Small Business Climate Leaders Earn Recognition

Something big is happening in the small business world.

In 2009 the California Air Resources Board (CARB) launched the CoolCalifornia Small Business of the Year Awards, and my design firm was fortunate enough to receive one of them. The awards recognized five winners, and nearly a dozen other companies that took extraordinary, voluntary steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and other impacts on the environment. The honorees came from every sector of the economy: from services, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, hospitality and more.

CARB broke new ground by recognizing small firms. And they did so at a time when just talking about global warming made people uncomfortable.

But something was different this year, when the third class of small business leaders was recognized. This year, business owners from all walks of life seemed more engaged and open about their experiences and aspirations.

This is new, and it is important.

We publicized our success in 2009 and, to my great surprise, clients began calling to thank us for what we had done. Imagine that: corporate managers picking up the phone to express gratitude to a supplier for going the extra mile on energy efficiency and carbon pollution. The desire for leadership on this issue must run deep.

Even so, the unspoken rule in business communications has been to couch carbon cutting in terms of energy efficiency. Climate change is too politically charged for polite business conversation.

This reluctance to talk about climate change made the cohort of like-minded business owners seem very small. This could well have been an illusion, of course, because people who run small companies tend to keep their noses to the grindstone. Very few of them issue press releases, so outsiders might not know what their neighbors are accomplishing.

Besides, the “small business community” is really a bunch of individuals who are busy running their companies. One would be hard-pressed to prove that they think of themselves as a community at all.

Now, things are changing.

Not only were this year’s winners an impressive group of entrepreneurs, they were also quite open about their goals and very engaged with one another. They’d gotten good feedback from stakeholders, and they seemed ready to talk with conviction. The difference was palpable.

Is climate action becoming more acceptable in the business world, as more and more companies experience the practical benefits, cost savings, and strong customer support?

It looks that way, but there is still a long way to go. One award winner expressed how nice it was to be among people who already understood what he is talking about.

Then again, consider Greensburg, Kansas—a heavily Republican small town in a red state that rebuilt as a model green community after suffering a devastating tornado. Then look at the small business leaders in California. People are discovering that they have something in common when they engage climate change in practical ways where the rubber meets the road.

Small business climate leaders are starting to do what they do best: exchange ideas and learn from one another. These interactions will benefit everyone. Congratulations to all of them.

PHOTO CREDIT: PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR USER "beinshitty" via creative commons liscence.

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.