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SMEs: Use the Extinction Rebellion protests to beat your competitors

9 min read

15 October 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

While the protests are causing serious reputational damage to the world's financial giants, agile SMEs can supercharge their 'green missions' and CSR policies before anyone notices.

Yesterday evening, the London Metropolitan Police issued a statement that Extinction Rebellion protestors, (participants of the global movement to lobby businesses and governments to change their agenda on climate change), caught protesting after 9 pm would be arrested.

Will this mean the movement’s message, and its impact on UK businesses in particular – will end?

Taking on ‘toxic’ investment culture

The activists’ aim was to disrupt ‘business as usual’ for the City’s financial giants where protestors blockaded entrances to the Walkie Talkie building, Goldman Sachs, and The Bank of England.

While the short term effects of these protests have been crowds of irate city commuters, the goal of the movement is to pressure financial institutions to divest from investing in fossil fuel companies and turn their attention to non-polluting alternatives.

How culpable are the financial giants?

the city

Climate change protestors are blaming City firms for investing in fossil fuel companies.

How responsible are the big financial players in contributing to the climate crisis? Well, according to the Guardian’s polluters investigation…very

While it’s going to be a big deal for multi-billion transnational companies to divest from emissions causing investments and operations, it won’t be as difficult for the more nimble SME.

The results of the investigation have shown that the world’s foremost asset managers (BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard), have built up a staggering $300bn’s worth of funds for fossil fuel investments – ‘fuelled’ in part by people’s pensions and private savings.

What’s more, they’re continuing to grow their portfolio and invest in fossil fuel-producing companies despite the strict anti-emissions terms of the 2015’s Paris Agreement.

Investment choices are shifting…

Climate damaging investment choices aren’t only plaguing the UK’s financial sector, they’re rampant in the governmental and educational spheres too. But thanks to activist pressure from consumers, this is changing.

First, there’s The London Pension Fund Authority (LPFA), that, according to activists, has traditionally invested millions into fossil fuel companies such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Shell.

However, over the past few years, the organisation has made public statements about reducing this and instead pursue a policy of divestment.

Anti-pollution public pressure has already led some London councils to totally divest from fossil fuel investments. Camden Town Hall, for example, is set to follow it’s Islington neighbour in completely divesting from these investments very soon.

1. Activism can encourage better investments

UK universities have also been known to place their investments in fossil fuel companies. But activism has also played a significant role in this sector by persuading these institutions to pursue the policy of divestment instead:

One example is the London School of Economics and Political Science, where out of the university’s £154 million value endowments, only half a million pounds, (£580,255) is tied up in fossil fuel companies –  a number that’s set to decrease more over time.

2. Becoming a ‘greener’ business is GOOD for business

What these examples show is that public, (and therefore consumer) pressure is enough to prove that divesting from fossil fuel investments, and investing in renewable methods, or even simply operating as a ‘green company’ in other ways, will make a business appear favourable to customers in the current ecological-political climate.

3. Consumer pressure to ‘change’

According to a survey cited by the London Evening Standard this summer, over half of respondents said they wanted City firms to stop investing in fossil fuel companies, (oil, gas and coal).

Furthermore, they wanted customers to have the agency to choose where their personal pension funds are invested, citing they would want alternative investment options where possible.

SMEs can lead the charge

SMEs sustainability

SMEs can use their agile nature to become more sustainable than their larger competitors.

While there are some big corporates who are trying to become more environmentally compliant, such as Unilever, it will be hard for them to escape accusations that the move is simply to retain the loyalty of their environmentally concerned customers.

Big corporates can try – but will it be seen as genuine?

A big corporate’s move to become environmentally compliant can be costly and laborious, (just think of giant cruise liner trying to turn in a storm).

While it’s going to be a big deal for multi-billion transnational companies to divest from emissions causing investments and operations, it won’t be as difficult for the more nimble SME. A smaller business with a tighter workforce can implement new company missions and cultures, and communicate them both internally and externally much easier, and quicker.

Personable SME culture makes for a great USP

extinction logo

The Extinction Rebellion protests are a great opportunity for agile SMEs to improve their CSR record. mark-design.co.uk

Moreover, being a ‘smaller’ company can make for a great USP and provide ample pro-climate marketing material as they can set themselves up as the ‘moral’ ‘little guy’ who’s ‘doing their bit’ for the environment versus the greed of big multinationals.

Simply put, it’s easier for a smaller business to appear genuine in their quest to change.

1. Annalisa O’Rourke, COO – Memset

“We’re a Surrey-based cloud provider that’s just completed a decade of being carbon neutral. In light of the ongoing Extinction Rebellion campaigns, I believe that CSR green credentials are incomplete without ensuring cloud sustainability.

“Storing and using data consumes a lot of energy, and many businesses have been able to remove this energy consumption from their sustainability books by using outsourced cloud providers. But shifting the problem to a supplier is not taking responsibility. Organisations need to develop sustainable policies for themselves and include their whole network of suppliers in their strategies.

“The danger is that by failing to do so, they will make themselves a target for campaigners, risk reputational damage, and make their other CSR efforts seem just cosmetic.”

2. Tom Carr, Co-founder – Verto Homes

“When we started out, we couldn’t understand why housebuilders were still building the same cookie-cutter homes they had been building since the early 1900s.

“The UK desperately needs to build three million new homes and, with this sector being responsible for over 25% of the UK’s carbon emissions, it’s easy to see what impact delivering new housing stock to a Zero Carbon specification could have on our country’s carbon output.

“Our Zero Carbon Smart Homes use the latest energy-efficient construction methods and smart home technology to create intelligent carbon-neutral homes, and our strong off-plan sales record is proof that there is a demand for this.”

3. Michael Bryn-Jones, Managing Director –  Joseph Homes

“At our new Mill Hill development, we’ve used everything from non-toxic paint to building gas-free apartments in order to reduce toxic fumes. Our homes will be super-efficient thermally, reducing the need for lots of energy to heat and cool and by 2025 we aim for all our homes to be energy positive over their lifespan.

“From researching sustainable building materials and testing new technologies, eliminating on-site waste and reducing pollution levels throughout construction, we hope this ethos can help influence our industry as a whole.”