Small Business Owners Speak for Themselves

Some activists claim that environmental regulations are strangling small businesses, but a lot of small business owners are telling a very different story.

I wrote an op-ed recently as a reply to one that was written by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB). In their piece, the NFIB presumed to speak for small business owners everywhere when they argued that regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions are “strangling” small companies and killing jobs.

In my response (Fox and Hounds, May 2, 2012) I pointed out that nobody could possibly speak for small businesses in general because we are such a diverse and independent lot.

Readers often post online comments about op-eds, and one comment pointed out that I own a service business and, therefore, am exempt from most regulations. That’s true. The comment argued that manufactures are in a different situation—one that literally chokes growth and costs jobs.

Is that right? I thought this claim deserved a closer look. So, I interviewed Mike Field on The Climate Report.

Mike and his partners founded a small manufacturing business in one of the most heavily regulated regions of the country. He describes what it was like to launch a start-up at a time when air quality, workers’ compensation and fire department regulators were adopting tough new standards.

Mike was an ardent Republican at the time, and I recall his displeasure with what seemed like an endless and intrusive compliance challenge. He says that showing a profit was difficult for a few years. Of course, most start-ups have difficulty being profitable early on, but Mike’s burdens could well have been greater.

Through it all, Mike and his partners built one of the most respected, innovative, and successful companies in their industry. Mike actually credits much of his company’s success to these regulatory demands because they forced him weave innovation into his company’s culture.

Mike’s story is not unique. There is a flip side to the idea that regulation burdens small companies. Firms that embrace the goals of the regulations, rather than resist them, often become industry leaders. That’s no accident: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Here is an interesting list. The State of California recognized all of these small companies for their voluntary leadership in combatting climate change over the past few years. Take a look at the diversity of industries and types of businesses on this list.

Aqua-Flo, Arkin Tilt Architects, Arya Cleaners, ATDynamics, Atlas Disposal, Berkeley Olive Grove 1913, Blue Oak Energy, BlueStar Refreshment Services, Bowman Design Group, Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa, CenterStone Communities, Chavez Trucking, Choicelunch, Cibola Systems Corporation, Citadel Environmental Services, CleanFlame, Community Business College, Conejo Awards, Diamond D General Engineering, Dixon Ridge Farms, Domas Development, El Primero Boutique B&B Hotel, Green11, Greenshops, Hero Arts, Orchard Hotel, Hesperian Cleaners, Koolfog, Lafitte Cork and Capsule, Licata Chiropractic, Light & Motion Industries, Meridian Pacific, Minagar & Associates, Numi Organic Tea, Nortons Cleaners, Old Town Trolley Tours, Outer Aisle Foods, Paladin Law Group, Paragon Label & Mrs. Grossman’s, PizzaSalad, Premier Auto Tops and Interiors, Pure Water Bottling Company, Puroast Low Acid Coffee, Quivira Vineyards and Winery, Recon Recycling, Rent a Green Box, Resource Solutions Group, Royal Hawaiian Honey, San Diego Office Interiors, Savory & Sweet Catering, Silverado Brewing Company, Spirit Graphics & Printing, Stanford’s Restaurant, Synergy Solar & Electrical Systems, Tamalpias NatureWorks, Telework Research Network, The Living Christmas Tree Company, The Organic Choice, Sapphos Environmental, Sun Harbor Marina, Three Squares, Virtually Basic, Waldeck’s Office Supplies for a Small Planet, Waste Less Living Weston Miles Architects, Zan Media

Like Mike Field, these business owners chose not to sit back and complain. Instead, they exercised the entrepreneurial spirit that drives them.

As always, that’s the key. Small business owners do seem to dislike regulation. It is just one more thing to have to deal with. But displeasure does not mean regulations are bad for business. Companies like these suggest that the opposite might be true.

I’ve only listed California companies here because this state has taken the unusual step of honoring its small business climate leaders. But these companies have cohorts everywhere, and we’ll hear from some of their owners in future editions of The Climate Report.


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.