Small business is small for a reason.
It could be a new business, starting to grow. It could have been a larger business, one that failed to thrive and was forced to shrink its operations.
Most likely, however, it is small because it is intended to be that way. The goal of small business is sustainability, which means expansion can be the enemy of survival. Health and growth are not two sides of the same fish.
Of course, many of the headlines these days are grabbed by Skip The Dishes, the small business that grew. Yet anyone with a memory for headlines also will remember Loewen Group, a funeral home conglomerate that started small in Steinbach — and how quickly the dream imploded after a few years.
We need to see past the headlines to understand the importance of small businesses for a sustainable future.
In 2016, according to Statistics Canada, across all sectors 78,430 small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) were born — but 83,240 SMEs died, leaving a net loss of 4,810 businesses for the year.
It’s not easy being small.
Yet in 2015, 70.5 per cent of the private labour force in Canada was employed by small business; 19.8 per cent of workers were employed by medium business and only 9.7 per cent by large business.
Those same small businesses also were responsible for 87.7 per cent of the new jobs between 2005 and 2015. Big business? Only 4.6 per cent.
It’s not easy being small, but the economy depends on small business. If small businesses are not sustainable, in the long run, neither is the Canadian economy.
Small business usually is local. Its workers and its customers are local. The more it can source its supplies locally, the better, making it less vulnerable to forces at a distance over which it has no control.
All these things are crucial components of a sustainable system.
The sustainability of a small business is related to the welfare of its workers and the health of the community in which it is planted. It can’t rely on profits from elsewhere to subsidize local losses the way big business does. There is also no other pool of customers at a distance to replace the local ones it loses — and if can’t attract local workers, it can’t operate.
Small businesses should therefore support two things, despite the swirl of politics that tend to project a right-wing image onto them as a group: a living wage and a culture of environmental sustainability.
Local workers should be paid enough of a wage so they can also be local customers. And a healthy local environment means a better quality of life not just for ourselves, but for our children.
Poverty reduction is therefore good for everyone — but if most working people are employed by small business, then a livable minimum wage is required. Regular increases in that minimum wage should be part of an overall strategy to improve the living circumstances of those most at risk of creating more burdens on a caring society for health care and social services.
Of course, if you don’t care, then it doesn’t matter. But a sustainable local business has to care about its workers and its customers alike, present and future. This is why support for a carbon tax and other measures to shift lifestyles away from plundering the planet should be an integral part of every small business operation.
It just makes good sense, as well as good cents. Done properly, it is not something that needs to be resented as the heavy hand of government.
Concerned about the fact there will be as much plastic as fish in the ocean by 2050? Why serve plastic straws when there are alternatives — such as not offering them — which cost you and the planet less? Why serve coffee cream in little plastic knuckles, when a pitcher will do? When the bulk of restaurant waste is takeout containers, why not find a way to skip the trash as well as the dishes? Concerned about hungry people, here and elsewhere? Don’t waste any food — from producer to consumer — for any reason. Period. Make caring for your local community and the planet a deliberate strategy — and market it that way.
Consistently, a thoughtful approach to reducing waste in the overall system leads to greater efficiency and lower costs in a small business.
It also identifies areas where government intervention is most important to encourage or enable social change.
It’s about leverage, not brute force.
But first, you have to care. Second, you have to think. It doesn’t start somewhere else — it starts where we live, where we work, where we spend our time and our money.
We need to live close to home. A sustainable small business has a better idea of "home" than any other kind, because it is rooted in and sustained by its local community.
Peter Denton is a local sustainability consultant and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.