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SMEs: The Expertise Challenge


Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) often don’t have the sustainability information needed for action. This report shows how to build knowledge.

Many executives of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) say that they feel overwhelmed when faced with implementing sustainability in their organization.

In a 2013 survey1 of Quebec businesses, almost 60 per cent of respondents said that they fail to carry out sustainability activities because they lack adequate information and staff with the appropriate skills.

Many sustainability guides are available for business, but SMEs want more accessible tools, tailor-made to their specific needs.

Réseau entreprise et développement durable (REDD), the francophone office of NBS, hosted an international symposium on sustainability solutions for SMEs. The symposium brought together students, researchers, government representatives and managers.

They asked: “How can SMEs develop sustainability expertise?” Through discussion, they identified five strategies, based on concrete examples and emerging research ideas.

The report details these strategies, illustrated with nine mini-cases from SMEs. The report was written by Marie-France Turcotte, REDD director, with a team of collaborators.

5 Strategies for Developing Expertise in Sustainability 

Research and experience show the value of these approaches.

1. Listen to stakeholders in order to co-create expertise.

Be open to suggestions and opinions from stakeholders. Businesses can call on many stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, clients, government agencies, and community members or associations. All these stakeholders have knowledge based on their experience in the organization’s value chain, and can offer fresh insights into an SME’s organizational vision.

2. Begin with small, easy, and inexpensive initiatives, then continue.

When companies begin to take sustainability action, many have little expertise. Several SMEs that are now sustainability leaders said that because of their initial lack of expertise, they began with small, easy, and inexpensive initiatives. Sometimes they had a clear vision, but not always.

These companies said that carrying out easy and inexpensive actions leads to a series of successes, ensuring that the approach can be refined and structured over time. Working step by step also let them decide which issues were priorities and needed to be addressed first.

3. Question operational methods, in order to improve.

No expert understands the operations of an organization better than those who work there.

Several SME executives emphasized the importance of taking time to question existing operations and open doors to new ways of doing things.

Established processes may hide potential innovations; questioning can initiate continuous improvement of operations.

4. Call on external resources.

Insight can come from many places. For example:

  • Government agencies and non-profit organizations provide free information about business sustainability.

  • Other organizations provide made-to-measure consultation and coaching.

  • Companies can use external certification and standards to structure their initiatives and measure their progress against that of other businesses.

5. Designate an internal resource.

The first push toward a process of sustainability within an SME usually comes from the organization’s senior management. They are often the torchbearers of sustainable development within their companies. The process is thus strongly associated with the executives’ own values and depends on their time and energy for implementation.

However, senior management cannot do everything. SME executives suggest that someone else in the organization be formally assigned to implement the sustainability strategy. Assigning a specific person to the process increases the chances of successful implementation, while fostering the development of innovative ideas.

Five Paths Forward

SMEs should consider how each approach fits with their specific situation. Don’t necessarily follow each step as in a manual; consider what works for you.

Explore and experiment on your sustainable journey, and draw on your community for advice. Please share your insights with REDD/ NBS: info@nbs.net.

Who Should Read This Report

This report is designed for:

  • SME leaders and staff looking to increase their understanding and action around sustainability.

  • Environmental and social justice organizations interested in partnering with SMEs

  • Industry associations that want to support the collective success of their member organizations.

[1] Ministère de l’Économie, de la Science et de l’Innovation (MESI). 2013. Sondage sur le développement durable réalisé auprès des entreprises du Québec–2013.

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