November 16, 2022
Profits vs. Planet: Can We Care for Both?

“Climate hysteria.”  That was the answer one small and growing business (SGB) owner gave when asked during a recent Bpeace workshop what the term “sustainability” brought to mind. This reaction inspired Bpeace to lead a session at the ANDE 2022 Annual Conference on the seeming dichotomy between profitability and a climate-smart business model. During a frank and impassioned session, participants shared the challenges and opportunities of integrating climate adaptation and mitigation into their work. As one person put it, SGBs are just trying to survive and eat today, so climate change is not a priority. The session participants noted that climate simply does not rise to the top for businesses in rural areas, those in business five years or less, those affected by the pandemic, those trying to compete with traditional businesses, and those operating in ecosystems without support for climate action—in other words, most businesses!

The feedback we received during our session at ANDE’s Annual Conference resonated with our experience at Bpeace. We work with SGBs in diverse industries whose attitudes and practices reflect those of the general population—everywhere from climate deniers to climate activists, and a lot of people in between who are worried at varying levels but have no idea what they themselves can do—or can afford to do—that would make any difference.

A fundamental principle at Bpeace is that we are demand-driven, customizing our business advisory to the needs and growth opportunities of each SGB. If businesses put environmental sustainability low on their list, how do we carry out our vision of integrating climate throughout our work?

Responses from a few SGBs that participated in a recent Bpeace workshop. Answers ranged from positive to neutral to negative.

A Daunting List of “Lacks”

During Bpeace’s session at the ANDE Annual Conference, participants discussed the obstacles they and the businesses they work with face when implementing climate-forward policies and practices. The businesses lack: climate knowledge and skills; market access, a supportive ecosystem; incentives; business models for incorporating climate resilience; and capital. On that last point, participants emphasized the long timeline to break even and that “patient capital” supporting “patient entrepreneurs” is a nice buzz term but with few examples in practice.

For Enterprise Support Organizations (ESOs), the challenges include all the above, plus lack of prioritization by funders; lack of impact metrics; siloed sectors; and the complexity of working within communities and ecosystems. A filter throughout the conversation was addressing the needs of women and marginalized communities. It’s easy to say we care about inclusion, but it doesn’t happen without intentionality. One organization gave the example of working with fisheries on mangrove preservation and the challenges of addressing gender disparities in that industry.

Nevertheless, Some Successes

What strategies have proven successful for overcoming these obstacles?

One organization took the long view. It worked for 6 months with a community in India to understand their needs and then identified climate technologies to support biodiversity and landscape restoration. An online call to create an online marketplace for climate technologies resulted in 70 tech companies responding—and support from the European Union resulted from the high level of awareness engendered by this process.

For most of the NGOs, however, the discussion turned to the short-term. One piece of advice from our session?  Just find a place to start.

One participant described introducing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns to SGB owners during a Climate Roundtable in 2021. Responding to a follow-up survey, the business owners asked for help with how to get started. There was a groundswell of demand for practical tools and access to technical experts rather than theoretical frameworks. Another participant described their organization’s work investing in companies that have positive environmental impact, yet even with that explicit mission the companies in their portfolio are reluctant to spend resources formalizing ESG policies and metrics.

One specific suggestion was to start with a problem faced by the business and help them solve that problem in a way that is carbon neutral or positive. Use language that resonates with the business goals, rather than framing the solutions as climate related. A relatively accessible and visible starting point is waste management, even if that means taking a small step such as changing to more sustainable packaging. At an ecosystem level, elevating and commodifying waste management systems, professions and opportunities can provide an entry point. An example is formalizing previously informal waste collectors by providing uniforms, increasing community status and respect, and offering learning opportunities.

While there are multiple priorities and needs, the point was not to get overwhelmed with everything you want to achieve and to start with one action that is feasible.

But how can ESOs manage this on top of their intensive work on job creation and revenue generation?  One ANDE participant noted that linkages to local corporations can be fruitful when they have access to capital and energy infrastructure. Beyond that, donors need to step up. ESOs need knowledge; access to experts; practical frameworks; and resources for program implementation and incentives to address market failures.

Bpeace’s session at the ANDE Annual Conference was held in September of 2022, shortly after floods submerged a third of Pakistan, and that devastation created urgency around the discussion while also bringing home the daunting challenge for any individual business or NGO that is trying to make a difference.  In that context, it was heartening when one of the participants provided both encouragement and a challenge: “The root of resilient entrepreneurship is to stick to the will.  If you have the will, you can make it happen.”

Call to Action: What ANDE’s Network Can Do

We concluded the dynamic and energizing session by putting together a list of ways the ANDE network can take action on the urgent issue of climate change.

Capacity Building:

  • Convene stakeholders to work toward an aligned ecosystem to support entrepreneurs’ environmental sustainability goals.
  • Fund capacity building and technical skills development for ESOs and the entrepreneurs they serve, including by providing entrees into the experts’ ecosystem.
  • Identify green supply chains that SGBs can source or where they can help provide climate-forward business solutions.
  • Increase access to finance by advocating for more patient green capital, developing alliances for blended finance, and de-risking capital.
  • Articulate the benefits of formalizing climate policies that can lead to certification programs and make templates available.

Advocacy and Messaging:

  • Equip the business sector to advocate with governments and others to create the infrastructure and incentives needed for climate resilience.
  • Tell success stories of entrepreneurs making a positive impact. (This was noted as especially important where there is a new product or service without a proven market.)
  • Articulate the business case and share examples of messaging NGOs have used to nurture the green entrepreneurship mindset, such as the linkage between climate and job creation.
  • Make explicit “green commitments” about your own operations. This can include reducing use of fossil fuels by:
    • Reducing travel; selecting “greener” forms of transportation; and offsetting with carbon credits
    • Procuring local goods and services, including from SGB clients
    • Investing in a sustainable office, such as green office supplies, kitchen utensils, coffee

We hope these key lessons from Bpeace’s session will turn into climate action. An ecosystem approach, and working with networks like ANDE’s, is the only way to drive collective action.