Green Denial Amongst Smaller Businesses

ostrich-burying-headHouston, we have a problem, and I mean we ALL have a problem.

The UK Environment Agency yesterday reported that more than 50% (from a sample of 7000) of small and medium sized businesses said “an environmental policy was of ‘no use’ to their business in the current climate.” The same research also showed a fall in the appreciation about their environmental impact.

Did you know approximately 99% of businesses in developed countries are small or medium sized? In the UK that means 59% (14 million people) of private sector employees and 52% (£1450 billion) private sector turnover in the UK. The potential scale and therefore impact of this problem, if such apathy within UK small and medium enterprises (SME) is similar around the globe it would be too depressing to comprehend. How much scarce energy, water and materials are being wasted in the name of economic survival?

Instead of blaming China and the rest of the developing world for all the future environmental damage how about picking on your neighbourhood hairdresser, restaurant, printers, taxi cab or plumber?

I’ve been banging on SME doors for a few years now trying by hook or by crook to plant ethical seeds by pushing a entrepreneurial approach to Corporate Social Responsibility (only very quietly whispering the C word, if at all) with the environment right at the top of my get-a-foot-in-the-door benefit list and it’s been bloody hard work. “You can save on costs, avoid fines, reduce waste, inspire employees, improve air quality, enhance energy security, appease investors, differentiate, save the planet, JUST DO IT”, you name it,  I’ve tried every possible approach to every personality type to sell the green message with mixed results. Unfortunately in the real world there are too many people who just don’t care, or those with too much on their plate that very second to see the bigger picture unfolding across today’s media. To be fair most people don’t yet have the ability to translate the abstract concept of climate change to their own local scenario but that shouldn’t allow a breeding ground for apathy.

In SME speak it’s about answering the same old question, “What’s in it for me?” and in particular, this week. I know that times are hard for businesses of every size and survival is key, but I fear too many individuals are using the struggling economy as their latest excuse to avoid environmental responsibility. I’m also fed up with the majority of public sector business support agencies and their employees trying to engage with time poor entrepreneurs with little or no effect. They simply don’t communicate in the same language.

Now here’s the good news…

SME’s could save us all! The sheer volume of creativity, passion, invention, risk taking, innovation and stubbornness available within smaller businesses is ideal for finding solutions to difficult problems. We are already seeing SME fruit beared across the environmental technology sectors, but how do we inspire those who feel no daily tangible connection to our communal environmental woes such as the plumber, hairdresser, taxi driver or printer? Smaller businesses are a very tough audience but in my experience the biggest cynics can become your best champions, they just need a little personal attention.

You mission should you decide to accept it, is to challenge one local small business to take one extra green step and here’s a few ideas from an earlier blog from the series on CSR for Smaller Businesses.

Let me know how you get on, the economy and the planet depends on it.

12 thoughts on “Green Denial Amongst Smaller Businesses

  1. Bianca Wiedemann

    Hi David,
    thank you for your excellent blogs. I love them. They speek so right of my heart! We are also knocking on SMEs doors to convince them to take their part in their responsibility and made the same experience. However, I will go on knocking, as I strongly believe that we can break the ignorance just by increasing the mass of people who ARE interested in society and environment. Therefore we will go on and change ignorance into first knowing the problem and then to not-being-able-anymore-to-ignore and furthermore to action-because-I-want-to-change. I am looking forward to more blogs from you!
    Have a nice day, Bianca from fair society in Munich

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    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Bianca

      Thanks for your kind words.

      I get so frustrated with any untapped potential and just a small improvement across such a high volume of businesses could deliver amazing results. It is unfortunate that the planning radars of SMEs are so short but that is the nature of the market, and also why they need better support, especially in the UK.

      David

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  2. Sithan Kanna

    Hello David,

    I agree with Bianca. We’ll try till we succeed. Thanks you for your wonderful insights.

    Would you like to come to give a talk at Imperial College?

    Cheers,
    Sithan

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  3. Perry Goldschein

    Amen, David. It’s very difficult to overcome the immediate gratification syndrome of the human species.

