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  • Nigel Hargreaves

Businesses as climate leaders

The first cohort of the Business Climate Leaders (BCL) programme has been initiated by the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce and is made up of a body of professionals engaged in running diverse small businesses. As one partner succinctly put it, we were a real mix of business owners, founders, team leaders, community leaders, and passionate people all at different stages of their sustainable business journeys.

The BCL Programme
The BCL Programme. Source: Norfolk Chamber of Commerce

The BCL programme is about fostering cultural change within Norfolk’s 32,000 mainly SME (with the emphasis upon small) businesses. It is so timely because the impacts of climate change are all too apparent. Business has been captivated in recent years by a mix of events including the financial crisis, Brexit, a pandemic affecting diminished employee productivity and supply chain disruption, political confusion and ‘fake news’, war and now, the latest ‘cost of living’ crisis. As I reflect upon the fact that global human population has almost tripled in my own lifetime, driven by human ingenuity related to sophisticated exploitation of resources in recent decades, I believe these issues and so many others, are all connected. But we are now emerging out of the era of the linear extractive economy, characterised by ‘take-make-use-loose’ processes to grow the economy, into the present – forcing us pick up the tab. Our debt to the planet and each other needs repaying and these are all signs of the urgency, with business practice taking a central role.

Calls for businesses to grow in the face of accelerating climate change often highlight the need for decarbonisation and sustainability. A new sustainability sector has developed to ‘green’ and improve business energy use, resource efficiency and natural impacts. On a macro level this is indeed affecting cultural change in business practice but the question is how do we bring this about in the small, diverse business community that makes up places like Norfolk? Isn’t what we need, a bottom-up approach that aligns with the top-down in a common framework of climate change-reversing sustainability objectives?

Doughnut Economics has illuminated the connection between our personal thriving and healthy businesses to the wellbeing of the global environment. As Kate Raworth, put it, we need to turn today’s economies, which are degenerative by default, into ones that are regenerative by design. This is a call for us to re-awaken to the connections that link our growth and practices to those all around us. Once these essentially supportive relationships become neglected, things can get threatening.

The BCL is an experiment in cultural change, itself dependent realising the connections between us and everything else. I see its most important potentials as two-fold. Firstly, the BCL culture is unbounded and therefore, as it grows through successive cohorts, bit by bit it should find appeal and relevance to a wide range of individuals and the diversity of businesses they make up. The first cohort were described as trailblazers by another member. It is exciting to me that those trails could go anywhere, sharing usable information in order to grow an environmentally aware culture necessary for survival going forwards.

Secondly, there is design behind the intended change being cultured. Carried in its seeds are guidelines covering a whole-systems approach to sustainability. These were introduced in our first meeting and are: Reduce, Repair, Recycle and Retool. One can therefore imagine that discovery and sharing of what works in one small business to reduce its carbon foot print for example, will contribute to templates for success in others as the members of the programme disseminate their findings with the support of the BCL.

Climate change is advancing at a pace, now placing us in dangerous and irreversible territory. This is the unfortunate consequence of not acting sooner and leaves individuals and the small business community very exposed to managing the impacts which are unfolding almost daily. Because of this, there is a need to nudge the focus upon carbon emissions reduction to highlight the benefit of resilience. A resilient entity will maintain functionality despite being pushed off course, even if it has to adapt and change due to the circumstances. This can mean shape-shifting or pivoting, but also making incremental adjustments, which is very applicable to our BCL culture because resilience is implicit within sustainability (and hence carbon reduction) providing a practical aim for what to do next. Resilience should therefore be added as an aim supported by practice of the four 'Rs' mentioned above.

For a more detailed analysis of the meaning of resilience in energy systems and how it can be broken down into a defence against vulnerability and application of adaptability, please visit the publication below.


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