While a sustainable entrepreneur may have great ideas for products and services, it may not be enough to be successful unless the business is operated in a supportive environment. While many companies are launched in small spaces and often change locations multiple times, sustainability demands that a business eventually find a place where it can settle into the community and develop ensuring relationships with community members and a strong story to tell to prospective employees and customers that draws them to the place that the company calls home. Great communities for sustainable entrepreneurship do not develop on their own, they are the product of strategic and courageous decisions by community leaders from the public and private sector to make important, sometimes risky, long-term investments, and the discussion below addresses how businesses can contribute to building sustainable communities and the reasons why they should.
An Op-Ed piece appearing in The New York Times in November 2018 highlighted one of the reasons why sustainable entrepreneurs and their companies need to engage in debates among lawmakers, regulators, community groups and neighboring businesses regarding the focus and direction of land use policies in the areas in which the company operates and their employees and customers live and go about their daily routines. The author sought to make the point that “environmentalism is a long-term investment” that should not be ignored or rejected and argued that if Chicago had not been forced by the public sector to clean up the Chicago River in the 1970s and 1980s and create and maintain open around it, large swathes of the downtown area would have remained an eyesore and the city and businesses operating there would have been deprived of billions of dollars of economic value. His view was that explicit policy decisions and related regulations to preserve and clean public lands can and often do unlock private-sector wealth and, as such, should be supported by businesses seeking to act in a sustainable manner:
“Closing a national monument to allow oil drilling—or terminating the Land and Water Conservation Fund—might help a company make more profit in the short run. But a vast array of benefits will also be destroyed. … Accessible public lands and vibrant wildlife bring people to small towns and rural areas. They attract tourists and give residents a reason to stay, and give an enormous boost to the private sector . . .”.
Assuming there is some truth to this proposition, acting in an environmentally and socially responsible manner requires that companies engage in the political and regulatory process to design and support appropriate initiatives to address market failures that end up giving too much weight to short-term profitability at the expense of long-term sustainability. It is certainly true that compliance with the clean-up regulations in the early years involved additional expense for companies operating near the Chicago River, including higher taxes to pay for public sector investments, and that many of those companies had to implement material changes to the way in which they operated; however, the health and safety risks to employees, visitors to the facilities and community members were clear. As time went by, the companies began to see the economic value from the early investments as the risks subsided and the area began to attract new businesses that brought in more customers. In addition, the development efforts generally include improvements to public transportation and housing that make it easier for potential employees to access the area, usually resulting in a significant improvement in the size and quality of the talent pool for local companies.
While the Chicago story played out in a large urban area in a major city, the same lessons and opportunities apply in small towns and rural areas, literally anywhere that a sustainable entrepreneur might choose to launch his or her business. As noted in the quote above, rural towns that make a concerted effort, with the support of local businesses, to protect and maintain their public lands can continue to thrive through tourism and by becoming a “great place to live and work” that attracts new companies that want to be able to offer something special to their employees. By encouraging policymakers in their local communities to invest in maintaining and improving environmental conditions, sustainable entrepreneurs can participation in the creation of a network that improves access to the services needed for their businesses to be successful.
Businesses can also contribute through their support of specific initiatives and events that can help transform conditions in their communities and the day-to-day lives of community members. For example, companies should develop relationships with local community development organizations, perhaps assuming leadership roles, in order to keep abreast of ideas and identify and seize on opportunities associated with future community investments. Companies should monitor plans for creating more public lands for development and making under-utilized public lands available for private sector development. Companies, large and small, can also contribute cash and human capital to support events that showcase local merchants. Finally, companies can work with local governments, other businesses in the area and nonprofit community development organizations to make the area more attractive for prospective employees, shoppers and other visitors by supporting new playgrounds and recreational areas, development of an entertainment district and establishment of satellite campuses of local universities so that people who live and work in the community can have access to courses that will improve their skills and capacity to contribute to community businesses. To learn more, see J. Karras, 12 Strategies That Will Transform Your City’s Downtown (February 5, 2014).