inclined to avoid uncomfortable truths - we prefer to avoid the ‘faraway problems’ - or in commerce, we avoid what we perceive to be a threat to how we are used to doing business.
In a 2021 survey commissioned by Dublin Chamber with Amárach Research, we learned that 75% of Irish organisations are less than halfway into their journey of becoming more sustainable, with 36% saying that some steps had been taken but that there was a long way to go. The survey also told us that 70% of respondents did not have a strategy for environmental, social and governance reporting (ESG).
However, with the EU Green Deal’s audacious goal of making Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, change is already here and now it’s up to us as a society and a business community to not just make our own impactful change - but to discover the substantial opportunities that lie within. We need to truly embrace the Green Deal goals and see them, not as a threat - but to look at it as a positive move to improve the well-being of people, the planet, and the economy. The EU Green Deal is already being called the next industrial revolution, the actions that will be required of all member states will be significant - but it’s important to note that the deal has been created so that nobody is left behind. There are opportunities and benefits for all.
There seems to be a mindset that having a sustainability strategy is primarily something to be addressed by larger companies and corporate businesses, but this is a narrative that we need to break. SMEs account for 70% of the Irish workforce and so have an essential role to play in having an impact on climate ambitions. SMEs are also more than entitled to reap the benefits and opportunities of making strategic change.
And the opportunities are many. Research consistently shows that sustainability has real benefits when integrated into business operations. The first and most obvious is improved brand image and competitive advantage. According to Dublin Chamber’s survey, over a third of respondents said their organisation prioritises suppliers with sustainable and ethical practices. The demand for demonstrating a clean supply chain is ever-increasing also.
This reputational advantage is valuable not only to our clients and stakeholders but also for recruiting the best talent. People want to work for companies that do the right thing and bringing your team on your sustainability journey can lead to better staff retention and boosted morale meaning optimum productivity and profit.
Increased operational productivity and cost reduction are another key opportunity and for many businesses - the most important one. There is a misconception that sustainable business practices will be expensive and will affect profit but the development of these practices streamlines effort and conserves valuable resources which as a result will increase productivity and reduce costs.
Particularly with the current energy crisis, it makes sense for businesses to have a robust understanding of what it means for them and how to implement efficiency measures in the short term and be prepared for a world where clean energy is a priority.
According to a recent survey by Electric Ireland, more than two-thirds of Irish SMEs surveyed said they wanted to reduce their carbon footprint, but 74% admitted they were unsure as to what steps they should take.
2021 saw the launch of the government’s Climate Toolkit 4 Business which is a brilliant tool for Irish SMEs wanting to decarbonise and make sustainable choices but we need more visibility and knowledge sharing on strategy. As great as it is to see businesses make small green changes, we also know that ad hoc initiatives do not demonstrate measurable results - strategy is key. Dr. Declan Boggan, founder of SustHub says that “Building out and following a sustainability strategy allows you to focus all your efforts in the right place. To maximise the impact and value you can have.”
Where to start building a sustainability strategy can be a challenge for Irish SMEs and this is where Dublin Chamber is helping Irish businesses of all sizes. Dublin Chamber knows that sustainability needs to be more than a byline in a company report. It needs to be strategic, robust, and embedded into company ethos.
Dublin Chamber with the support of sponsors AIB and educational partners SustHub have developed The Sustainability Academy, a cost-effective Irish skills initiative with one goal - to offer practical help and support for businesses who want to be sustainable and as a result, become more competitive, resilient, and successful.
The academy is a series of online workshops that are catered to all needs at all levels. It will take you through the basics in ‘Sustainability 101’ right through to building your sustainability strategy, resource efficiency, carbon footprinting, the circular economy, and more. Participation is subsidised and also includes a post-workshop one-on-one session with climate experts SustHub.
As Mary Whitelaw, Director of Corporate Affairs, Strategy & Sustainability at AIB tells us “For any business looking to embark on their climate journey, understanding your own starting point and having an appropriate strategy alongside agreed targets to monitor delivery of that strategy are key components for success.”
Dublin Chamber also runs regular events and focus groups on sustainability to keep the business community informed and supported on sustainability issues.
Máire Fay is the Education Programme Manager at Dublin Chamber.