OPINION27 June 2023

Growing an environment for sustainable agencies

Opinion Sustainability

How can smaller agencies become more sustainable? By Julian Adams.


According to the Federation of Small Businesses, in 2021 there were 5.5 million small businesses in the UK, accounting for 99% of all businesses in the countrym. The contribution of small businesses to regional growth and the wider economy is significant. It follows, that in order that small businesses can operate, they must consume energy, emit emissions and produce waste.

Small research agencies are no different in this respect, for instance, the mere act of using a search engine, clicking on a link or saving a presentation generates data which needs to be processed, requiring energy and resulting in emissions. Responding to the challenge of climate change requires careful consideration. Take cloud storage as an example; many small research agencies benefit from cloud storage as it has made storing data convenient and cost efficient. Yet, what is less well known, is that to meet the burgeoning demand for data, more data centres need to be built and data centres require considerable energy to run and keep cool.

What can smaller agencies do to reduce their carbon footprint?

Identifying drivers to engagement
There are obvious cost savings for small research agencies, such as switching to green energy providers that offer reduced tariffs or updating IT infrastructure to reduce running costs. No less important is the desire to ‘do the right thing’, where many agencies believe that they have a duty of care to protect the environment. In part, this is because small research agencies are run by individuals where the personal values of business owners are indistinguishable from those of the business.

In such instances, the business owner is likely to be responsible for initiating sustainable behaviours. Employees that identify with the environmental values and behaviours of a business will feel that their endeavours are contributing to something that matters. Consequently, employees tend to be more loyal and productive.

There are also indirect benefits, like encouraging employees to walk or cycle to work can result in heightened feelings of wellbeing. Agencies with strong social purpose attract high calibre staff; as like-minded employees join the business, green values and behaviours of the business are perpetuated. Further, sustainable actions have the potential to bring people together.

We can all attest to news articles which talk about what divides us, whether that be politics, gender, religion, culture and so on. But what many of us have in common is an implicit desire to protect the environment for future generations. There are implications regarding investment, where investors are increasingly looking to invest in businesses with green credentials. Finally, we are witnessing green supply chain cascades where clients are turning to agencies and asking them to comply with social and environmental practices, as a condition of contract.

Barriers to action
Whilst small research agencies acknowledge that they have a responsibility to act, it can be hard to know what behaviours to adopt. The reasons for this are many: small research agencies can simply lack the in-house expertise to bring about change, often a product of conflicting resources and time. In contrast, larger research agencies will have dedicated resources in the form of a sustainability manager or director of sustainability.

Buying in consultancy can be expensive and result in generic advice that is not configured to the nuances of the market research industry. It must also be acknowledged that many small research agencies will be renting office space, where it falls to the landlord to decide whether to invest in heat pumps, insulate the building and so on. Unsurprisingly, some actions, such as, recycling or reusing packaging are relatively easy to do and consequently, can be adopted by most agencies.

Reducing the impact of travel is trickier. Take air travel; yes agencies can offset the carbon emissions of flying, but many question the legitimacy of carbon offsetting. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of awareness of grants and green loans to help fund such activity. There are also measurement challenges; few small research agencies will have an environmental management system or a formal environmental policy and therefore have no way of measuring the impact of their operations.

As in any industry, there is much confusion about the various terms used to describe climate action and business activity. Net zero can feel a rather lofty ambition, whereas emissions reduction is seen to relate to more achievable goals. With confusion abound, it is of no surprise that that small research agencies struggle to identify what actions are required to achieve net zero.

Embarking on the journey to net zero
Among politicians and business leaders, the vernacular of the day is to build back with green initiatives. The rhetoric is compelling, and it follows that if small research agencies are to flourish, they must fully embrace sustainable behaviours. To start this journey, agencies need advice about ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do it’, and it must be acknowledged that every agency’s net zero journey will be different.

The market research industry bodies and various business forums can help to accelerate the journey towards net zero, by offering online tutorials, webinars and blogs for general advice and support from a community of experts when more prescriptive advice is sought. There is also a need to innovate; encouragingly, small research agencies are agile and can evolve quickly in responding to the challenge, whether that be through hybrid working practices, acquiring new technologies or research platforms, and so on. Reaching out to employees to communicate the vision while seeking their ideas and support will help to inspire employees and ensure that everyone is on board from the onset. Finally, measuring the impact of the agency’s activities will allow agencies to review journey progress.

Julian Adams is head of custom research at Motif