3 in 5 UK businesses value the circular economy – but perceived cost is the biggest barrier to sustainable strides


Nearly 3 in 5 (60%) UK businesses say the circular economy is important - but 1 in 5 (21%) don’t know if they participate, with the confusion rising to 1 in 3 (30%) among small organisations, according to new research from sustainable waste management firm Biffa, with a survey conducted by the YouGov Plc..

Despite best intentions, ‘sustainability’ unfortunately falls to the bottom of UK decision makers’ priority lists (69%) behind ‘cost efficiency’ in first place (89%) followed by ‘revenue growth’ (87%) especially in small enterprises. But it’s a universal issue, as one decisionmaker at a large business surmised “survival of the business and maintain[ing] profitability” is vital.

In a vicious cycle, financial concerns inhibit them from being more sustainable, with perceived ‘cost’ the biggest barrier felt by 1 in 3 businesses (36%). They need support, with ‘financial incentives’ (38%) highly sought-after while they strive to save and grow. Interestingly, this is felt by medium sized businesses (40%) and large businesses (39%) more than small. Lack of ‘infrastructure’ and ‘time’ (23%) also stymie environmental efforts. 

Maxine Mayhew, Chief Operating Officer, Biffa, commented on the findings:

“Our research shines a light on the misconception that sustainable business practices are more expensive. This could be preventing businesses from taking the first steps on their sustainability journey. Installing solar panels and electrifying company vehicles takes serious investment and is cost-prohibitive for many in this economic climate. However, defining a sustainability strategy that works within available resources will ensure businesses only take on what they can handle. 

“A strategy can start with achievable and measurable goals like managing waste more sustainably, which is fundamental to the UK reaching net zero. This can be as simple as reducing general waste by introducing a recycling collection. And if they already have a recycling service, businesses can work up the supply chain to reduce waste from packaging received from suppliers, which can also save money. This scales all the way up to larger organisations with multiple sites and/or complex compliancy and reporting requirements. We proudly work with businesses of all sizes, offering a sustainable waste management solution to suit their needs and help fulfil their goals. 

“Sustainable business practices can be a commercial opportunity. Whatever the investment, it can potentially deliver a return. From a growth perspective, businesses attract more ecoconscious talent and clientele. Indeed, over a quarter (30%) of the 1,038 senior decision makers consider perceptions of customers and employees when measuring environmental impact.” 

Biffa engaged several sectors for a representative overview of outlooks, opportunities, and obstacles to sustainable success. Manufacturing (74%) and construction (66%) decisionmakers value the circular economy most. Both industries – along with hospitality and leisure, and retail – participate to similar degrees (64%). Senior decision makers in large manufacturers (76%), medium sized construction businesses (68%) then those working at small hospitality and leisure businesses (62%) agree that their business is a part of the circular economy. 

Roger Wright, Waste Strategy and Packaging Manager, Biffa, continued:

“UK businesses are clearly motivated to protect the environment and help combat climate change. We are working with more and more early adopters innovating with sustainable packaging choices. They see a clear commercial opportunity in trending consumer demand for sustainable options, so investment in designing packaging can open up new sales. 

Additionally, impending legislation such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is expected to reward sustainable packaging choices that increase circularity. Early adoption of sustainable practices gets the best of both worlds by creating opportunity and mitigating risk.” 

About the survey 

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 1038 All B2B senior decision makers​. Fieldwork was undertaken between 30th May - 7th June 2023.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of British business size. 

This study explored attitudes towards, and engagements with, the circular economy, methods of measuring sustainability, and the opportunities and obstacles perceived by businesses in their sustainable endeavours.

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