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Small business is a big deal for climate action

While much of the focus is on big companies for climate action, small and family-owned businesses have a pivotal part to play.

Coffee shop storefront

A creative window display at a coffee shop in Bournemouth, Dorset, United Kingdom. Image via Shutterstock/Roman Riviera

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

All sectors need to take rapid action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — the limit for avoiding the worst impacts of the climate crisis. But it’s not just big businesses that must take the lead in shrinking their carbon footprints. Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as family-run businesses, also have a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to drive positive change.

Globally, there are an estimated 400 million small businesses, and two of every three businesses are owned or managed by families. That means small business is a big deal — collectively, they have a strong voice and responsibility to help reduce emissions.

SMEs also enjoy distinct advantages from larger companies. Their smaller size makes them nimbler in implementing climate-related actions. Also, because they often are suppliers to large companies, SMEs can help decrease their large customers’ footprints. Likewise, reducing their own environmental footprint can improve SMEs efficiency, pare operating costs, enhance access to capital, deliver unique growth opportunities and help create more resilient supply chains. 

SMEs and family businesses can’t afford to sit on the sidelines in the climate fight. Here’s why.

Climate risk is financial risk for SMEs

The business and financial future of small companies depends on them doing their part to address the climate crisis. SMEs are less resilient to climate impacts than larger corporations and less cushioned to absorb the hardships caused by the climate crisis. It’s no wonder that throughout 2022, regulators in the U.S., the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada took steps to require businesses of all sizes to disclose their efforts to reduce emissions.

In November, the U.S. government — which spends $630 billion annually on purchases — proposed requiring federal contractors to disclose their emissions and climate-related financial risk while also setting science-based targets to reduce emissions. These include suppliers to the General Services Administration, the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration. The proposed rules would affect many small businesses.

For businesses with customers abroad, the EU’s new Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive will require about 50,000 listed small and medium-sized enterprises, including those from the U.S. and elsewhere, to report more detailed sustainability reporting by at least January 2028. Plus, states such as California are considering several climate-related disclosure requirements for companies as well as measures to use pension funds for teachers and public employees to push businesses to act on climate change.

Consequently, major companies are working to pare emissions in their supply chains requesting environmental and other sustainability information from vendors and partners.

Another factor has emerged: Employees and customers are increasingly making it clear they want employers and companies to take climate action seriously — or they will work or shop elsewhere.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found that two-thirds of respondents believe CEOs should be a climate CEO, and an earlier Edelman global survey found nearly 60 percent of respondents reporting they buy brands based on values such as their climate change stance.

How SMEs and family businesses can act on climate     

There are plenty of good reasons why it’s important for SMEs to act on climate. What can be tough is knowing how. Small and family businesses can take several relatively easy initial steps to begin their environmental sustainability efforts: 

  1. Become familiar with sustainability standards. Examine those of the Carbon Disclosure Project, Global Reporting Initiative, European Financial Reporting Advisory Group and International Sustainability Standards Board to help gauge how you stand versus others. Benchmark yourself against the UN Global Compact or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development guidelines.
  2. Look at stakeholder expectations from customers. These include requests for proposal, requests for information and codes of conduct. A growing number of companies ask suppliers to provide environmental sustainability and other data or risk losing their business.
  3. Gauge your employees’ climate-related attitudes and expectations. Employees increasingly expect their employers to take environmental sustainability initiatives and consider them a key reason for choosing an employer.
  4. Get training on climate-related and sustainable practices. The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, the United Nations’ SME hub and such university programs as Columbia University’s virtual Climate Change and Health Boot Camp offer such knowledge.

Trust in family business is down

We at Edelman, a private, family-owned global communications marketing company, established our CSR/sustainability corporate function 13 years ago. Each year, we have added more breadth and depth to our environmental reporting to reduce our footprint. We moved from reporting and tracking emissions from our largest emitting offices only to tracking those in all of our offices; from measuring four GHG sources to identifying and tracking our most material GHG sources, including purchased goods and services; from general GHG reporting to setting near-term and net zero science-based targets for reaching a zero-carbon future.

Environmental sustainability programs are crucial for addressing the worst impacts of the climate crisis, and for meeting the elevated demands of stakeholders — from employees and customers to investors and suppliers — increasingly expecting businesses to reduce their environmental footprint. This expectation comes as trust in family businesses is eroding — and ignoring environmental stewardship is a key factor.

For the first time, the Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust in family business, which has always held a strong edge in trust over business in general, has shrunk markedly. Still, assisting in addressing the climate crisis can help improve trust levels. A survey of the 500 largest family businesses globally by EY finds that more than 75 percent measure and report on their sustainability progress. Among other initiatives, they are building sustainability into their business practices and linking their reputation and legacy to it.

Sustainability is good for the planet and good for business. Small businesses and family enterprises have a responsibility to do what we can to protect our planet for future generations.

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