Sarah Burch

Sarah Burch

Researcher Sarah Burch applied for her newest research funding to understand why small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are often described as resistant to the push towards environmental and social responsibility. However, surprising results from a related project revealed that our smallest businesses value sustainability even more than their big corporate counterparts.

This suggests the small business sector, because they have the will, and motivation, could be a treasure trove of untapped innovation on sustainability.
Now she’s building on this momentum with a new $2.5 million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Grant in an effort to radically change the Canadian economy at its foundation. 

“Big corporations often get the headlines in debates about sustainable business practices, but in reality, we’ve discovered that many small businesses see sustainability as more important than their larger counterparts,” says Burch, a Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Governance and Innovation at Waterloo, whose GATE (Governing and Accelerating Transformative Entrepreneurship) research project discovered that 8 out of 10 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) surveyed think that sustainability is important. “Small businesses aren’t waiting around to be told to come up with the solutions to environmental and social problems, they’re already doing it.”

SMEs make up 99 per cent of all businesses in Canada, employ nine out of ten private sector workers, and create more than half of private sector GDP. They are also directly responsible for an estimated 200 million tonnes of greenhouse gases – that’s more emissions than Canada’s entire transportation sector produces each year, and around the amount that Canada needs to cut to meet the promises it made under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Small businesses represent an enormous potential force in advancing environmental health and social wellbeing in our communities.

Enter the research project, TRANSFORM:  Accelerating sustainability entrepreneurship experiments in local spaces. The team leading the project (made possible by the SSHRC Partnership Grant) will work closely with SMEs to give them the tools, guidance and partnerships they need to go beyond mere incremental changes towards sustainability, and fundamentally transform their business to become better for the planet and its people.

Sarah Burch posing next to an environmentally friendly roof

“Small and medium-sized businesses are in an important, yet little-understood, position when it comes to sustainability. They are flexible, dynamic, and brave enough to take big steps towards being more environmentally and socially equitable,” said Charmaine Dean, Vice-President, University Research at the University of Waterloo. “We are all very excited about this ambitious research project from Burch and her international partners, and we’re looking forward watching it spark a change for the better.”

A core contribution of this project will be to offer seed grants to small businesses that are keen to undertake novel and transformative sustainability experiments. In return, Burch and her partners will collect data on these efforts, which they can use to inform policy-making and support transitions in other businesses.

“It is clear that incremental approaches to sustainability are insufficient to deliver the necessary long-term transformational outcomes,” says Burch. “We need a more targeted, evidence-based approach to engaging small businesses that helps to overcome substantial gaps in capacity.”

TRANSFORM will activate a vibrant global network of Hubs of research and practice in eight countries, including 11 universities and 14 non-academic partners to adopt fundamentally sustainable business models and practices such as social entrepreneurship, benefit corporations, cooperatives, and carbon neutral operations.