Multimillion-pound carbon-neutral schemes or flagship eco-stores are all very well if you are a major retailer with pots of money and thousands of staff, but for independent stores it’s a different matter. More often than not, you’ll be too preoccupied with the day-to-day stresses of running your shop to find the time to conjure up grand plans to save the planet.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t care. A recent study by research company Him! found that 60% of independents thought green issues were important. So how green can indie stores realistically get? And what help is out there for you?

The biggest problem for small retailers is that guidance tends to come in a one-size-fits-all package, says Marc Shoffman at the Federation of Small Businesses. “There is a lot of stuff around, such as government grants, but it tends to be geared to larger businesses,” he says.

A ray of light comes from the Association of Convenience Stores, which is hosting an Environment Forum in Manchester on 30 September. It will cover everything from plastic bags to food miles. Going green is something store customers will recognise and reward with loyalty, says ACS public affairs director Shane Brennan. “It is also often the smart decision to reduce costs and improve efficiency,” he says. “And going green is not only about major investment in new technologies. Very simple things can make a difference.”

Changing your bag policy is one such example. Chris Sharrington, a Spar retailer in Helston, Cornwall, stopped giving them away last autumn. “We were giving away 350,000 a year,” he says. Today he offers his customers the choice of a reusable bag for 10p or a Spar-branded hessian one for £1.99.

“Some retailers think that if you don’t hand out free bags customers won’t buy as much, but that didn’t happen here.” When it comes to equipment, Brennan says it’s not about changing it all immediately but finding the more energy-efficient models when it is time to upgrade.

Low-cost quick wins of rising importance in the credit crunch can be made in energy efficiency too, according to a new study by the Carbon Trust. Retailers can encourage staff to turn off computers and lights, turn down heating, and maintain equipment properly. The trust’s website offers an energy management guide, and similar advice on waste, water, energy and recycling are available in Easy Money, a guide from Envirowise and the British Retail Consortium.

One store that’s been listening to the advice is Dike & Son in the Dorset village of Stalbridge, which has worked with the Carbon Trust to implement energy and money-saving measures such as a volt regulator for electricity, and a heat recovery system heating the storeroom in winter.

The store has a bag-for-life scheme to help the local school go greener. It had 3,500 branded bags made, which it sells for £3 each. From the £3, £1 goes to the school’s solar panel fund.

But perhaps Dike & Son’s most novel green idea is a horse tether. Inside a paddock, it is situated by the bicycle rack outside. And thanks to the store’s rural location it does actually get used. Horseplay aside, Vincent believes it’s important to motivate the staff towards going green. “We have a chart up in the staff area showing how much electricity is used each month. If they work to make this lower they’ll get a monthly reward.”

Loans and tax schemes
The Carbon Trust also offers interest-free energy-efficiency loans varying according to location. Small or medium-sized enterprises in England and Scotland, or all businesses in Wales that have been trading for at least 12 months, can apply to borrow £5,000-£100,000.

Sounds too difficult? The Brockweir & Hewelsfield Village Shop in Gloucestershire, a community-owned store that opened in 2004, received money from Scottish Power Green Energy Trust and the Energy Saving Trust among others. That funding led to the use of local green oak for the frame of the building. Heating is provided via a ground source heat pump connected to an under-floor heating system. There are also photovoltaic (PV) roof shingles that generate electricity – not enough to run the shop but they still save on energy bills.

Also available for retailers are Enhanced Capital Allowances. You can choose equipment from the Carbon Trust’s Energy Technology List and get 100% first-year tax relief. The Trust says this is a good way to boost cashflow and invest in energy-saving equipment, which normally carries a price premium when compared with less efficient alternatives.

Many symbol groups are able to offer help to their members as well. Spar, for instance, works particularly hard to coerce its independent members into green initiatives. One of its wholesalers, AF Blakemore, has invested £600,000 in a 29,000 sq ft recycling and waste centre at Willenhall in the West Midlands. All the paper and plastic from its 211 company-owned stores as well as that from a number of independent Spar retailers goes there.

So there’s plenty of support around should an independent store want to go green. Retailers need to have a clear handle on how far they realistically are able to go but, as Rural Shops Alliance director Trevor Dixon suggests, it’s worth remembering that any changes, however small, can make a difference. “Some people may question the value of changing light bulbs, but it does demonstrate green thinking,” he says. And that, in this environmentally conscious age, can only be a good thing.