Landmark research looks at business sustainability to mark Trading for Good launch

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The Forum of Private Business is publishing its landmark 200th ‘Referendum' survey on business sustainability to coincide with the launch of Trading for Good, an initiative to celebrate the role played by small firms in their communities.

Trading for Good, which is being launched this evening in London, allows businesses to set up a profile page providing customers with information about their charity or community work, environmental action, schemes to help young people into work, how they improve supplier relations and also how they make life better for staff.

Guest speakers will include the Prime Minister's adviser on corporate responsibility, Philip Green, and Norman Lamb MP, the Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs.

"While encouraging more SMEs to export is important, small businesses are an integral part of their local communities and need help to trade locally, regionally and nationally, as well as internationally," said the Forum's Senior Policy Adviser Alex Jackman.

"From supporting their local workforce to working closely with suppliers, business owners want to get involved in the ‘big society' and many already are – certainly most take their CSR duties very seriously.

"However, our research shows that they simply have to devote all of their time to running their businesses, which usually means an uphill struggle against a myriad of issues including mounting red tape, taxation and late payment.

"Instead, we need a commercial environment that facilitates a culture of entrepreneurship and enables more entrepreneurs to become active in their communities.

"It is important that businesses, their staff and customers – and of course central and local government – pull together to get the economy back on track. While there have been some significant improvements since we launched Referendum in 1977 that sentiment remains as true now as it was back then."

Big society for business

To coincide with Trading for Good, and with the Government again pressing its ‘big society' message, Referendum respondents were asked about their attitudes to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and community activities.

In all, 52% said they donate to charities, 46% support charitable events, 46% support other small, local firms where possible and 40% take on work experience placements from local schools and colleges.

In addition, 40% encourage their employees to continue learning – 15% do not do this but would like to – and 32% encourage staff to improve their health and wellbeing, with 17% wanting to do this but not able to so at present.

Just 17% give employees time off to support good causes (12% do not, but would like to), while 15% fulfil local leadership or governance roles, 14% provide work placements or apprenticeships for unemployed people and only 12% mentor other businesses, charities or social enterprises. A tiny 3% offer or encourage payroll giving – but more than twice that number (8%) said they would like to do this.

The major barrier to firms becoming more involved in their local communities is the need to focus all resources on the business itself, with 56% of respondents indicating this, followed by time spent on red tape (48%), efforts keeping employees focused on work (29%) and the lack of rewards (16%).

Forum members were asked how they could support the big society agenda.  Almost a fifth (18%) identified work with their local communities while 17% believe they already ‘do their bit'. Other measures included supporting other local businesses (10%), simply surviving and keeping people employed (8%), supporting their supply chain via wealth creation (4%) and by fair payment practices (3%).

Business continuity

Also asked about their business continuity arrangements, 54% of businesses said they have planned for theft, 52% for death or loss of key personnel, 51% for key equipment failure and 49% for ICT failure.

In contrast just 21% have planned for natural disasters, 17% for denial of access to the premises and 17% had planned for the impact of specific impacts such as the Olympics on their business. However, 80% of businesses are confident they could survive a significant event without losing customers.

In total, 84% of respondents believe they could rely on their employees to support them through tough times and 69% would look to friends and family. The supply chain was also deemed to be important – 56% of members surveyed would look for support from customers and 51% from suppliers. In addition, just 9% would expect support from the local council and 6% from HMRC or central government services.

Businesses believe local councils could improve support offered to firms in their areas by better communication, via less red tape and by pushing for business rates reductions. Finally, 10% of respondents also felt that councils should follow their lead and consider buying from local suppliers and 26% that their local council could not do anything to help their business in this respect.

Referendum 200 and looking back

Referendum was launched in autumn 1977 in order to provide small businesses with a collective voice and political representation – many of the burning issues discussed then appear strikingly familiar today.

In the first survey Forum members were asked if high street banks should take more risks in financing small businesses. In all, 69% were for this and 25% against. The remained had no opinion.

In addition, entrepreneurs were asked questions about red tape – whether VAT returns should be submitted annually rather than quarterly (22% agreed, 69% disagreed) – and also if public contracts and export guarantees should be withheld from firms breaking the pay freeze designed to control inflation (40% agreed, 47% disagreed).

In the ninth October 1978 Referendum the Forum outlined its ‘Program for Government', which included calls for less red tape and tax, progressive policies on VAT, a review of planning restrictions, reform of laws governing private businesses, action on unfair competition, unemployment and social security payments – and improvements to access to finance.

Today, the Forum has evolved into one of the UK's leading small business support organisations and continues to lobby for change on behalf of its members on a range of issues. To find out more visit

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Entrepreneurs' views on their role in the 'big society' revealed in 200th Referendum survey from the Forum of Private Business.