Sarah Burch

Sarah Burch says that the role of accounting will be to figure out how to assign value and develop new metrics for the big ideas being generated: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure, as they say.” (Photo by Nathan Cyprys)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

Lean and green

There are 1.1 million small businesses in Canada. Why are they not part of the sustainability conversation?

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Don’t ask Sarah Burch to define “sustainability” unless you want a slippery answer: “One of the beautiful things is that it doesn’t have a precise definition,” she says. “I know that can be frustrating from a business perspective, but it also forces us to imagine what sustainability means. What kind of future do we want, and how do we want to get there?”

Burch, 37, is an associate professor in the University of Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management, and the Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Governance and Innovation. In June, she was named one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40—a who’s who of young business innovators chosen by a board of Canadian business leaders. They recognized her as one of the country’s most prolific thinkers on “community sustainability”—that is, how the often overlooked agility and creativity of cities, neighbourhoods and small businesses might shift the country toward a greener future. This October, she’ll be speaking at the CPA profession’s The One National Conference in Halifax, where she’ll discuss how businesses can plan and prepare to make big—rather than incremental—shifts in their approach to sustainability.

“Government and big corporations have kind of hogged the attention on sustainability,” says Burch, “but small businesses employ the majority of Canadians in the private sector, and they’re much more closely embedded in their communities. They’re in an incredible position to identify opportunities for creativity and innovation that we aren’t taking advantage of.”

Burch’s slippery definition of sustainability isn’t a dodge, then, but a recognition that with 1.1 million small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in Canada, there could be just as many approaches to sustainability. And the cumulative impact of those millions of innovations, rooted in local needs and abilities, is potentially transformative.

86% of Canadian owners of small- and medium-sized businesses say sustainability is important.

But do SMEs care about sustainability? Last year, Burch led a University of Waterloo research project surveying 1,695 SMEs in Toronto and Vancouver on the subject. The responses were diverse, but 86 per cent said it was important, and not just for cost savings. “You’d think cutting costs was the number one reason,” Burch says. “But for a majority it was actually their reputation in the community.”

The results didn’t surprise Burch. Before arriving in Waterloo, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, where her research focused on clever, small-business and entrepreneurial sustainability efforts. She points to a few examples of successful sustainability transitions within the past decade: Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, an Okanagan Valley winery, made strides greening its business with methods that could be applied anywhere (using thinner bottles to reduce carbon emissions during transportation) as well as steps specific to its hot and semi-arid locale (investing in drip irrigation rather than an overhead, shower-like system). Also in B.C., Van Houtte Coffee Services converted 20 trucks to propane and optimized delivery routes, cutting emissions by 19 per cent over two years and saving $200,000. Vehicle retrofits cost $5,000 each, so the effort was paid for within a year.

Not all changes pay for themselves so readily, however, and many SMEs—operating on thin margins, with limited time, money and personnel—may struggle to take big leaps. Burch intends to tackle those barriers with “Transform: accelerating sustainability entrepreneurship experiments in local spaces,” a just-announced, seven-year project, led by Burch and linking research hubs in Canada, the U.S., Australia and several European countries.

Transform will provide seed grants of around $10,000 each to small businesses with particularly innovative ideas, while Burch and her academic collaborators will provide guidance and analyze individual projects “so we can learn what works and what doesn’t, and where.”

Burch says that the role of accounting will be to figure out how to assign value and develop new metrics for the big ideas being generated: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure, as they say.” And that will be especially critical, because she believes that for the time being, we “need to look beyond what we can measure to be as creative as possible….We often don’t have a compelling vision of what the future should look like. We muddle through, and are surprised by the future as it comes to us, rather than imagining it first."