Onboarding SMEs is ‘critical step’ on the path to net zero food

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

SMEs don't always have the funds or know-how to advance their sustainability efforts / Pic: GettyImages-10000 Hours
SMEs don't always have the funds or know-how to advance their sustainability efforts / Pic: GettyImages-10000 Hours

Related tags Net zero SME

A significant proportion of the food and beverage sector is served by SMEs and local producers. If the industry is to transition towards net zero, these businesses need to be part of that journey. FoodNavigator catches up with Growing Green, a UK project that aims to address the particular challenges faced by smaller businesses.

We’ve heard a raft of net zero pledges from large food and beverage corporates in recent years. Some of the world’s largest food makers – from Nestlé, to Danone, Unilever, PepsiCo and Coca Cola – have thrown their weight behind the drive to tackle emissions and limit global heating to 1.5 degrees. Big bucks have been committed to innovation aimed at delivering a more sustainable, less wasteful and resource intensive system of food production, distribution and consumption.

Certainly, a lot is resting on the action of these large global players. Recent research has suggested failure to address food system emissions could preclude achieving the targets established by the Paris Climate Change Agreement​. Scientists estimate that food and ag production taken together are responsible for 37% of the GHG emissions we produce worldwide​. The need for change is clear.

But while these mega-corporations are influential in how the food system operates, they cannot drive a sustainable food system transformation alone. 

In Europe almost 50% of food industry revenue is generated by small and medium sized businesses, figures from FoodDrinkEurope reveal. They employ 62.1% of the people who work in food and account for more than 99% of the food and beverage businesses in operation.

Taken collectively SMEs are big business and they too need to move towards a net zero footing. However, these players often face particular challenges that may inhibit their ability to reduce the carbon footprint of their businesses.

Growing Green: Equipping SMEs with skills, funding and knowledge

A pilot scheme has been launched in the UK to develop a ‘bespoke’ sustainability training scheme with the aim of helping local plant-based food and horticulture businesses in Kent, a county on the south coast often referred to as 'the garden of England', hit net zero.

Led by NIAB as part of the Growing Kent and Medway project, Growing Green is inviting up to 40 micro- and SME businesses to volunteer in the pilot. If successful, the project will be rolled out more widely.

“Growing Green connects businesses in the region to support innovation and to establish the area as a world-leader in sustainable horticultural and plant-based food and drink production. The programme brings together innovative growers and processors, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs to stimulate research, innovation and business growth. It invests in state-of-the-art infrastructure, collaborative research and innovation, and enterprise growth. The programme is open to any business working across the plant-based food and drink supply chain, whether producer, packaging, processing or the supply chain,”​ detailed Robert Saville, Innovation Growth Manager at Growing Kent & Medway.

The programme has developed a number of action tracks that, it is hoped, will help SMEs overcome some of the hurdles their emissions reduction efforts face.

“Growing Green aims to give businesses a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities to reach net-zero carbon emissions in their operation,”​ explained Dr Nicola Harrison, Programme Director for Growing Kent & Medway. “Having the confidence to invest in innovation and adopt new processes or technologies is a barrier for many businesses, particularly if there is uncertainty about the commercial benefit that the change will bring.”

The training package will analyse the current carbon emissions of a participating business and evaluate its potential to reduce them. A sustainability action plan will look at operations across the business to identify areas for improvement. Grants will be awarded to the businesses taking part so they can put their plans in to action.

“The training programme has been designed specifically for micro and SMEs who may not have the same resources to invest in new technologies (whether time or financial) to help move their business towards net-zero,”​ Saville told us.

“One particularly important element of the training programme is giving participants access to see net-zero technologies and processes in action. We believe this will give people the confidence to invest in innovation. We will also be providing participating businesses with a £6,000 grant to help implement their tailored action plan.”

Alongside funding and the confidence to invest, Growing Green aims to up-skill businesses by providing them with knowledge and training on sustainability.

As an industry, understanding scope 1-3 emissions is challenging at the best of times. Saville expects that, for SMEs, work to chart the up- and downstream supply chain could be an important issue – and one that he predicts will vary on a business-by-business basis. Growing Green hopes to help here too.

“We will conduct a needs assessment for each of the businesses that partake in this project. From this we anticipate that businesses will be at different stages in terms of understanding their scope 1-3 emissions with some not knowing what they are and others which, due to market demands, have scope 1 and 2 emission baselines and wanting to understand their scope 3s. We will tailor the training (with our training partner Low Carbon Kent) accordingly. We will have different cohorts of businesses enabling us to arrange the businesses into ‘sets’ (for the training) and where common operations are used (for the study tours).”

Aligning SMEs with UK net zero strategy

The UK government has committed to decarbonise all sectors of the UK economy to meet its net zero target by 2050. Saville believes projects like this will be an important lever of change.

“Supporting micro or SMEs is a critical step in helping the UK meet the Government’s net-zero targets and this project is supporting businesses who wouldn’t normally invest in innovation,”​ he explained. “One of the reasons we believe this project was awarded funding, was because of its focus on helping businesses to overcome barriers such as awareness, capacity, and access to expertise and financial support to innovate for low carbon processes, practices and technologies.”

The project has been awarded £523,384 through the UK’s Community Renewal Fund, with £290,000 in match-funding from the project’s partners. Saville added that learnings from the project will be used to support other regional and national efforts to decarbonise small and medium sized businesses.

“The learning from this pilot project will be transferable to other sectors across the region and nationally. Beyond the 40 businesses directly supported by the programme, we will have trained a cohort of practitioners, capable of scaling the Growing Green programme. This will enable us to support further businesses in the longer term, that can be delivered into other sectors and regions.”

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