    Fortunately there are a great group of business associations, growing in number, focused on inspiring SMEs to take the longer, more sustainable view — and who have members showing other SMEs how to do that while inspiring their customers and getting some more of that all important immediate gratification!

    For those not as familiar, they include Social Venture Network, Green America’s Green Business Network (fomerly Co-op America), Net Impact, and B Lab (B Corporations). If you’re a SME, please attend just one event from just one of these organizations to get inspired!

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    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Perry

      Thanks for the response and signposting for US based SMEs – lets hope at least one more person makes that call!

      You’re so right but waiting for the multi-generational cultural change required doesn’t help my lack of patience.

      David

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  4. Pete shield

    Hi David,
    Good article.
    Just a my two euros worth.
    When I have been consulting with SME’s, mainly on low budget comms and marketing strategy, I often get into discussions about CSR, but very rarely do we actually use those words, more often we talk about reducing costs, round energy particularly, but also around reducing waste and recycling, getting involved with the local community, not as a ‘good’ thing to do from a ethical point of view but as a marketing opportunity, using local suppliers as a quality control issue, IT in terms of buying recon kit and using opensource software, staff development as a means of staff retention.
    For me I have found that small business people are very open to a lot of the ideas of sustainability as long as it is pitched in business terms they talk everyday.

    Too often Green is seen as expensive rather than common sense.

    All the best

    Pete

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    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Pete

      Most, and I’m talking 99%+ of my time with SMEs is looking at cold business case reasons for using CSR. I’d love to be able to work with morally positioned clients but that may take a few years until the Generation Y’s get into management, or never.

      One problem I have noticed is the inability of many owner / managers to separate their own values from those of the organisation, i.e. if the boss doesn’t believe in climate change at home he is far more resistant to even listening to robust business case for anything with the word environment in it. You see a similar problem with owner / managers dictating which charitable good causes are supported regardless of strategic business benefit.

      The biggest problem is communication especially between the entrepreneurial community and the business support community. There are so many ex-industrial health & safety types who have evolved into environmental consultants or public sector people who preach at smaller business, with both styles failing miserably to inspire and motivate. If you only have one type of ‘sales pitch’ you are never going to succeed.

      David

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  5. Cara

    Hi David,

    Great blog as usual! I would like to see the stats for the US (if there are any). I am sure they are similar given what I’ve experienced out there. This is especially true with a lot of the smaller high-end denim manufacturers producing out of LA. They seem to be hiding and it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be called out. Law compliance is still a struggle for them. As a former social compliance auditor, many factory managers are surprised to learn how many inexpensive improvements they can implement to become greener and more socially responsible. My pitch to them is much gentler and I start with the small stuff and build from there.

    Cara

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    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Cara

      Thanks for your kind words🙂 I completely agree! Most of the improvements that are available to smaller business can be relatively inexpensive if not free to implement. It absolutely has to be about small steps, but there is so much potential for a huge impact if somebody can guide a million small steps! Too many people (so called experts / academics etc) think it is reasonable to expect Joe Plumber and co. to become a CSR / sustainability superstar overnight because ‘step change is needed’. Needed it may be, but it’s never going to happen. Cultural change takes generations usually not seconds, unless we reach an obvious tipping point of social momentum over climate change, population growth or energy security.

      David

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  6. Carolyn Allen

    Good observations. One alternative viewpoint: If 50% (+ or -) DON’T express concern, that means ALMOST 50% ARE CONCERNED — and that’s an improvement! I’ve found that only about 15% had been doing anything significant in green. So maybe we’re making progress! I’m trying to focus on small businesses because they face so many daunting challenges — lack of replication of green tests to cut costs down, lack of quantity purchasing power, predatory practices, lack of comparable treatment by bail out agencies…etc. And they also are seen as the job creators… hmmm. Small businesses need some help, advocacy, and research to help them develop easy to implement systems for more sustainable methods. Together we can help with that!
    Carolyn Allen, CaliforniaGreenSolutions.com and SolutionsForGreen.com

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    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Carolyn.

      Thanks for both comments. Great positive perspective! Even if the glass is half full, I still get frustrated that 50% isn’t enough! I hate waste, especially when the wasted resource is potential.

      David

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