Small Business: The 'Neglected Middle' of Climate Change

One week after graduating college, I started a summer internship at an energy auditing firm in the DC area. On my second day, I asked my boss why the firm never took on small businesses as clients. It was a logical thought in my head: they use energy and there are millions of them! His response was simple.

"They're just too small to be worth anyone's time."

He went on to lecture his naive intern that small businesses don't use enough energy, don't have big enough footprints, and don't care enough about energy efficiency to be worth our or anyone's time.

My boss couldn't have been more wrong.

His response was speaking solely to the financial feasibility of the firm, but it reflects a larger misconception regarding small businesses and climate change.

Individually, a small business might use less energy than a 50-story office building. But cumulatively, small businesses in the U.S. alone contribute roughly $60 billion in annual energy costs and nearly half a billion metric tons of annual carbon emissions each year. That's equivalent to powering half the homes in the U.S. every year. Now consider the number of small businesses across the world, and the environmental impact becomes significant.

So why do we continue to leave the small business community out of the climate change conversation when talking about energy? Why have our small businesses become this "neglected middle," stuck in between our skyscrapers and our homes?

I believe it's because our small businesses are misunderstood, both physically and culturally.

Small businesses are unique, which is one of the reasons why we love our neighborhood coffee shop or boutique retailer so much. But, because they are so unique, they generally don't follow a pattern when it comes to building activity, size, location and even how they use energy from one to the next. This has created a struggle for the industry to create a solution that can address energy efficiency for all types of small businesses. And since it doesn't make financial sense for the private for-profit sector to work with them in most cases (as my old boss pointed out), the result has been a combination of overly generic "green tips" on the Internet and professional solicitors with trust issues.

But we must find a way to do more. We need to include small business as part of the climate change conversation, not only as a contributor, but also as part of the solution.

We need to start by raising awareness: bringing attention to the fact that our local mom and pop shops must be every bit as much a part of this conversation as our skyscrapers and our homes; that the cumulative impact of the small business community is so significant that we must give attention at the individual level.

We must also raise awareness and provide scalable assistance to small business owners themselves. We need to find solutions to assist them in recognizing what they can do to not only reduce their environmental impact, but also decrease their own operational costs and increase profits at the same time.

The truth is not all small businesses might be concerned with climate change. But they're all concerned about the success of their business. In fact, most small business owners are already feeling the effect of rising energy costs, either by raising their own prices or changing their hiring plans. We need to recognize that financial longevity is the primary business motivator and foster that to drive urgent change on an environmental level. Because when it comes to business, energy efficiency isn't about "green business," it's about "smart business."

We need to begin looking at this "neglected middle" not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. With more attention and action being deployed on the local and state level, including energy policy and sustainability outreach programs, small businesses could serve to push community-level initiatives even further. Our local businesses are such an integral part of our communities. They often drive culture in the community and can be an influencer on community members. By assisting them to drive positive change in environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, it could have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the community.

Small businesses power this country. It's time that we help them use their own power more efficiently and harness their potential to drive a cumulative, global impact on climate change. We already "shop small" -- it's time that we start to "save small," too.