Small Towns: Supporting the businesses that make up our homes

I live in a small town, and I’m often frustrated by the lack of everything there is to find in our small town. No big bookstores, no good coffee houses, no good grocery stores. Our little place on the map survives (but barely) through an odd combination of old and mostly struggling industry and hopeful tourism. Industry brings in big-moneyed citizens at the tops of our economic chain while feeding a number of families and threatening them with layoffs each month. Tourism brings in seasonal influxes of summer-folk who rave about how rural we are, then dash back to Detroit or thereabouts to live their real lives.

It’s a hard situation for me, as a business-owner, to want to stick around. Not being a native to this particular small town, I have a difficult time finding any reason to stay here. And, economically speaking, a larger town would very likely have more opportunities for me as an independent consultant.

I’ve struggled with this for nearly three years, wondering what on earth this little town has for me. And then, as so often happens for me when I’m reading a good publication, it all coalesced in a single moment.

In an article that showed up in my last Utne Reader, singer-songwriter/business-owner, Ani DiFranco is quoted as saying,

“And Buffalo needs us. We considered going to New York years ago…but New York doesn’t need another 15 people hangin’ around. In Buffalo, we can make a difference in the community. To set up shop in Buffalo, in what is basically almost a ghost town downtown–and to be a thriving office full of people trying to re-create the music industry is a good feeling.”

And I couldn’t help thinking, “Yeah.” That’s it, and that’s what connects me here. As a business-owner, especially one in a small community, I can truly make a difference. And I think this is important for all of us as women and as business-owners. There are special issues that we can work for that are important for the survival of any community. We can work to support other local businesses–each other, in effect–in the face of huge corporate layoffs, a dwindling economy, and the in-coming corporate stores. Small-town America is in danger of disappearing, and with it go our livlihoods and our control over our own lives.

As the saying goes, “Think globally, act locally.” How better to act locally than to work to support your local economy? What can we do? Here are some suggestions, just off the top of my head:

Sustainable Business Planning

Sustainable Business Planning: Director of Sustainability Says Need to Green Business is Urgent

In his book, Auden Schendler of Aspen Skiing Company says climate crisis requires businesses to lead sustainability revolution. Efficiency, new energy sources needed.

In Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution, Sustainability Director Auden Schendler makes no bones about it: Climate change is real and requires the urgent attention of business leaders. Business has caused climate change, he asserts, and business is threatened by climate change. Business is between a rock and a hard place.

Although books like Natural Capitalism and Cradle to Cradle make green sound easy enough to accomplish in a timely manner, Schendler is not so sure. Such books seem to say that “business can have it all: competitive business and clean air, booming sales and biodiversity.” His experience is that environmentally sustainable practices are much harder to put into practice. By sharing his failures at the tony ski resort in Aspen, he hopes to help others get over the hurdles.

Climate Science: We Must Cut CO2 Emission

Schendler notes that scientists who speak different languages and examine different data have come to the same conclusion: climate change is real. Changes are happening and the speed of change now exceeds the direst predictions. We must cut CO2 emissions by 80 percent by mid-century. This is a colossal task and individual actions aren’t enough.

It is difficult and expensive to make the changes that need to be made, but we must. The time has come to stop studying the problem and just move on to the hard work.

Objections to Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Actions

At Aspen Skiing Company, the author met resistance even to projects that guaranteed energy savings because others in the organization saw change as too risky. The reluctance to change from business as usual and risk damage to existing business is powerful.

In another case, Schendler met resistance because the green plan would cause a budget overrun. Even when cost savings over the life of the project was demonstrated to managers, the budget did not allow the new green technology to be used. If the money was not in the project budget, he could not make headway.

There are often good business reasons why green technologies or environmentally sustainable actions were denied due to traditional business rules.

Call to Wait for New and Less Expensive Technology a Smokescreen

Schendler notes Bush administration tactics that encouraged businesses to think that they could put off change because a new and better technology is just around the corner. Schendler says it is not and we cannot wait.

The green wave is building and companies like Wal-Mart know it. As an example, they are pricing CFL lightbulbs at $2 and stacking them at eye level. They are calling on suppliers to go green. Smart business leaders are going green and, most importantly, are changing consumer awareness about sustainable purchasing.

First-cost barriers, lack of understanding, and the tendency to deny that climate change is happening quickly are impediments, that are slowly being overcome

Ideas to Move Sustainable Business Plans Forward

Some ideas are offered to get businesses moving on making the changes that must be made.

  • Government incentives can be used to prime the pump. Once energy efficiency savings are noted, businesses will be hooked.
  • Put a price on carbon emissions. Move beyond cost savings.
  • Create an emissions reduction profession.
  • Buy renewable energy credits, but use care. Get honest information about projects to be funded. Don’t buy cheap RECs to greenwash. The consumer will expose such action.
  • Good government regulations are needed to correct previous supports for coal and oil that pervert the market. The free market can’t work in favor of green energy alternatives with old supports in place.
  • Reform LEED; turn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design into a manual for green building rather than a certification program.
  • Use lifecycle analysis instead of straight line budgeting on new and retrofitting projects.
  • Use green marketing and public relations tactics. Consumers will steer businesses who misuse these toward improved practices because research shows that consumers are using the Internet to check up on claims.

Green is Niche Marketing … For Now

Schendler says that green is a niche market for now but businesses that dominate brands are going green because they care about the perception that they are green. Leading businesses recognize that a cultural change is taking place in society and that green and sustainable ways of doing business are becoming the new normal.

