Climate’s First Responders

Talking about climate change has been sort of taboo in business circles for years, but this unspoken prohibition is beginning to change. I see it changing most quickly among small business entrepreneurs.

I think this is because small business owners fill a unique niche in our society. More and more, I see independent business owners acting a lot like first responders to the climate crisis.

Of course, I doubt that they see themselves this way, or think of themselves as members of a response community. Why would they? Organizing small business owners is like herding cats. This is a “community”—if that word even applies—of individualists who are preoccupied with running their own affairs.

But as more and more companies in more and more industries enjoy the benefits of slashing carbon emissions, these dynamics are bound to change.

I’ve had the privilege of talking with a lot of small business owners during the past few years. It isn’t something that I set out to do, but winning our CoolCalifornia award opened many new doors.

As a result, I’ve learned a few things about small business owners that give me great hope.

In the first place, we make decisions because we want to. We don’t answer to shareholders every quarter; we are the shareholders. We don’t run our companies simply to maximize shareholder value either. Or, as Clif Bar & Company founder Gary Erickson puts it, we define shareholder value in our own terms.

As I’ve spoken with small business leaders I’ve discovered that most of us run our companies in ways that reflect both our business ideas and our core social values. For example, Clif Bar’s voluntary annual report describes milestones in fulfilling five aspirations: sustaining our planet, sustaining our community, sustaining our people, sustaining our business, and sustaining our brands. Strong financials are necessary, but they are managed alongside other values that are not primary drivers for Wall Street investors.

We make decisions based how we think people should be treated. We go to work in our companies too, and in small organizations it’s pretty hard to hide. So we experiment with ways to make things better according to the ideals and goals we care about most.

This is unique. It’s not how governments or big companies work. If small business owners really are like cats, then they must be from a different breed.

Small business leaders give me hope because they can get off the sidelines and into the games so quickly.

When this happens, everything changes. The issue becomes more practical and less political. People start collaborating. They innovate, motivate one another, and change their expectations. They stop being victims and start being leaders. That’s just human nature.

All it takes is a few people in the right place at the right time, and a little nudging, and everything changes.

I’ve noted before that when we publicized our CoolCalifornia award, clients and suppliers began calling me to say thanks for doing something that I thought simply made sense. Other small business leaders are having similar experiences. Collectively, our clients are expressing a genuine hunger for somebody to lead the way on this issue.

As this happens to more and more firms, the momentum for carbon cutting will undoubtedly grow, and the expectations consumers place on businesses will become more climate-centric.

Slashing carbon emissions can be a good opportunity for small firms, no matter what goods or services they provide. It’s cost effective, it builds morale, and it helps create loyal customers.

That’s why I urge small business owners to think of themselves as first responders to the climate crisis. This irascible, independent, un-trainable, fiercely competitive, nose-to-the-grindstone collection of cats that cannot be herded—this group is already doing what first responders do.

They are sticking their heads up and saying, “Hey, try it this way.”

They aren’t doing it to gain recognition. But as more and more of them do get recognized, more of their peers will see the advantages, leave the sidelines and get in the game too.

Small businesses fly under the radar most of the time, but they might well be one of our greatest assets. We don’t call them business leaders for nothing.


About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.