Georgina Edwards, Plunkett’s Policy & Research Manger outlines five ways that community businesses are already fighting the climate crisis

As businesses that are owned and run by local people, community businesses have ethical practice and local accountability at their core. Now, with greater awareness of the climate crisis, we are seeing more grassroots action taking place at a local level. In Plunkett’s Rural Vision, we emphasised the potential for community businesses to harness their positive environmental impact to go beyond a post-pandemic recovery and create a broader rural renaissance, building a fairer and more sustainable economy.

For community businesses, this mean reducing the carbon footprint of products and services, helping local people to live sustainably, and setting up new initiatives to benefit the environment. Community ownership makes sustainable living affordable and accessible to all.

During the pandemic, we saw how community businesses stepped up to help local people by setting up emergency services and going above and beyond to serve their community. Now, during COP26, we want to highlight five ways in which they are fighting – the climate and ecological emergency.

Community businesses are locally rooted – 100% of community shops source products locally. As well as growing the local economy, sourcing from local suppliers reduces the carbon footprint of retailers. Community shops and farmers markets create a vital link between food producers and customers. The Squash, Liverpool is an example of a community business going above and beyond to reconnect people to food they eat, by sourcing locally grown food at affordable prices, offering cookery classes, and running a community food growing scheme.

In our new Community Food Strategy, we highlight the environmental benefits of re-localising the supply chain, with the economic and social benefits of boosting rural businesses and tackling food poverty. A policy paper by Sustain outlines how models like Community Supported Agriculture can fulfil the aims of the National Food Strategy to fight food injustice and reduce our impact on the environment.

For community-owned food producers, care for the environment has always been a top priority. Fordhall Farm in north Shropshire has been using organic practices for decades, and provides additional benefits to the community through their ‘Growing Confidence’ Youth Project and Care Farm, making food growing experience accessible to a wider range of people.

 

      As research by Community Land Scotland has shown, community land ownership reconnects people with their environment and is leading the way on climate change. Community-owned land, such as woodlands, has a vital role to play in conserving biodiversity. Protecting and planting trees is essential for tackling climate change. However, conservation alone is not the answer – woodlands also need to be spaces that are available for local people to live, play and work.

The Coed Talylan Land Trust is a Community Benefit Society based in a 70 acre woodland on the western edges of the Brecon Beacons National Park. The Trust promotes agroecology and is cultivating a fungal forest nature reserve. With help from Wales Co-op Centre and the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, they have developed an affordable co-housing model. The Land Trust hosts regular courses, workshops and residentials, covering sustainable living subjects such as mushroom cultivation, carpentry for women, and off grid and renewable energy.

The Kilfinan Community Forest in Argyll has put an interesting spin on a Scottish tradition by offering woodland crofting to tenants, giving access to people wanting to live and work in the forest. The community forest generates income through a sustainable timber business and hydro-electric power generation. What was once an inaccessible commercial plantation is now a valuable community asset for all to enjoy. There are walkers’ trails, allotments, and educational events for schools. In future, KCFC also aspires to offer affordable homes in the forest.

More examples of successful woodland businesses in community hands can be found on the website of Making Local Woods Work, a National Lottery funded project let by Plunkett Foundation and partners.

Renewable energy projects, such as the solar farms run by Yealm Community Energy, have been set up in response to the climate crisis to generate clean power. As the site is run by local shareholders, it can be managed in a way that is beneficial for local people and wildlife, and the energy produced will be offered at an affordable price. Community ownership kills two birds with one stone by tackling the climate crisis and rural fuel poverty.

Yealm Community Energy part owns a solar farm at Newton Downs, with the intention to raise shares from the local community to take on full ownership. The Newton Downs solar farm generates enough energy to power the equivalent of 2000 homes. The community business is owned by over 150 members and is run on a democratic ‘one member, one vote’ basis irrespective of the amount invested. Instead of going to private shareholders, the profits generated are put into a Community Fund, which invites applications for grants from any community organisation in the Yealm area. Over 1,000 residents have benefitted from the projects funded, such as the installation of solar panels on a community building, reinstating a pond at a school, and educational initiatives on bees and plastic waste. The land is still available for livestock grazing and the community business is going to implement a biodiversity plan, sowing native grass and wildflower seeds to encourage pollinators and other wildlife.

Community shops have been leading the way for some time on reducing waste that their customers produce. The Community Carrot, Dunbar has installed a refillery where customers can bring their own containers to refill goods such as rice and pasta, reducing the use of single-use plastic packaging. Tis the Future in Tisbury has taken an innovative approach by taking their mobile refillery on the road in a converted bus, bringing affordable sustainable living to rural communities.

Repair cafes hosted by community shops are also a way of reducing what ends up in landfill, while also helping local residents to save money. Our 2021 Better Form of Business report found that community shops also have a positive environmental impact in many other ways, such as hosting a cookery classes and a community fridge to avoid food waste, setting up a wildlife-friendly community kitchen garden, and installing recycling points.

Community businesses are contributing to net zero in a number of ways. In rural areas, access to electric vehicle charging points can be sparse, which is why Cwmni Cletwr’s decision to install the first charging point in Mid-Wales was an important and innovative step. Since being installed at the community shop in 2018, it has saved over 1.44 tonnes of CO2.

Community ownership of local assets and services can also contribute indirectly to lowering carbon emissions by reducing the need to travel. By bucking the trend of declining rural services, they can play a vital role in realising a 20 minute neighbourhood, where the majority of your essential and social needs can be met locally. This is particularly important for rural communities, where travel times and therefore the costs of living are typically higher than in urban areas.

Community businesses can succeed where private enterprise fails, thanks to their community’s support and their engagement with local customers. They are a long-term economic model that can sustain local businesses, and offer additional benefits such as improved community cohesion, reduced cost of living, and better wellbeing. Plunkett Foundation helps to support these community businesses and their work across the UK through the provision of support, advice, training and membership.

We’d love to know how your project or business is making a positive environmental contribution – no matter how big or small the actions are that you are taking, the story of your project could inspire others to follow your lead.

You can contact Plunkett’s Policy & Research Manager: Georgina.edwards@plunkett.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @Gina_Plunkett