The vision for a sustainable society speaks to the human spirit, he believes, as well as the search for meaningful existence and noble action.

Community Business Partnerships

Community Business Partnerships: Benefits for Companies Considering Partnering with a Non-Profit

As part of corporate social responsibility activities addressing the social impact of business on the community, business and not for profit organisations may enter into community business partnerships. There are many benefits to both the company and the not for profit organisation of taking part in the joint venture.

Employee Volunteering Programs Can Improve Staff Morale

Companies that provide an opportunity for their employees to give back to the community by way of employee volunteering programs also gain an opportunity for their staff to undertake skills development training. Deloitte’s Volunteer IMPACT Survey found that over ¾ of not for profit organisations believed that corporate volunteers would bring value to their organisations however under ½ of the not for profit organisations surveyed currently had corporate volunteers working with them.

According to the not for profit portal, Our Community, “more than 90% of employees prefer to work for a company with an employee volunteering project” and such a project is particularly relevant to Gen Y Employees (Deloitte’s Volunteer Impact Survey).

Companies with employee volunteering programs also report less sick days than companies without the programs. Tuffrey’s Good Companies Better Employees study found that implementation of an employee volunteering program raised staff satisfaction levels by 5%.

Other benefits gained by companies with employee volunteering programs include potential for obtaining a reputation as a “good employer,” which may increase the numbers of applicants for openings, an improvement in the skills of community members which may lead to an increased pool of talent for future hires and increased media coverage.

Improved Community Knowledge Provides Opportunities for New Product Development

By partnering with an organisation that is providing grass roots community development projects, a company can increase its social standing and knowledge of the community. The increased knowledge can lead to an improved ability to develop products and services to meet community needs.

Creating products and services that meet community needs has been implemented by Orange France Telecom through formation of stakeholder groups to understand the requirements of Orange’s disabled customer and through provision of low cost services in remote areas. There is also potential for improvement of brand recognition within the community and an increase in sales of goods and services to the community.

Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility

By putting together an effective community business partnership, the business may obtain an improved or increased competitive advantage in the marketplace. Ethical consumerism sentiments are rising with consumer boycotts estimated to have totaled over £2.3 billion (Co-operative Bank). Over 90% of consumers have a preference for purchasing goods or services supplied by companies that the consumer sees as being ethical (KPMG “Ethical Business and Sustainable Communities” Report). A business’ performance in corporate social responsibility measures is one way that a consumer may judge the ethics of the business and whether a purchase should be made from that business.

Business Leadership and Brand Recognition

A business with a strong partnership with a community based not for profit organisation may also find that it improves its leadership position both within the community and industry in which it operates.

Community business partnership also provide an opportunity for the business to be included in the not for profit organisation’s media and other awareness activities thus bringing an increased exposure level of the business to the community and in some cases to areas of the community the business may never have reached in the past.

Businesses, not for profit organisations and the community benefit from community business partnerships. For business, the investment in an employee volunteering program or community business partnership can result in increased staff motivation and morale, improved community knowledge which may lead to an improvement in the products and services designed for the community, potential for increased brand recognition and the possibility that the business may become recognised as a leader in its field or community.

Ethical Business Practices

Ethical Business Practices: Ethical Behavior by Companies Benefits Society and Business

Consumers vote with their wallets and 91% are more likely to purchase goods or services from businesses that the consumer sees as acting ethically (KPMG “Ethical Business and Sustainable Communities” Report). Ethical business practices are an important arm of corporate social responsibility, focusing on transparency towards stakeholders, taking a long term view of the business and society rather than a short term profit centered vision and investing responsibly.

Ethical business practices can help to increase consumer confidence, improve business performance and protect the value of the business brand. In the United States, as a result of corporate collapses such as Enron, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed into legislation; this act requires that companies have amongst other things, a code of ethics and mechanisms in place to address risk management and transparent disclosure of financial practices.

While Sarbanes-Oxley has resulted in improved financial reporting for public owned companies, it is not a panacea for ethical business practices. Ethical business practices require strong financial reporting together with consideration of the social and environmental impacts of business.

Production Methods and Ethical Business Practices

When applying ethical business practices to production methods, businesses should ensure that the production of a good or service is environmentally sustainable and that human beings involved in the production, either as workers or as members of the community in which production takes place are not unduly harmed.

Human Resources and Ethical Business Practices

Many businesses have codes of conduct or codes of practice to deal with ethics issues, however while codes of conduct assist employees to deal in an ethical manner when negotiating contracts or in dealings with other employees, they do not address the broader ethical issues surrounding human resources in business.

Ethical business practices in human resources include considering the impact the work of the business has on employees and their families, reviewing pay scales to ensure fairness and providing access to mechanisms that enable family support including employee assistance plans, child care, family leave provisions and health care benefits.

Ethical Business Practices and Society

Business and society exist in a mutually beneficial relationship with business providing goods and services required by society and the environment and people in the community providing resources for business, in terms of production resources and financial resources through spending. A MORI poll “Sustainability Issues in the Retail Sector” found that 77% of consumers had a preference to purchase environmentally friendly goods and 79% felt that in order to trust a company, the company needed to provide evidence that it was ethical.

In order to be successful, ethical business practices need to be supported by the culture of the business. Management should lead from the front on ethical business practices and build ethical business practices into each dimension of the business from production to follow up customer service.