SMEs in Europe – how are they supporting the sustainability transition?

"We don't just want to be an insurer, we want to be a responsible insurer"

SMEs in Europe – how are they supporting the sustainability transition?


By Mia Wallace

There are few who would deny that SMEs are the lifeblood of Europe’s economy – collectively making up over half of Europe’s GDP and representing 99% of companies in the EU. It was with celebrating the impact of SMEs and their unique role as sustainability ambassadors in mind that Generali released the second edition of its SME EnterPrize – a flagship initiative exploring how SMEs can and are promoting a culture of sustainability.

The programme saw Generali and a panel of experts including senior policymakers, leading academics and thought leaders assess over 6,600 SMEs, culminating in the recognition of nine ‘Sustainability Heroes’. The award ceremony also saw the presentation of a dedicated whitepaper produced by SDA Bocconi – School of Management Sustainability Lab, which shared insights into the heavily polarised implementation of sustainable business models across Europe. 

Generali marked the second edition of its SME EnterPrize project with the call for Europe to ‘show the courage and vision needed to harness the potential of small and medium-sized businesses’. With businesses under strain, the insurer noted that now is the time for Europe to double down on maintaining a sustainable path by keeping up with environmental and societal goals – with SMEs at the heart of major policy initiatives including the Capital Markets Union, the EU recovery plan and upcoming energy market reforms.

At a Press conference commending the award winners and digging into the findings of the whitepaper report, Generali Group general manager, Marco Sesana, emphasised the critical role SMEs have to play in the sustainable transition.

“[SMEs] are completely embedded in our strategy,” he said. “We [at Generali] want to be the reference for the SME in Europe. But we don’t just want to be an insurer, we want to be a responsible insurer, which means making sure that we have SMEs in the transition – which is not only energy but overall sustainability. Today we’re talking about SMEs that are not only doing well financially and economically but are doing well by doing good.”

These SMEs are taking an approach that is completely different to their other peers in the market, he said, and, as a result, are emphasising the crucial role they play in maintaining societal cohesion and progress throughout Europe. The SMEs recognised as ‘Sustainability Heroes’ each display great practices that offer examples to other SMEs that will change the narrative around sustainability and create meaningful change across the continent.

“[…] This is also a good time for reflection on what’s next in the future,” he said. “Because the crisis that we are living [through], especially in energy, is going to be important to face for these small enterprises. Clearly, for them, it is a challenge that is difficult to face. So it’s going to be a good time to think about these things, to think about how we can sustain and keep on working on this in this sector.

“Because it’s a sector that is vital across all of Europe, across different economies, as SMEs are a core pillar of the European economy… It’s so important that we give examples and we tell good stories because the transition is a behavioural change more than a technical topic. So I would say the more we tell good stories, and we tell a good narrative on the change and we prove that you can [produce] a good economic result by doing good social work, the better it is because it will foster and help us to sustain the transition.”

Adding to this, Lucia Silva, Generali Group head of sustainability & social responsibility, said that with SMEs representing the bedrock of Europe’s economy, supporting these SMEs through a sustainable transition is support for the sustainability of Europe as a whole. She also noted Generali’s conviction that it is possible to really make a difference in ensuring the priorities of the EU Commission around being a more inclusive and greener society are achievable.

The whitepaper contains research from interviews with over 1,000 SMEs, she said, and shares their thoughts around sustainability and the transition. Among all the different highlights this yielded, what impressed her most were two key takeaways.

“The first one is that the SMEs that are already in the transformation, see the sustainable transformation as a growth opportunity,” she said. “It is about reducing environmental impact. It is about increasing the engagement of employees. But it’s also about having growth opportunities in terms of market share, in terms of access to new markets and to new clients. So, for me, this is a really important finding.

“The other finding is that for those SMEs that are not yet on the journey of sustainable transformation, it’s not really clear their own indication of the transformation itself. Soon, it will not just be something that SMEs can choose, but they will be kind of forced. Because Europe especially is changing with new rules and new regulation. And of course, this transformation cannot happen overnight and there are [several] key actors that can really help with the transformation itself. And they really have to work together.”

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