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Growing Green – using Narrative Workshops to create new knowledge on sustainable growth in small businesses

By Chris Shaw on August 4, 2017

Explore our Growing Green resources: a webinar and two podcasts

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have a critical role to play in mitigating climate change and other environmental problems.

A recent European Commission study (1) reports that SMEs are responsible for 64% of the overall environmental impact in the EU, including greenhouse gas emissions, while in the UK SMEs are estimated to be responsible for more than half of business energy use.

It is clear that SMEs will need to make significant, and in some cases radical, changes not only in terms of their day-to-day operational practices but also in their longer-term trajectories. However, the scale and diversity of the SME population means policymakers face substantial obstacles in communicating with this audience.

The Growing Green project included facilitated discussions between the owners of SMEs and academic experts. The primary purpose of these discussions was to generate new knowledge on environmentally sustainable growth in SMEs. The secondary aim is to use that knowledge to inform a set of practical recommendations for communicating about environmental sustainability with SMEs.

For these discussions, the project used Narrative Workshops, Climate Outreach’s method of social research that follows a standardised script to explore values, identity and attitudes. The Climate Outreach Narrative Workshop has proved itself to be an effective method for bringing people together to discuss climate change through the lens of their own values and sense of identity. Young adults, faith groups, centre-right audiences and the general public – from Scotland to India – report enjoying being able to make sense of an otherwise abstract and technical issue in terms of the things that matter to them.

This was the first time the Narrative Workshop method has been used with the owners of SMEs. Two Narrative Workshops, bringing together 15 businesses, were run in Oxford in early July 2017. In order to probe these complex issues in sufficient depth, this pilot project targeted sectors and businesses with some pre-existing awareness of, and interest in, environmental sustainability. The results demonstrated that the workshops provided a productive framework for participants to share perspectives on how values – both their own and those of their clients and customers – interacted with a range of external factors to define the prospects for growing their business in an environmentally sustainable way.

“It’s been really useful picking up on people’s enthusiasm, feeling that energy and taking it home and applying it to my business” said one of the workshop participants who was interviewed in the short video above about the project. Another participant reflected on how interesting it was to get perspectives from different industries: “Everyone in the workshop was on a similar page in terms of climate change, and yet there are differences in opinions and how things are taken forward”.

The Narrative Workshop findings 

The conflict that participants felt existed between the values associated with sustainability and the values associated with seeking economic growth was evident in the way in which participants struggled to hold the two concepts in their thinking at the same time. Sustainability and economics were generally spoken of separately, and when they were brought together it was through the frame of ‘balance’ and the difficulties of achieving that balance. Participants agreed that sustainability is about more than the environment, that it is a three way balancing act – the environment, the social and the economic all had to be considered. This pilot project highlights interesting directions for future research. Most notably there was a sharp distinction in optimism about the possibility of closing the gap between sustainability and business values amongst those businesses working directly with the public – who expressed the greatest optimism-, compared to those providing services to larger corporations. In addition, mapping SME owners’ values onto the three dimensions of sustainability – the social, the environmental and the economic – will be an important step in developing effective communication strategies, resources and support for SMEs.

Next steps

The next steps for the project are to produce a short report and a working paper, to be presented at the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship 2017 conference in Belfast and at the Economic and Social Research Council Festival of Social Science, again in November 2017. Applications will be made for further funding to extend the project out to include a broader range of SMEs, with the longer term goal of creating resources for effective communication of environmental sustainability challenges and opportunities to SMEs.

More information about the project

The Growing Green project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is a collaboration between:

  • Professor Richard Blundel, Professor of Enterprise and Organisation at The Open University
  • Dr Tina Fawcett, Senior Researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford (who wrote this piece about the workshop for the UK Energy Research Centre)
  • Sam Hampton, Network Navigator for Business Resource Efficiency at Oxfordshire Business Support and a research student at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford (who wrote this piece about the workshop for The Open University)
  • Dr Christopher Shaw, Senior Researcher at Climate Outreach.

A large part of the promotion of the workshops to SMEs came from Oxfordshire Business Support, funded by the  European Regional Development Fund (2014-20).

1 Calogirou et al. (2010) SMEs and the Environment in the European Union. Brussels: PLANET SA and Danish Technological Institute for European Commission, DG Enterprise and Industry

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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