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COP26 member blog: Supporting purpose in a net zero economy

 

What is the purpose of business support in delivering a net zero economy? Recently I’ve been helping one of my climate-pioneer clients edit a piece of writing. The excerpt highlighted below, describing their interactions with business support programmes over many years, is what prompted me to reflect on the question above.

“The big problem was always ‘what is the commercial benefit to the economy of your innovative project?’ What jobs and growth will it generate? Saving the world got no interest. The support system that should be interested in transformation in production just wasn’t there. We have had grants for capital projects, we qualified for standard support schemes just as any other business would, but the support wasn’t for our innovation or climate-friendly system.”

I have the privilege of supporting some really interesting climate pioneers as clients – all of them at either start-up or micro-enterprise stage, mainly in the rural economy. Reflecting on my experience of working with businesses like this has given me an insight into what the current business support system gets wrong for them, and it’s pretty fundamental: it’s the assumption that business owners are driven by profit and growth. But for most of the small businesses I encounter that’s simply not the case.

Purpose – not profit – is the main driver behind many privately-owned businesses in rural Scotland. Passion comes a close second, tradition often third. Strong financial performance can actually be fairly far down their list of priorities. For purpose-driven entrepreneurs there can be a big disconnect between their priorities and goals, and the business support offered to them.

A phrase that will no doubt be used within business support circles in the run up to COP26 is that ‘doing good is good for business’. However, business owners like my clients are not doing good because it is good for business; rather business is the mechanism by which they can most effectively do good. Business is a means by which people can effect change; for themselves, for their community, and for the wider world around them.

I wonder whether there is an opportunity to rethink our skills and enterprise eco-systems to embed a culture that encourages systems transformation through purpose-driven enterprise, starting with our small and micro business owners; adopting a more enabling approach that invests in the change we want to see. There has never been a better time to do so.

As we emerge from the pandemic-related economic trauma of the last 18 months and tumble head-first into a winter of supply chain crises, whilst simultaneously trying to de-carbonise our economy, it’s increasingly clear that the perceptions of strength within local economies have changed.

Businesses who previously fell through the business support net because their turnover or growth projections were not high enough, their job creation opportunities not fast enough or their internal capacity found to be lacking, may now be viewed somewhat differently.

Businesses who are part of localised supply chains servicing local need, with sustainable growth plans, creating stable, non-seasonal jobs are local economic treasures worth investing in. So how can their business support needs be identified and addressed? The experience of one my climate pioneer clients might suggest some ideas.

For The Ethical Dairy their journey to net zero started 20 years ago, with their most radical and impactful systems transformation – low input, cow with calf dairy farming – being rolled out successfully five years ago.

Theirs is a journey that has included multiple challenges along the way, including access to finance complications, criticism from within their own industry, a failed pilot that caused financial damage but provided vital learning, personal stress and navigating a business support landscape that required creative ‘workarounds’ to fit support programme parameters that simply weren’t designed for their innovative approach.

It wasn’t an easy journey, but it was a successful one, and they are rightly now being showcased as an example of best practice in rural business innovation.

So how could business support have better helped their net zero journey? There are probably five key elements:

• Stable access to informed, well-connected advisory support proactively seeking opportunities to assist. Business owners get weary of navigating public sector processes and funding programmes – how can it be made easier for them?

• Facilitated, sector-based business networks, joining the dots to enable specialist knowledge sharing to flow. There’s a wealth of practical knowledge and expertise within the business community. Creating systems to enable that knowledge to be shared more easily with others, without adding organisational burdens for businesses, should be a priority.

• Rethinking enabling funding to test viability of systems transformation. If we really want to create a net zero economy, we need to get more comfortable with the risk of failure and recognise that rich learning which emerges from a failed pilot to inform future direction is a successful outcome.

• A business support culture that prioritises resilience, circularity and sustainability just as much as growth.

• An open door for radically different, transformative ideas – because the radical change which net zero demands requires radical ideas.

The approaches that brought our economy here, won’t take us to where we need to be in 10 years’ time. Change is inevitable, and in this climate emergency change is necessary and extremely urgent.

Our economic transformation to a net zero world could begin by understanding the crucial role of purpose within enterprise better, and then resourcing, supporting and enabling purpose-driven entrepreneurs to achieve their goals.

Lorna Young is a Marketing & Rural Economic Development Consultant based in Dumfries, and a Member of the IED. You can view a video on The Ethical Dairy’s journey to net zero here.

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