How do small and medium-sized businesses develop into high-performing 'sustainable enterprises'?  At the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility, we have launched a new research project in collaboration with the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship, examining the attributes of high-performing “sustainable enterprises” - small and medium-sized businesses that excel at producing both commercial and societal value. The project is part of the Centre’s ongoing work to empower current and future managers with the knowledge, skills, and desire to lead responsible, sustainably managed organisations. The research focus on SMEs builds on earlier Centre research with larger companies on corporate responsibility and sustainability stages of maturity (by Prof. David Grayson and Centre Visiting Fellow Ron Ainsbury); and social intrapreneurism  (by Prof. Grayson, Associate Melody McLaren and Prof. Heiko Spitzeck).

Value of this research

While previous Centre research has focused primarily on understanding sustainability management in large companies, an exploration of how sustainable management can emerge, and even be cultivated, in small-to-medium-sized enterprises, could produce even greater impact. According to statistics from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the combined annual turnover of SMEs, as of 2014, was £1.6 trillion, 47% of turnover in the private sector; 5.2 million SMEs accounted for 60% (15.2 million) of UK private sector employment. But in addition to SMEs creating significant amounts of economic value – which benefits the SMEs and their stakeholders directly – we believe that they also have potential to create significant amounts of positive social value addressing a wide range of social, economic and environmental challenges. If there is potential for cultivating SMEs’ capacity to generate both economic and societal value, it would be worthwhile to explore how best to do this – at individual, organisational and systemic levels.


We are studying high-performing “sustainable enterprises” – i.e. SMEs “with an aspiration to grow” (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, 2011) that are also recognised as producing positive social impact (e.g. winners of the Business in the Community Small Business of the Year Award). Through interview research and a literature review, we will work to identify the mindsets, behaviours and skills of individuals who promote sustainable business in their organisations; and, at organisational and systemic levels, the “enabling environment” for managing successful sustainable enterprises. We will particularly examine what these sustainable enterprises do in terms of sustainability and responsible business practices.

How companies could benefit from this research

This project could help increase understanding of how SMEs can:
  • Identify opportunities for becoming high-performing “sustainable enterprises”;
  • Support (vs. thwart) the development of their innovative ideas for creating value;
  • Create new forms of business value that benefit the firm as well as the wider communities in which they operate.

We look forward to collaborating with partner organisations to 1) develop our working models and research design in greater depth and 2) recruit entrepreneurial SMEs who would like to participate in this research.

Prof. David Grayson, Director, Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility (
Melody McLaren, Associate, Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility (