Circular Economy for Small Business Toolkit Update

Blog Post by Plant Chicago Intern Margaret Knap
Want more info about this project? You can find a detailed report with interview insights here.

There’s an old saying that my foreign-born parents often used, which roughly translates to ‘don’t cry over the roses when forests are burning.’ This means: don’t worry about the small issues because they pale in comparison to seemingly uncontrollable large scale ones. This saying also insinuates that individual efforts are canceled out by more people or stronger forces pushing in a different direction, so why even bother? While I understand the point, I somehow could never get myself to side with it. I’ve always believed that any collective issue is an individual issue multiplied. I want to cry over both the roses and the forests then ensure that neither ever burn again.

Why Circular Economy in Small Business?

I believe that Plant Chicago’s director Jonathan Pereira explains best in this blog post. While we often attribute environmental conditions to the biggest producers, ‘according to the Small Business and Economic Council, businesses with under 20 employees make up 89% of total business and 46% of total GDP in the United States.” 89%! Collectively, the ‘linear’ practices of small businesses have a large footprint yet are often not included in conversations about environmental impact and reform.

So why aren’t small businesses more engaged? In Jonathan’s words, the answer is perhaps obvious: small businesses are busy working. “The small business owner doesn’t have the financial stability or time to attend an expensive conference, nor the luxury of time needed to focus on initiatives not directly related to improving their bottom line.” These statements were only reaffirmed by my interviews, which I will share later. There is also a lack of know-how, a support network, and accountability. In light of all of this, Plant Chicago saw a gap and committed to doing something about it. Thus, the idea for Plant Chicago’s Circular Economy for Small Business Toolkit was born.

Toolkit Progress to Date

The current draft of the toolkit started as a 53-page document with six sections, consisting of mostly self-assessment questions. I arrived as Plant Chicago was awaiting responses from the summer ‘trial run’, and it was established that I could best assist by enlisting more participants.

Over the course of eight weeks, I interviewed seven businesses and walked through filling out the ‘Your Stuff’ assessment section of the toolkit with each of them. I interviewed a flower shop, a bakery and deli, a sign making business, a meat market, a glass and window company, an organic liqueur start-up, and a mortgage brokerage.

Interview Insights

The takeaways from my interviews, which echoed Jonathan’s article, were: first, small businesses are strapped for time and money. While they want to do the ‘right thing’, they likely won’t pay into a circular system if that takes away from their already slim profit margins. Currently, the City of Chicago provides few to no commercial recycling options. To recycle or compost, businesses would have to contract with another company and likely pay steep prices. They would like to partner with suppliers who have sustainable business models, but they are scarce in many markets. Furthermore, in the views of many of these businesses, certain circular practices have not proven themselves. All of these factors individually, let alone combined, pose considerable challenges to implementing circular economy practices. Yet, I noticed that people and businesses are curious about the topic and open to reconsideration if they see more benefits. Some owners have incentives to take small circular actions. Others have the inner drive and are searching for reasons to participate. All could benefit from measurable goals and accountability. To read more about the challenges and opportunities for each of the businesses I interviewed, check out this more detailed report.

Next Steps

At present Plant Chicago is working hard to streamline the Circular Economy for Small Business Toolkit, while not compromising on content. Part of why we’ve been able to analyze and start crafting a better product is thanks to feedback from many small businesses in Chicago. If you or someone who you know is a small business owner or interested in helping small businesses achieve circular economy objectives, feel free to reach out to info@plantchicago.org.

The toolkit will be a living document, meant to not only assist businesses themselves, but also the communities that they serve. Helping Plant Chicago is, therefore, helping ourselves to lead more sustainable, economical, conscious, and healthy lives. We are all affected, and can all, in some way, contribute.

We recognize that there are many tasks and responsibilities to fulfill on a daily basis. In your haste, though, have you ever stopped and realized that you were forgetting something really important? Many people are now stopping and realizing that they have been overlooking one of our most important responsibilities and vital relationships: the one to our planet and between us and our earth.

Thank you for reading and hope to see you at Plant Chicago soon!

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