SMEs: The key to global sustainability and climate change ambitions?


As business schools become increasingly conscious of their responsibilities to both people and planet, PR consultants Stephanie Mullins and Kerry Ruffle from specialist business education PR consultancy BlueSky Education explore the role SMEs can play in the fight to be more sustainable.

As our world’s industries, large and small, are put under increasing pressure to find ways to work more sustainably, it falls to the next generation of business leaders to set the right principles in place and help shift the perspective of business success that goes beyond profit to also benefit wider society.

Business schools, as the training houses for such visionaries, face an enormous responsibility for ensuring they can instil the right values, as well as the practical skills, into their students so that, no matter whether they end up ascending to the C-Suite at Google or running a chain of boutique coffee shops, their work will leave the world in a better state than the one in which they found it.

This mindset is vital for ethical progress, particularly in smaller industries and organisations where government support may not quite reach or suggested roadmaps for sustainable development are not as effective in practice as they are in theory. With such uncertainty ahead, smaller companies, in particular, need the right perspective at the leadership level to drive them forward.

Outside of providing such a “future-proofed” education for students, business schools also serve another important purpose; to dedicate the intellect of their faculties to producing the research that will guide industries to working in a better, smarter manner.

But whilst there is a steady stream of graduates marching out of business schools around the world and into the leadership ranks of global businesses, creating a seamless link between business education and business improvement, there can sometimes be something of a barrier between the academic world and day-to-day business practice. This disconnect means that businesses can often miss out on the opportunity and advantage that academic business minds can provide.

How can this gap be overcome? For many experts, the answer lies in publishing – books dedicated to sharing their bespoke ideas and insights to specific sectors of industry.

The latest publication from Dr Aharon Factor goes one step further. Together with Professor John Ulhøi, he has compiled the ideas, research and perspectives of key climate-change and sustainability-focused experts and academics around the world to provide a well-rounded, one-stop-shop for SMEs that drills down into the key challenges to sector more sustainable.

These challenges, Dr Factor says, are commonly overlooked by governments and multi-national bodies, whose policies to tackle climate change instead prioritise finding solutions for, and gaining commitments from large-scale corporations and institutions. It’s an oversight that must be corrected for any sustainability efforts to have a tangible impact on the planet. “Sustainability and Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises: Lessons from Mixed Method Research” advocates for a more united and pragmatic approach from academia, government and society. The book couples this with a practical, business-focused way to understand how SMEs can be guided to operate in a more ethical and sustainable manner.

“After two hundred years of fossil fuel use, land clearance and pollution, the planet’s boundaries have been stretched to their limits. It’s clear that the way we live and work needs to change. However, any attempt to build a more sustainable world becomes problematic if we cannot secure the active involvement of the global business sector as a whole,” Dr Factor says.

How important are SMEs to sustainability efforts?

With SMEs representing more than 400 million businesses around the world, and 90% of all global business, the researchers argue the vital need for both the research community and society as a whole to better support their sustainability efforts. Especially, as the researchers say, SMEs often lag far behind their corporate counterparts in environmental sustainability.

One of the keys problems highlighted by Dr Factor and Professor Ulhøi is that building a sufficient level of knowledge about environmental sustainability for SMEs is a complex endeavour, as these businesses differ from larger enterprises in many ways – from business focus and activity to funding, ownership, decision-making, accountability and looser more informal organisational structures.

To tackle this, “Sustainability and Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises: Lessons from Mixed Method Research”suggests that a research approach that has successfully been used in the Health Sciences and Medicine can also be used to provide deeper, richer and more valid information about the sustainability behaviours of the SME owner/managers. Whilst research in the sustainability and SMEs area has traditionally prioritised hard and tangible quantitative data using surveys and/or mathematical modelling, Dr Factor and Professor Ulhøi’s book combines both in a mixed-methods approach, allowing the researchers to dig more deeply into the key driving force behind most SME’s activities and output; the manager’s mindset.

“Understanding what motivates, and what may challenge a manager or business owner in altering their business practices is a vital part of ensuring their commitment to working in a more sustainable manner,” Dr Factor says.

Renowned experts such as Dr Ruth Hillary – previously a Senior Researcher at Cambridge University, Founder of the Network for Environmental Management and Auditing (NEMA) and currently a leading Sustainability Strategic Consultant, José Molina-Azorin – Professor at the University of Alicante and Chief Editor of the Journal of Mixed Methods Research, Elizabeth Creamer – Emeritus Professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and President of the Mixed Methods International Research Association, and Dr Timothy Guetterman at the University of Michigan, have provided chapters revealing the perspectives of leading mixed methodologists to researching sustainability.

Ensuring relevance to academics, industry and government, the book also demonstrates how to visually represent quantitative and qualitative data together when reporting data to stakeholders. Other leading contributors also include the Dean of Cape Town Business School, a Senior Researcher from the Swedish Environmental Research Institute and researchers in the SME and Sustainability field. Overall, these contributors show how mixed methods adds value to researching sustainability and how it can be applied to the SME sector.

“For the first time, the book brings together a range of specialists in both sustainability and also mixed-method research to ensure we have looked at every angle of this problem,” Dr Factor says. “It is our hope and aspiration that our book will not only promote and add value to researchers in our field, but will also be successful in meeting the global challenges that we all face.”

See more articles by Stephanie Mullins.