A fundamental principle at Bpeace is that we are demand-driven, customizing our business advisory to the needs and growth opportunities of each business. If businesses put environmental sustainability low on their list, how do we carry out our vision of integrating climate throughout our work? Bpeace is determining a way forward based on our own experience and what we have learned from colleagues in the industry.
Bpeace has a commitment to infuse environmentally friendly practices in all we do. Yet what does this mean when the businesses we serve have a long list of needs, and climate does not always make the first cut?
The secret to Bpeace’s success is that we are not cookie cutters. Our Skillanthropists (volunteer business experts) work hard to understand the specific obstacles and opportunities for growth faced by each business we serve, and then, based on that diagnostic process, create an individual Growth Project that is customized to those needs. We believe that is one of the biggest reasons the businesses in our portfolio achieved 16% job growth and 31% revenue growth in 2021.
While we are proud of our demand-driven approach, most of the Fast Runners (small businesses) we work with are not “demanding” help with environmental sustainability. We work with small businesses 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. Many of these small business owners struggled during the pandemic and continue to experience political uncertainty, supply chain disruptions, and other existential challenges. In the midst of it all, during a Bpeace Learning Lab workshop, one weary Fast Runner business owner said the term sustainability made him think of “climate hysteria.”
This reaction inspired Bpeace to lead a session called “Profits versus Planet” at the annual conference of ANDE, the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs. The topic we put forth drew a room full of business development experts who shared the challenges and opportunities of integrating climate adaptation and mitigation into their work. We are not the only organization observing that, as one person put it, small businesses are “just trying to survive and eat today,” and climate change is not a priority. Our industry colleagues found this to be especially true 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!
What Strategies Have Proven Successful in Overcoming These Obstacles?
Find a place to start.
Most of the ANDE NGOs recommended starting with one action that is feasible. This resonates with Bpeace’s experience. In 2021, a team of Skillanthropists introduced environmental concerns to Fast Runner business owners during a Climate Roundtable. Responding to a follow-up survey, the business owners said what they needed was help to get started. There was a groundswell of demand for practical tools and access to technical experts rather than theoretical frameworks such as ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance). One specific suggestion from our ANDE colleagues was to start with waste management—something tangible and doable.
Integrate sustainability into the Bpeace programs.
Our Climate Roundtable attracted a lot of interest, but it was an add-on session outside the main project, and our busy Fast Runners struggled to make the time needed to put what they learned into action. The Bpeace model recognizes the demands on Fast Runners’ time by carefully defining Growth Projects and other activities that can be completed within the length of the project, and environmental issues need to be integrated into that journey map.
Start where people are.
Businesses that export or serve other businesses often have a greater awareness of the importance of sustainability and may have even undertaken certifications. Yet B2C businesses have had fewer incentives. Only 10% of the retail stores in our current cohort in Guatemala had evaluated the environmental impact of their business, 25% were in process of doing so, and the majority—65%—either had not or said they didn’t know. Based on these responses, Bpeace turned to Skillanthropist Liliana Goncalves who delivered a well-received Learning Lab, integrated into the project, that focused on awareness building.
The Learning Lab was followed by 1:1 sessions during which Fast Runners identified a few areas where they want to make changes, such as in reducing packaging and use of plastics and increasing local employment and local providers.
A survey after these activities found significant change, with 93% reporting better understanding of what sustainability means for the private sector and 80% realizing that having a solid sustainability strategy can be a business advantage. As one Fast Runner business owner put it, “I had not dealt with sustainability concepts before, now it will be important to see how to address them in my business. Up until now, we have not taken any steps on sustainability, but this opened my eyes to the importance of the issue.”
Grow our Sustainability expertise strength.
In order to integrate sustainability principles into Bpeace’s work, we needed to identify Skillanthropists with this knowledge. For the 1:1 sessions with retail businesses in Guatemala, we were delighted that some of our long-time experienced Skillanthropists were joined by new volunteers from our corporate partner Credit Suisse and the Bard MBA in Sustainability program. Skillanthropist Lisa Bowers not only drew on her experience at the U.S. Green Building Council to provide tips and resources, but also recruited fellow students in the Harvard Extension School certification program in sustainability.
Tapping into this bench strength in sustainability gives us confidence that we can make an impact moving forward. Bpeace echoes the comments of one Fast Runner who said, “We are going to do better and focus more time on this important topic.”