What is sustainability? What makes a sustainable business? What are sustainable wedding cakes? How to be a sustainable business…

I see lots of cake businesses purporting to make sustainable wedding cakes, or eco-friendly wedding cakes. The same can be said of many other wedding supplies – photographers, venues, dress/suit makers, stationery, catering, florists, transport, hair and make-up. And I think there’s a real split between businesses who are genuinely operating sustainably, those who have made some positive changes but are early in their sustainability journey, and some businesses who have no idea what sustainability really means or are trying to appear more sustainable than they truly are. So I wanted to put together a post to talk through what sustainability means, and how that applies to sustainable wedding cakes.

What is sustainability?

Sometimes, I think we forget what words mean. We use them so often that we lose touch with the true meaning of the word, and they take on a new meaning based on how they’re being used. Their new meaning also gets a bit blurred, and hard to describe. And maybe that’s the lifecycle of a buzzword? It gets used so much that it doesn’t really mean anything at all!

I wanted to go back and think about the true definition of the word ‘sustainability’ because to me, it really is one of the best words to describe a situation where the things we do and make can (and should) continue indefinitely. And it hinges on the part ‘sustain’. Essentially, the way this business operates can be sustained in the long-term (5, 10, 25, 100, 250+ years into the future) because it is operating with respect for 3 sustainability pillars. These pillars are environment, social and governance or ESG pillars. When a business is operating with respect for these pillars, they are either positively contributing to them, or have a neutral effect. This means the business can operate indefinitely, and be sustained in the long-term, because it isn’t taking away from or negatively changing the world around it.

Conversely, if a business isn’t operating sustainably, it is taking away more from the world around it than it is giving, and therefore cannot (or should not) feasibly operate over a long period of time. This is much more obvious when we think about finite resources e.g. coal or oil. It’s really obvious that a business built on oil cannot last much longer into the future without contributing to the ‘extinction’ of oil. Even excluding the impacts of oil on the planet, its use alone is depleting a finite resource, taking away from at least one of the ESG pillars and the business cannot be sustained long-term.

What makes a sustainable business? The ESG Pillars

So, when thinking about sustainable business, we have a baseline that the business must operate in a way that has a neutral or positive effect on the world around it. In doing that, the business can be sustained in the long term. But how do we determine whether a business is having a neutral or positive effect? There are three different areas that are generally accepted as the pillars of sustainability: environment, social and governance; and businesses are encouraged to think about their direct and indirect actions and impacts across these areas.

The first pillar focusses on environmental aspects. Some of the areas this considers include:

  • Waste/pollution management – so reduce/reuse/recycle
  • Resource depletion and use – are you using finite resources, can you reduce resource use, are you using renewable resources
  • Greenhouse gas, energy or carbon use – is the business contributing to climate change, are they being responsible in their carbon use
  • Deforestation

The next pillar focusses on social aspects. Some of the areas this considers include:

  • Responsible treatment of people in the supply chain (diversity, working conditions, fair wages)
  • Local communities
  • Health and safety
  • Human rights and conflict

The final pillar focusses on governance aspects. Some of the areas this considers include:

  • Calculation and payment of taxes
  • Executive/owner pay
  • Donations and lobbying
  • Corruption and bribery
  • Ethical standards and transparency

When looking through the list, it’s clear why some of these aspects would be considered negative or unsustainable. For example, if all businesses avoided tax, it would cause significant issues for our government budgets and is therefore unsustainable. We’re now really clear that excessive use of certain materials, like oil, carbon and even water, are unsustainable long-term, they’re bad for the environment and we expect businesses to find alternative resources to use. And given the frequency of headlines discovering slave labour and poor working conditions for indirect employees in a company’s supply chain, it’s obvious that we no longer consider that acceptable.

These factors are becoming especially important for investors comparing companies, with the idea being that investors are looking for solid financial performance, alongside positive and proactive performance across the 3 ESG measures.

When comparing businesses, most people would expect to see strong performance across all 3 areas. And given each of the 3 areas is somewhat interdependent, this isn’t surprising. Conversely, as great as it is for a business to excel in one area, this doesn’t make up for poor performance in a different area e.g. a business runs completely on eco-friendly power, but is known to employ children and enslaved women in a foreign country. So a balance across all 3 areas is important. As consumers, I’m sure that you also have a particular area where you are more concerned about strong performance, and that’s helpful to know too!

On a smaller level, it’s unfeasible for businesses to record and publish metrics across all 3 ESG measures to demonstrate their sustainability. However, every sustainable business should be able to speak to each ESG pillar to demonstrate the efforts they’re making in the area. And it should be more obvious then when businesses aren’t making any efforts to operate sustainability and/or are ‘greenwashing’.

What are sustainable wedding cakes?

Now that we have a really good framework for considering the sustainability of a business, we can think about how that applies to sustainable wedding cakes.

Here are some of the questions or considerations I think suppliers providing sustainable wedding cakes should be considering when assessing or improving their sustainability. These are also questions you can use to review the true sustainability of wedding cake suppliers. Are suppliers as sustainable as they say? Is there one supplier that you feel better suits the sustainability goals you’re looking for?

