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Sheffield's independent business: A climate for change?

Local business leaders are showing it’s possible to balance the books while building towards a better, more sustainable future. Martin Flynn finds out more from three Sheffield businesses.

Stories about the climate crisis increasingly seem like part of the daily news cycle. But while plenty of consumers do their best to consider the planet, global corporations aren’t necessarily doing the same. Many are accused of greenwashing, with messaging or moves towards sustainability seen as superficial, even disingenuous.

If organisations with massive budgets and international influence aren’t doing enough, can smaller businesses realistically prioritise the environment, particularly in a pandemic-hit economy? Judging by some of Sheffield’s independents, the answer appears to be yes.

Sheffield Sustainable Kitchens, which won the Planet Saver category at the 2021 Sheffield Business Awards, offers designs which see classroom desks, gin bottles and paper repurposed into kitchen worktops. Other recycled options include plastic and marble, while timber is sourced from the North Midlands and 80% of the business’s vans are electric.

Marketing manager Zoë Hepworth said a focus on sustainability remains relatively rare in the kitchen sector and that high wastage is partly caused by consumer expectations.

“People expect their kitchen to last five to seven years, generally, then they’ll [...] get a new one,” she added. “Whereas we design kitchens to last for 25-plus years.”

Zoë said these designs aren’t cheap, but “cost per use” means a longer-lasting option provides value compared to multiple replacements. “You’re investing in the future,” she said. “Essentially, that's what sustainability is.”

Sheffield Sustainable Kitchens relcaimed lab bench breakfast bar and worktops

A Sheffield Sustainable Kitchens project featuring a breakfast bar and worktops made from reclaimed materials.

Sheffield Sustainable Kitchens

Lee Newell, who owns Foundry Coffee Roasters with his wife Bidisha, was determined to make the future of their business more sustainable.

He said his industry’s carbon emissions are high, due to processes involved in growing, transporting, roasting and brewing coffee. But when Lee wanted to measure Foundry’s carbon footprint 12 months ago, he was unsure how to go about it and companies offering carbon audits quoted him prices up to £10,000.

Lee said limited knowledge, money and time are common challenges for smaller coffee firms trying to reduce their environmental impact. Fortunately for Foundry, through a University of Sheffield project with Santander he connected with Geography graduate Eleanor Bragg. She used Foundry’s accounts, along with a “greenhouse gas protocol,” to produce a 30-page report on every aspect of the business’s carbon output, from roasting coffee to staff commutes.

The results revealed that almost half the emissions associated with coffee come via the brewing process - meaning that simply boiling the required amount of water, rather than a full kettle, is a no-cost way for drinkers to reduce environmental impact.

Foundry took various steps to declare the company carbon-neutral in late 2021. These included only ordering coffee by boat, meaning lower carbon emissions than air transport, and using packaging made from wood pulp.

Lee also purchased carbon credits, which allow organisations to offset each tonne of carbon they generate, for example through credits from a group which has planted a set number of trees. There is debate over the effectiveness of systems like these.

Foundry Coffee Roasters packaging

Foundry Coffee packaging made from wood pulp.

Foundry Coffee

“It's encouraging to see cynicism around carbon credits,” said Lee. “I think that’s necessary, especially in something so new.” Foundry purchased Fairtrade credits costing £19 per tonne, four times the price of the cheapest option.

“You can't run any business I know of which doesn’t create some sort of impact on the planet,” he added. “In the absence of anything else, to me carbon offsetting is the only option we've got.”

Foundry’s calculations will include emissions associated with all products stocked, such as coffee-making equipment made by other companies. Consequently, Lee aims to start conversations with suppliers and prioritise working with those aiming to reduce their own impact.

He now has a template which will allow Foundry to assess its annual emissions and he says he is happy to share this with businesses from any industry.

While coffee is a year-round product, some firms make their money in a window of only a few weeks.

2021 was the first year of trading for Grow Me Trees, a Christmas tree farm on Sheffield’s south-west edge. Owners Gavin and Leanne Kimpton previously worked in IT and education respectively. They wanted environmental considerations to be central to their new venture.

“The problem is we're not growing enough Christmas trees in this country for the demand,” said Gavin. “We're still importing so many from Europe, which is just silly. They grow perfectly well here.”

Grow me trees

The Grow Me Trees site.

Grow Me Trees

Sustainability is a theme across the company’s website, which features Gavin’s calculation that Grow Me’s 20,000 trees annually absorb over 4,000lbs of carbon dioxide.

He said local delivery keeps emissions from transport to a minimum, while real trees avoid the use of plastic versions which are ultimately destined for landfill.

To reduce waste, trees are cut to order, rather than cut in advance and potentially left unsold. Staff use saws instead of powered chainsaws and trees are wrapped in biodegradable plant-based netting which costs Gavin four times as much as plastic. Customers can return trees after Christmas to be broken down and used as mulch for the forest.

Having spent eight years growing their trees, Gavin and Leanne sold 350 over four weeks in 2021, a figure they aim to double next year.

The above examples cover different industries, but a more sustainable approach could benefit all sorts of businesses, according to Sheffield Green Party Councillor Douglas Johnson.

As Sheffield City Council’s executive member for climate change, environment and transport, Johnson told me that “it makes more and more commercial sense to face up to environmental issues and reduce emissions, certainly [with] a big increase in gas prices.

“A lot of businesses run by younger people are automatically more conscious about saving energy, because there's a generational thing about education [...] that respecting the planet is just a normal thing you do. That's encouraging.”

Cllr Johnson mentioned the £2.3m Low Carbon Business Support Project, which was announced last November with a view to helping small and medium-sized South Yorkshire businesses reduce their carbon footprint.

Now Then asked the Council how much of that funding would be available for Sheffield and how many local businesses had already accessed the scheme, but did not receive a reply.

Separate Council plans—part of the long-discussed Clean Air Zone, set to be implemented this year—include grants of up to £3,500 for small businesses upgrading to electric vans. Whether the scheme will draw significant interest remains to be seen, with new electric models currently advertised at over £17,000.

Johnson said it is critical that the Council applies for government funding to bolster environmental efforts, something he said was not always prioritised in the past.

“There's no single solution for the Council or small businesses, but it's about consistent application of [...] embedding sustainability into everything everyone does,” he added.

Collaboration will be key for better environmental outcomes, according to Efua Uiterwijk, co-founder of Sheffield Sustainability Network. She said small businesses can play a critical role in Sheffield’s sustainability, adding that the Network’s LinkedIn forum allows organisations to share questions and solutions.

“Even making a joint pledge with one other business—such as reducing waste to landfill or the miles commuted by staff—can be quite powerful,” Uiterwijk told me.

SSN can advise businesses on everything from cutting single-use plastics to plants which promote biodiversity. Along with training and networking events, there is also a self-audit form which can help business owners to see where their company could improve.

“You can't say one size fits all,” said Efua. “But Sheffield Sustainability Network is saying: don’t feel overwhelmed. Just start, pick one thing, and do it.”

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