There are 23 million small businesses throughout the U.S. with fewer than 500 employees. Approximately 20% of those businesses are corporations with employees, as opposed to sole proprietorships, home-based businesses or franchises. These 4.5 million small businesses are busy juggling daily operations, marketing, production, taxes, worker safety, and environmental regulatory issues. Few of them have the resources to implement the energy efficiency, water conservation, waste prevention, alternative transit and green building projects they wish they had time to do.
In my recent research project entitled "Conditions That Support Success of Sustainability Project Managers at Small and Medium-Sized Businesses," my research team and I surveyed 126 people who had implemented operational efficiency projects and interviewed 51. Over 60% were implementing these projects on their own time. They revealed the conditions external to the organization, internal to the organization and their skill sets that they felt were vital to their success.
Creating a one year sustainability fellowship program for small businesses will help replicate successes like these at other small businesses. Matching funding and one month of training like the AmeriCorp program could train this small army to fan out across the country to implement operational efficiency projects that will make our country more energy independent, water efficient and help build the circular economy that diverts materials from the landfill and back into new products. The benefits to the small business will be not only cost savings, but enhanced branding and a reduction in employee turnover.
Small businesses are vital to local economic health and global sustainability. Through this fellowship program, we will train the next generation of sustainability project managers to overcome technical, financial and psychological barriers to change and implement these important operational efficiency projects. With support from local governments, county green business programs, regional utilities, the Small Business Administration and others, we could prove the business model and show that the returns are much higher than the initial investment. Eventually the fellowship program would sunset and businesses would see that investing in their own sustainability manager is worth the cost.