As signs of perilous climate change mount, what can we do to get the planet and the economy onto a sustainable path?
Amid the calls for urgent action, one sector that’s often overlooked, is the small-business community. It’s an important piece of the puzzle. Small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) account for nearly 90% of private-sector jobs in Canada and more than half of economic output generated by the private sector.
Now, a team of McGill professors and students from the natural and social sciences are helping to spur action in this sector. They’ve launched a novel research project that uses social media to bring together small business owners across Canada to share their climate-action goals, struggles and achievements. The online platform, known as PIVOT, features stories created in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada and touching on industries ranging from agriculture to auto parts.
“There is a lot of research about how we can take action as individuals, and also about how large companies can address climate change. But there is a gap in the research about what SMEs can do,” says Dror Etzion, an Associate Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management and lead researcher for the project, which is funded by the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative.
“This is an action-research project. We are studying what motivates entrepreneurs to take climate action, and believe that storytelling is a big part of the puzzle.”
For Oliver Boucher and Alice Kreziak -- both of whom are management students with a focus on sustainability -- working on PIVOT has been a way to extend their learning well beyond the classroom.
As undergraduate interns at PIVOT, they provided social-media support last summer for a series of videos produced by the National Film Board on how SMEs were responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through that experience, and in NFB workshops, the two students also learned how to interview business owners and help them tell their stories.
“We want to find out about their motivation,” Boucher says. “What was the turning point” that led the entrepreneurs to implement sustainability initiatives in their businesses? “Our role as storytellers is to go in and bring out the human story of why they’re doing this.”
In a story that they co-authored for the PIVOT site, for example, Boucher and Kreziak relate how a Saskatchewan couple who own a 6,000-acre farm have learned to cope with a changing and unpredictable climate. After consulting with a microbiologist and discovering that their soil was lacking in biological diversity, Tannis Axten and her husband learned to use natural processes to grow more resilient crops -- a “perennial journey” that has proved both challenging and gratifying:
In particular, they use regenerative practices to build the soil’s resilience to erratic weather patterns. “Growing multiple crops together, which is called intercropping, lets us protect it from hard raindrops and the sun,” Tannis explains...Every day is a new challenge filled with excitement and opportunity. “I’m proud of the way we haven’t been afraid to be different,” she confesses, noting the social pressures to do things the conventional way. “It’s not always easy, but it’s so rewarding.” And people are taking notice. “I probably get one to two phone calls a day from farmers asking for advice now,” she says.
Managing for sustainability
Boucher is from Victoria, B.C. Kreziak, grew up in a village in France. Both arrived at McGill as undergrads with a keen interest in environmental issues, and found a like-minded community of students and professors on campus.
In the Desautels “Managing for Sustainability” program, Oliver says, “I saw peers thinking of using their business skillsets to advance environmental and social goals.”
Kreziak’s mother was a university professor researching environmental tourism. At McGill, Alice learned more about the links between social, economic and environmental issues.
Working on PIVOT has reinforced the importance of those links. “We need to deconstruct the idea that engaging in a cleaner economy will slow the growth of a company,” Alice says. “We see that every day when we interview people. In the beginning they don’t do it for the money, but in the end it is good for business.”
A Biology student pivots
Madeleine Gauthier, a Master’s student in Biology, is also a member of the PIVOT team. After earning her McGill undergrad degree in Biology with a minor in Anthropology, she set out to conduct biocultural diversity research in collaboration with an Indigenous community in northern Quebec for her Master’s thesis.
When the pandemic struck eight months later, traveling for fieldwork ground to a halt. Gauthier needed to come up with a new thesis topic. She happened to be working in the lab of Professor Catherine Potvin, co-lead researcher of PIVOT. The novel project offered Gauthier a different avenue to pursue her interest in participatory science.
Gauthier joined PIVOT at a point during the pandemic “when we didn’t know how the project would move forward,” she recounts. “It’s hard to get businesses to talk about sustainability when they’re struggling with financial issues and survival. They were trying to use digital innovations to keep their customers.” So Madeleine has focused her research on how the shock of the pandemic affected businesses’ interest in environmental issues.
For some, she found, sustainability issues are more relevant than ever. Despite the struggles that restaurants have faced, for example, some are increasingly intent on working with local farmers as a way to both reduce their carbon footprint and strengthen food security in their province.
For a biology student used to working with fish and plants, collaborating with entrepreneurs has been a new -- and eye-opening -- experience. “Small and medium-sized businesses have an innovative side, they can shift quickly, and they’re always looking to solve issues,” Madeleine says.
“I have strong beliefs about the environment, and I think climate targets need to be addressed aggressively.” The PIVOT project “opened my mind to the idea that working with SMEs is better than working only with NGOs or government.”
- Ty Burke contributed to this article.
Watch an NFB video on the Future of Food, featuring a Nova Scotia restaurant owner and an Ontario farmer who were interviewed for the PIVOT project.