Environmental Pillar

The environment pillar is about being a responsible steward of the environment and being focussed on preserving our natural world. When it comes to making cakes, I think this pillar is where we can make the most immediate change/impact and where lots of cake businesses are already making progress. Some of the areas that contribute to creating sustainable wedding cakes include:

  • Incoming packaging – are we picking ingredients and supplies which are packaged to minimise waste e.g. recyclable, reusable and/or minimal plastic? Are we properly recycling where we can?
  • Outgoing packaging – are we packaging our cakes and samples in a way that minimises waste?
  • Minimising disposables – are we finding ways to avoid single-use products like baking parchment, foil, cling film etc.? Are we opting for biodegradable or compostable disposables instead e.g. biodegradable piping bags and gloves?
  • Reducing waste – do we find ways to reduce the amount of leftover cake e.g. adapting recipes to exact amount needed. Do we find ways to use up leftover cake rather than throwing it away? Are we trying to make the cake as edible as possible e.g. avoiding fondant heavy designs which won’t be eaten, avoiding sugar flowers? Are we encouraging customers to order only the amount of cake they need?
  • Selecting eco-friendly ingredients – are we picking the most environmentally friendly ingredient option available e.g. organic, free-range, local? Are we avoiding ingredients that cause negative environmental impact e.g. most vanillas are connected to deforestation, palm oil is in many products like chocolate and spreads which is connected to deforestation?
  • Reducing energy and water use – are there ways we can reduce energy use e.g. adapt recipes for quickest cook time, sharing oven space? Can we cut water use by batching washing up to once a day rather than after each stage? Is there a more sustainable energy source available to us e.g. renewable energy over coal/oil?
  • Carbon footprint – are we aware of our carbon footprint? Do we aim to minimise carbon use, and/or offset any carbon we cannot reduce?
  • Minimising non-degradable decorations – are we looking for more degradable decorations options? Are we reducing the use of decorations like acrylic toppers, floral wires and polystyrene cake dummies?

Social Pillar

The social pillar is about how a business manages its relationships with the people it impacts along the way. This typically includes employees, customers and suppliers. But for smaller businesses, especially wedding cake businesses where it is often one owner doing all of the work, it makes more sense to think about customers and suppliers in particular. Some of the areas that I think are important for socially sustainable wedding cakes include:

  • Owner working conditions and pay – is the owner charging enough money for their cakes? Is the owner earning at least minimum wage for all of the time they put into making cakes and managing their business? Is the owner keeping reasonable working hours and taking sufficient breaks?
  • Employee or helper working conditions and pay – are we paying people fairly to support our business e.g. interns, our family and friends? Are we constantly bootstrapping and trying to find workarounds instead of finding a way to ‘employ’ people properly with a fair wage/remuneration?
  • Supplier working conditions – are we looking for ingredients where we know working conditions/pay are fair e.g. Fairtrade?
  • Fair charges for customers – are we treating all customers the same? Are we charging the same for the same work? Are we penalising customers unfairly for cancelling or changing their orders?
  • Donations to charity – is the business contributing some of its revenue to charitable work?

Governance Pillar

The governance pillar is the most challenging pillar to grasp in my opinion. The word governance is a bit confusing in itself, and because of the way businesses are run in the UK (i.e. there are no tests to pass to own a business, very few random checks, and long waits for legal resolution), there aren’t necessarily strong incentives to familiarise oneself with the (very long and complicated!) laws/guidance. It’s very easy not to act in a responsible way, and very hard for stakeholders to identify irresponsible business practices. So it’s the only pillar where businesses need to be very transparent, honest and self-managing. In terms of sustainable wedding cakes, these are the areas I think we need to be aware of:

  • Operating as a limited company vs. sole trader – are we willing to make more information about our business available to potential customers/competitors? Are we willing to sign up to the more formal obligations expected of a company director?
  • Complying with consumer/contract law and guidance – are we truly aware of our legal obligations to customers? Are we operating in a way that would be considered fair and reasonable by a court of law? Are we operating in a way that complies with the spirit and letter of the law? Are we willing to take advice from professionals when needed e.g. contracts drafted by lawyers?
  • Being transparent about our business – will we publish information about our processes and ingredients to inform customers about our sustainability? Do we hide information or lie by omission/commission? Are we honest about sponsorships or adverts for other businesses?
  • Operating in a financially responsible way – do we try to maximise efficiency of resources/money? Do we ‘spend’ the business’ money in a responsible way e.g. avoiding unnecessary expenditure, reducing wasted spend?
  • Operating in a ‘tax fair’ way – are we engaging in tax avoidance schemes? Are we managing the business’ finances in a way that ensures a fair amount of our revenue is payable in tax?

This post isn’t the place for me to go into detail about my own sustainability. I really wanted to outline what sustainability means, as it’s quite a detailed concept and hopefully, by talking you through the 3 pillars of sustainability, you feel more prepared to assess the sustainability (or lack of!) of other businesses. If you’re a fellow supplier, I hope this post helps you to understand some of the areas to consider on your journey to sustainability. If you want to learn more about my own sustainable wedding cakes, you can find a very detailed breakdown of every aspect of the wedding cake lifecycle here.

And if you want to book your very own sustainable wedding cake, I’d absolutely love to help you. I work across Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, London and Sussex, so am able to deliver to a huge range of venues! I have a very laidback approach and will always be honest with you about pricing and what’s achievable, so if you’re looking for gorgeous wedding cakes in Surrey, Hampshire, and beyond, you can ask me anything here! Best of luck with your wedding planning, I’m here if you need me.

With love from lila xx