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Small Business, Big Results

For more than four decades most efforts to influence the greening of business in the U.S. and around the world have focused on big business. Getting one golf course or one hotel to reduce water use or use eco-friendly cleaners may seem small. If all 15,000 golf courses or 40,000-plus hotels in the U.S. took this step, however, the collective impact would be staggering.

So while boutique and niche smaller green firms (i.e., "green gazelles") are helping to define the eco-business landscape, a huge collective potential lies dormant in transforming the millions of traditional small businesses located on Main Street, which are run by your neighbors and serve as the economic backbone of communities across the country.

The stakes for environmental leadership on this level are huge when you consider the statistics. The number of small businesses, for example, has increased 49 percent since 1982. Nearly 98 percent of all U.S. firms employ less than 500 people, with 90 percent having fewer than 20 workers.

Yet these small businesses generate more than half of the private gross domestic product and nearly half of all sales activity. They also consume more than 50 percent of all commercial energy use.

Audubon International recently launched its Environmental Stewardship and Management Initiative because of the potential collective impact of small business environmental leadership.

There are, however, barriers central to addressing real change. Many small business owners lack the time, the most precious of resources, because they need to focus on core business demands before taking on any non-critical action.

Research indicates that small businesses simply lack resources, which seems obvious but cannot be understated. For example, we recently assisted a golf course facility enter the Environmental Protection Agency's National Environmental Performance Track program. We learned that the resources available for environmental excellence for this small business were stunningly different compared to a typical large-scale manufacturing facility. Resources, funds, and staff require small facilities like this golf course to act smarter and more effectively. Yet this small facility's voluntary actions were real and significant, with habitat acreage added, water conserved, energy saved, and waste reduced on a scale proportionately greater than most multinationals.

Small business operators often identify the financial costs of taking action as a barrier for voluntary program participation although many programs, such as the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, target process and behavioral changes by management staff, not large investments in new technology or large-scale projects.

The costs of the voluntary programs themselves to cover expenses such as educational and technical service and site visits for entities managing such voluntary programs are also identified by small businesses as barriers to change.

Unlike larger firms and those U.S. industries heavily regulated since the 1970s, smaller businesses, specifically service-oriented firms, lack access and exposure to leading examples of environmental management by firms in their sectors. Likewise, training, structured programs, resources, and other tools for environmental education and change are few and far between for small businesses.

Given these and other barriers, what is needed to spark a broader participation in voluntary environmental program, and, more generally, a broader acceptance and practice of voluntary environmental leadership by small firms?

Research suggests that smaller firms are not motivated to take voluntary environmental actions solely in pursuit of profit or in seeking competitive advantage. Yet firms that do take voluntary environmental action are realizing the business value of these actions—in the form of reduced costs of operation, enhanced image and reputation that may differentiate them from the competition, and, in limited cases, increased revenue from a growth in customers or an ability to demand higher prices.

There are numerous voluntary environmental programs available to help businesses—run by government, nonprofits, and industry alike. Across the board, however, the uptake and involvement in these programs by this sector roughly match the profile seen with most "greenness of the American" surveys, such as the Roper Starch surveys.

These surveys show a small minority of firms, between 5 percent and 15 percent, taking the lead while the vast majority of firms, large and small, is still riding on the waves of their "green-hearted" peers. This may be helping to fuel the false argument that there is an across-the-board environmental epiphany happening in various business sectors, thus eroding any sense of urgency or opportunity for those business leaders on the cusp of taking voluntary action.

We will continue to look to answer some of the questions raised above, specifically through the development of an Environmental Stewardship and Management Advisory Council comprised of business, government, and nonprofit experts in the area of small business voluntary environmental stewardship.

Yet it is clear that we all need to work together to find a way to make environmental stewardship and sustainable resource management the norm, not the exception, with smaller firms. After forty years of trying, we simply need to find a better way to educate, assist, and inspire this critical part of our economy to act.

Kevin A. Fletcher is executive director of Audubon International, an environmental education organization that fosters more sustainable communities by providing people with the education and assistance they need to practice responsible management of land, water, wildlife, and natural resources in the places they live, work and recreate.

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