Australia should enhance the ESG capabilities of small businesses – here’s how

Youqing Fan

Australia can be a leader in sustainable business and contribute to a greener and more socially responsible future by developing strategic supports, incentives, stricter regulations and collaboration platforms for small and medium enterprises.

7 July 2023

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices are increasingly important for businesses to operate sustainably and responsibly. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) play a vital role in the national and global supply chain, representing 97.4 per cent of all businesses and contributing 32 per cent of national economic output by revenue in Australia. However, SMEs may face greater ESG challenges than larger firms, because they may lack the scale, expertise, financial resources and capabilities to effectively address ESG issues. For example, SMEs may have difficulty accessing reliable ESG data, standards and indicators, or lack the channels to communicate and report their ESG performance to stakeholders.

It is, therefore, imperative for SMEs to adopt ESG principles and practices for sustainable development. In recently published research with colleagues, we propose an ESG development prioritisation and performance measurement framework (ESG-DPPMF) for Australian SMEs to put into action, based on a case study of logistics companies and SMEs in Hong Kong. Government could also step in and help SMEs overcome their ESG difficulties by providing support and incentives for their transition to a more sustainable and circular economy. Let me explain the rationale and benefits of our proposed framework and policy recommendations for SMEs.

Why public policy needs to drive ESG adoption by SMEs

Public administration theories recognise externalities and market failures as significant considerations when developing policy to promote ESG practices. Externalities arise when one party’s actions affect the wellbeing of others – without being reflected in market prices. With ESG, negative externalities such as carbon emissions or labour exploitation can impose social and environmental costs on society. To address these factors, Australian governments will have to enforce stricter regulations, set emission reduction targets and encourage fair labour practices for SMEs.

ESG practices regularly involve public goods, which advantage society as a whole. Examples include reducing carbon emissions, protecting natural resources, and ensuring ethical labour practices. Public management theories emphasise government’s role in providing public goods and facilitating collective action. Australian governments can encourage ESG practices by establishing frameworks that inspire collaboration among SMEs, investors, clients, providers, NGOs and other stakeholders. This collaboration can lead to the sharing of statistics, knowledge and best practices, fostering collective movement in improving ESG capabilities in SMEs.

Effective policy implementation and enforcement are essential for realising the desired outcomes of ESG initiatives. Australian governments can ensure effective implementation by providing technical assistance and training to SMEs in the logistics industry. By enhancing their understanding of ESG principles and offering guidance on implementation, government can facilitate compliance and improve ESG performance. Robust monitoring systems, inspections and reporting obligations can help enforce ESG regulations, ensuring accountability and deterring non-compliance.

In ESG, effective engagement by government of stakeholders such as SMEs, buyers, customers and NGOs can enhance coverage and legitimacy. Australian governments can adopt participatory methods, together with public consultations, task forces and collaborative decision-making strategies, to ensure various views are considered. Incorporating governance ideas together with transparency, accountability and inclusivity in ESG policies can encourage energetic participation from stakeholders.

Supporting the adoption of an ESG framework

Government can help boost the performance and competitiveness of SMEs in their ESG practices by providing various forms of support.

  • Government can provide training programs, workshops and guidance materials to help SMEs understand and implement ESG frameworks. This will guide them in prioritising and measuring ESG performance using methodologies such as the Bayesian best-worst method.
  • Government may allocate resources to provide technical assistance (such as expert consultations) to SMEs, in order to facilitate the adoption and integration of ESG frameworks into their operations. This assistance can help address implementation challenges and ensure accurate ESG performance measurement.
  • Government can establish partnerships with industry associations, academia and relevant stakeholders, which foster knowledge exchange and collective efforts to promote ESG adoption. Organising collaborative initiatives – such as conferences, forums and working groups – can facilitate the sharing of best practices and success stories.

Generating incentives for ESG performance

Various forms of incentives are available to government to encourage SMEs to become high performers on ESG.

  • Developing a reputable ESG rating machine or certification scheme might enable objective assessment of ESG performance. Authorities should establish clear standards and requirements for evaluation, including for carbon emissions reduction, truthful labour practices and human rights. SMEs achieving high ESG ratings or showing progress could obtain incentives, which includes tax breaks, subsidies or recognition.
  • Creating funding programs especially targeting ESG tasks inside the logistics industry can encourage SMEs to invest in sustainable practices. By supplying grants or financial assistance, authorities can encourage SMEs to undertake ESG-centred projects, inclusive of adopting cleaner technology, improving exertions conditions or enhancing supply chain transparency.
  • Governments, in conjunction with larger companies and public procurement corporations, can prioritise providers or logistics companies with better ESG performance. By considering ESG credentials in procurement decisions, SMEs might be motivated to improve their ESG capabilities to remain competitive, allowing them to access broader market opportunities.

Strict regulations and standards

Enforcement of strict regulations and standards is another lever for governments to influence the behaviours of SMEs on their ESG practices.

  • Establishing clear and measurable ESG targets, such as specific carbon emission reduction goals or fair labour practice requirements for SMEs, provides a framework for them to strive towards. The government can set industry-wide benchmarks and deadlines to guide industry transition to sustainable practices.
  • Implementing a robust monitoring system to assess the adherence of SMEs to ESG regulations is essential. Regular inspections, audits and reporting obligations can help identify non-compliance or violations. Penalties or sanctions for non-compliant SMEs would serve as deterrents and reinforce ESG practices.
  • Government can collaborate with industry associations and organisations to develop sector-specific guidelines and appropriate practice frameworks. These initiatives would educate SMEs about the importance of ESG practices and provide practical guidance on implementation. This would foster a culture of compliance and continuous improvement.

Facilitating information sharing and collaboration

Government can also play a role raising awareness of ESG and facilitating knowledge exchange amongst SMEs and relevant stakeholders.

  • Creating a digital platform or community dedicated to ESG within the logistics industry would facilitate statistics sharing, exceptional practice dissemination and collaboration amongst SMEs, investors, clients, providers, NGOs and regulatory bodies. The platform could offer sources, case studies and interactive forums to inspire collective problem solving.
  • Implementing mandatory ESG reporting requirements for logistics agencies could enhance transparency. Authorities can provide pointers on reporting methodologies, ensuring consistency and comparability of ESG statistics. Making information publicly accessible might permit stakeholders to make informed choices and foster a subculture of ESG disclosure.
  • Allocating investment for studies and development tasks focused on sustainable logistics practices would inspire innovation inside the industry. Supporting collaborative research initiatives among educational establishments, logistics corporations and authority groups can force improvements in ESG technology and techniques.

ESG principles are crucial for the long-term sustainability of SMEs. By implementing these policy ideas, Australian governments can empower SMEs to enhance their ESG capabilities, drive innovation and promote responsible business practices. Through supportive measures, incentives, stricter regulations and collaboration platforms, Australia can position itself as a leader in sustainable business – contributing to a greener and more socially responsible future.

Dr Youqing Fan is a Senior Lecturer affiliated with the School of Business and Institute of Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. He specialises in research on ESG, sustainability management and employee wellbeing.

Image credit: Pixelfit

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