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Sustainability certification schemes for businesses

Being a sustainable start-up could make sound business sense. From the government’s commitment to net zero opens in new window to consumers choosing more sustainable lifestyles opens in new window, many start-ups are launching that offer sustainable solutions opens in new window to tackling issues such as plastic use and climate change.

Yet many smaller and new businesses are yet to make significant inroads to becoming more sustainable ventures. Research by the British Chambers of Commerce opens in new window found that 64% of UK businesses say they don’t have an environmental sustainability policy in place. While many smaller companies are making initial changes – research by the British Business Bank opens in new window found that 94% of smaller businesses had taken at least one action to reduce carbon emissions – there is still much that start-ups can do.

The British Chambers of Commerce opens in new window survey found that 82% of respondents believed environmental sustainability is about recycling and reusing materials, 72% about reducing the use of single-use products, and 69% believe it’s about cutting carbon emissions. While adopting green practices such as recycling can put your business on the right path, many companies are turning to environmental standards certification as a means to transform their business and demonstrate their green credentials.

Want to learn more about sustainability as a start-up business?

Help ensure your business decisions make a positive impact on the environment with our free Introducing environmental decision making course opens in new window. As part of our Learn with Start Up Loans opens in new window partnership with The Open University, our online course is free to join, delivered by experts and includes a free statement of participation on completion.

What is green certification?

Green certification is an assessment of how well an organisation meets an environmental standard.

It usually involves a standards body or accredited organisation auditing your business’s environmental practices. Assessors measure activities such as carbon emissions, recycling schemes, transport and waste policies against set criteria.

If successful, your business may be awarded a green certification that can be used in marketing, as an aid to recruitment and attracting customers, as well as an incentive to investors looking to invest in green start-ups.

There is a wide range of sustainability certification schemes. They’re not limited to large corporations with extensive environmental, social and governance (ESG) budgets. Many schemes are used by start-ups and smaller businesses to establish their environmental values and gain an edge over competitors.

Schemes include BCorp opens in new window, ISO opens in new window, WFTO opens in new window, Green Mark opens in new window, Fairtrade opens in new window and the Carbon Trust’s Route to Net Zero standard opens in new window. Some schemes are suited to a specific sector or business activity.

The benefits of green certification

Obtaining green certification isn’t essential to being a more sustainable business. However, certification can offer benefits that help companies be greener including the need to assess and monitor the impact of your business operations.

Benefits of green certification differ depending on the scheme and industry but may include:

  • Legitimacy – Accreditation status means your start-up will be recognised by international bodies for operating in an environmentally beneficial, sustainable, and ethical way.
  • Customer trust – It may be important for your customers, investors, and stakeholders that your business can show your environmental credentials and that you take environmental issues seriously.
  • Environmental framework – Environmental certification means you’ll adopt environmental standards and frameworks, providing clarity and focus on what your organisation needs to do to meet statutory and regulatory requirements.
  • Improved efficiencies – Your start-up may operate more efficiently and effectively across the board, reducing waste and energy use.
  • Competitive advantage – New clients may require an environmental standard such as ISO 14001 as part of a commercial tender.
  • Staff engagement – A start-up with environmental values may be more attractive when hiring staff, and employees may be more engaged, leading to less turnover and more productivity.
  • Environmental innovation – Achieving certification typically involves changing wasteful processes, potentially leading to innovative business operations such as using renewable energy sources or new packaging materials.

What sustainability accreditation schemes are there?

There are many sustainability accreditation schemes, ranging from independent organisations with national or global recognition to smaller, commercial organisations.

It’s worth investigating different schemes to understand what’s involved, their relevance to your business, and the scheme’s value for your customers and staff.

Here are some of the environmental certification schemes your business may be interested in:

ISO 14001

ISO 14001 is an international standard developed by the International Organization for Standardization opens in new window (ISO) that focuses on businesses implementing an environmental management system. It helps monitor and manage an organisation’s environmental policies and practices to ensure operations meet mandatory requirements of ISO 14001 certification status.

According to the ISO 2020 survey opens in new window, there are 11,627 ISO 14001:2015 certificates issued in the UK.


BCorp opens in new window is a certification scheme offered to businesses by B Lab opens in new window. It provides certification for companies that display excellent social and environmental performance standards, accountability, and transparency.

To achieve certification as a BCorp, your start-up will have to undergo a B Impact Assessment and provide a legal commitment to change your corporate governance structure so that you have greater accountability to all stakeholders.

BCorp offers different routes to certification for start-ups opens in new window, and the cost of the annual certification fee is based on annual sales opens in new window and business size. A flat £250 fee is paid to BCorp opens in new window to cover the assessment and verification process.


The World Fair Trade Organisation opens in new window (WFTO) may be a helpful accreditation scheme, particularly if your small business is in the food or hospitality industries.

WFTO offers a Fair Trade Standard opens in new window that assesses a business’ practices against WFTO’s 10 Principles of Fair Trade opens in new window. It is part of the broader WFTO Guarantee System that aims to combine Fair Trade and social enterprise.

If you wish to join WFTO, your start-up will need to demonstrate a commitment to Fair Trade principles and practices, help disadvantaged communities as a priority and use sustainable practices in processes and the supply chain.

Sustainability accreditation schemes

ISO 14001, BCorp, and WFTO are just three sustainable and ethical accreditation schemes available to your business. Others include:

Learn with Start Up Loans and help your business get off the ground.

Thinking of starting a sustainable business? Check out our free online courses in partnership with The Open University on environmental decision-making and how organisations impact the environment.

Our free Learn with Start Up Loans courses opens in new window include:

Plus free courses on finance and accounting, marketing, project management, management and leadership.

This article and the content provided therein is exclusively for informative purposes. Nothing in this article or in its contents is intended to provide advice of any kind (including legal, financial, tax or other professional advice) and should not be relied on as such. You should get professional or specialist advice before doing anything on the basis of the content contained in this article.

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