Can small and medium enterprises lead the way to a sustainable future?

McGill researchers set their sights on small and medium enterprises to shift the planet’s trajectory toward sustainable prosperity
From l to r: McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative members Jaye Ellis, Dror Etzion and Catherine Potvin

With biodiversity losses mounting and some experts warning that time is running out for action on climate change, McGill researchers from across the campus have set their sights on small and medium enterprises, a sector they believe has the social and economic clout to shift the planet’s trajectory towards sustainable prosperity.

“In Canada, small and medium enterprises employ around 90 percent of the population – that’s a huge number of people – and most of us are customers of SMEs, too,” says Catherine Potvin, McGill biology professor and one of three co-leads for Sustainability Transitions, the latest research program to emerge from the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI).

“If we were able to begin a movement of transition and changes in practice within small and medium-size enterprises, that could have a huge ripple effect.”

A big target but not easy to hit

As far as research subjects go, the SME sector is as heterogeneous at it is immense. To get the project started, the MSSI team is consulting with entities as diverse as a local restaurant, property development firms, and an Indigenous enterprise in charge of a community renewable energy project. Building on the MSSI’s strength in bridging the divide between natural and social sciences, the researchers have set out to understand what motivates this varied group of entrepreneurs to adopt less carbon-intensive practices.

The project aims to support businesses in their decision-making with the best scientific knowledge on which changes will have the most impact, and with strategies for obtaining meaningful low-carbon credentials to facilitate access to new markets. But the researchers will also tackle the more elusive question of how to reach entrepreneurs with messages persuasive enough to spark change.

“We have the technologies to transition to low carbon, we have the know-how,” says Potvin. “But the barrier is no longer science and technology per se; it’s the adoption of novel science and technology.”

Digital designers on board

To figure out how to reach small and medium enterprises, Potvin and her co-lead, McGill management professor Dror Etzion, are working with the National Film Board of Canada and Turbulent, a Montreal-based digital production company, to develop a communications platform to share stories about the motivations, obstacles and opportunities involved in turning good intentions into meaningful action.

“The premise of our project with the National Film Board is that what SME leaders really need is a boost of confidence that can come from knowing that they are not alone,” Etzion says.

“We believe that being inspired by their peers, giving and providing mentorship, sharing the highs and lows of the efforts they are investing and the results that they are seeing – all of these relational, social aspects will help motivate and prompt additional SMEs to embark on this collective effort.”

The researchers will use these stories to reach out to SMEs through social and print media, conferences, and institutions that support entrepreneurs, such as the Business Development Bank of Canada and local chambers of commerce.

Climate change only one piece in the puzzle

In line with the MSSI’s broad-based approach, the goal of transitioning to more sustainable operations is not confined to reducing a business’s environmental footprint. Etzion refers to the United Nations Sustainable Goals (SDGs), all 17 of which he says are “fair game”.

“I don’t see the theme limiting itself to a specific subset, in large part because sustainability issues seem to be closely interrelated to each other. Increasingly, we see researchers and policymakers employing the 17 SDGs as foundational aspirations,” he says.

It is a perspective that recognizes that ending poverty and stimulating economic development in underdeveloped regions goes hand in hand with preserving the world’s forests and oceans. For small and medium enterprises, acting sustainably means keeping an eye on everything from where they source their furniture to the labour practices of their suppliers.

If an SME plants a tree but no one sees it …

Understanding what motivates businesses to adopt more sustainable practices is only half the battle. Small and medium enterprises face another enormous challenge in getting their customers to pay attention to the positive action they are taking. Sustainability metrics, such as standards, certifications and awards, are all valuable in this regard but the cost involved can put many of them out of small business owners’ reach.

Jaye Ellis, McGill law professor and the third of the Sustainability Transitions co-leads, says that while these metrics can be powerful tools to quantify and communicate sustainable practices, their relative inaccessibility to small and medium enterprises is a serious impediment to their overall effectiveness.

“We’re interested in ways to make metrics more accessible to a larger number of actors – making it easier to obtain sustainability certification – not because they’re less rigorous but because the process has been streamlined in some meaningful way,” she says.

Ellis aims to do this by working with businesses directly and with organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, that provide relatively inexpensive tools and training to SMEs to help with assessing products, carrying out life cycle analyses, and other techniques to evaluate and promote the sustainability of their operations.

“We are very interested in seeing how well these things work, how they could be made to work better or made more accessible to a larger number of SMEs,” she says. “Working with organizations that are themselves working with SMEs could be a way to really reach out to a much larger number of members of the SME community.”

Including different perspectives on sustainability

In addition to concerns over the accessibility of sustainability metrics, Ellis highlights the degree to which many metrics are grounded in Western conceptions of science and economics. While some see this as the key to metrics’ strength and credibility, it can lead to the exclusion of other cultural perspectives vital to advancing the cause of sustainability. The expertise of Indigenous entrepreneurs is one element Ellis considers to be a fundamental piece in rethinking metrics.

“It’s going to be essential for us to build in on the ground floor contacts with people who can help us with traditional ecological knowledge,” she says.

Recruiting an army of diverse skills and expertise

As the Sustainability Transitions theme rolls out, the co-leads will be looking to draw on the diverse expertise of McGill’s research community. Opportunities to get involved are likely to take the form of cross-disciplinary workshops, co-supervision of graduate research projects, and direct outreach to small and medium enterprises.

“We envision an army of students and interns, who will be working with different labs at McGill, and outside McGill if need be, on the footprint of SMEs, answering specific questions of how much emissions reduction, for example, do you get from doing this or that, and working with SMEs to help them in that decision-making process,” Potvin says.

About the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI)

Led by researchers from the faculties of science, management and law, the creation of the Sustainability Transitions theme is a testament to the MSSI’s working method of giving researchers from a wide range of disciplines the time and space to develop deep collaborations rather than working on separate pieces of the sustainability challenge in isolation.

The focus on small and medium enterprises and the concept of reaching out to businesses by harnessing the talents of a digital production company whose previous credits include a blockbuster video game further illustrate the MSSI’s willingness to back novel, high-risk-high-reward projects.

“MSSI is giving us the ability to take what looks like a totally crazy idea of working with people who wrote code for Assassin’s Creed to talk about climate change,” Potvin says.

“But we think it might work, and if it works, the gains will be amazing.”

The MSSI’s new theme, Sustainability Transitions, will be officially launched at this year’s Annual Symposium on October 16. It is the fourth of the MSSI’s research themes to date. Learn more about the other three: