Blog post

Entrepreneurial networking for environmental sustainability

Academics and practitioners have long known about the benefits of networking for competitive success, forming strategic alliances and developing innovation capabilities. In this blog, Dr Polina Baranova, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Management at the University of Derby, looks at how the Low Carbon Business Network can support environmental sustainability.

By Dr Polina Baranova - 20 February 2019

Networks are significant sources of resources and expertise; they are important social arenas and an inevitable feature of day-to-day business operations. Business engagement with networks varies in the purpose, frequency and intensity of the engagement, ranging from supply chain networks, regulatory and professional networks to social media networks.

Networks are important sources of reputational capital and differentiation advantage. While providing a range of benefits, networks could also be limiting to a firm's growth, driving business practices and behaviours to comply with network expectations. They can restrict business performance by ensuring the high dependence of a firm's operations on network members' value chains.

Networking and environmental sustainability

But what do we know about the links between networking and environmental sustainability? What role do networks play in supporting the pro-environmental practices of their members? And what network characteristics are useful for supporting members' environmental strategies?

Recent studies confirm that being part of green supply chains which encourage sustainable sourcing and conduct has a positive impact on the sustainability orientation of supply chain participants. In SMEs, a combination of evaluation and collaboration provides synergies that help suppliers build their organisational capabilities to enable them to improve their environmental performance and that of their customers (the buying firms).

Although these studies provide evidence about the positive role of supply chains in driving environmental performance, studies outside the supply chain context are rare. A closer look at a successful pro-environmental entrepreneurial network established as part of the ERDF Low Carbon Business Network project, and hosted at the University of Derby since October 2016, might provide some answers.

Support offered by the Low Carbon Business Network

The network offers support to SMEs with access to regional supply chains, attainment of environmental management accreditation and a broad range of professional assistance to support business growth and development. Being part of sustainability-centred network offers businesses an opportunity to develop joint sustainability practices and access markets for environmental products and services.

Entrepreneurial networking has been a distinctive feature of the network's organisation, which currently connects over 100 members aiming to enhance their pro-sustainability orientation and strengthen economic and environmental performance. A number of network features are positively linked to environmental performance of the network members:

1. Environmental capabilities in focus

The work of the network is centred on building the environmental capabilities of network SMEs. These capabilities include a range of skills and expertise in areas ranging from environmental management, carbon footprinting and waste management, to more generic competences in business strategy, green marketing and branding, public tendering and leadership for sustainability. Network members can access either generic or tailored business support, depending on the needs identified during the Green Growth Readiness Diagnostic.

2. Multi-stakeholder design

This feature is a significant contributor to the network's success. Complex problems are often addressed by engaging with a wide range of parties to deliver solutions. This is true of the Clean Growth challenge, one of the grand challenges outlined in the UK's Industrial Strategy, where various environmental stakeholders need to be engaged collaboratively in shaping national and regional economic growth and investment priorities in alignment with the clean growth agenda.

3. Informal setting

Alongside a structured programme of network activities - including a well-subscribed Green Growth Acceleration programme culminating in Pitch Green event, themed seminars, training opportunities and green expert clinics - the network holds more informal events. These are delivered in a format of quarterly breakfast meetings and business networking and exhibition events in the style of the 'Going Green' Business Marketplace. The informal networking opportunities are particularly valued by our SME community confirming the benefits of informal networking for entrepreneurial learning.

4. Peer mentoring

Following on from the principles of peer-assisted learning and peer mentoring, the network provides an ample opportunity for learning and peer-assisted support for enterprise growth and development. Alongside a more conventional approach to supporting business performance, network members are supported by their peers with idea generation and implementation of carbon reduction, eco-innovation and broader sustainability initiatives. Working with professional leadership coaches, they are empowered to develop leadership capacity for environmental sustainability at individual, group, organisation and community levels.

5. 'One event to rule them all'

A significant event in the network calendar is the Sustainability Summit jointly organised with the East Midlands Chamber of Commerce. This is an annual event bringing business practitioners, policy community, academics, regulators and NGOs to make connections, exchange ideas and learn about the latest developments in sustainable business models, eco-innovation, regional zero-carbon infrastructure projects, clean growth and climate change policy agendas. This year's Sustainability Summit will be hosted in the Eastwood Hall on 6 March, featuring presentations from BT, Uber, Siemens, Lindhurst Engineering Ltd, Derby City, Nottingham City and Derbyshire County Councils and the University of Derby, among many others. The event is free to attend and presents an excellent opportunity to meet sustainability leaders, learn about cutting-edge environmental practices and engage with significant players in the environmental sustainability arena.

As the ERDF Low Carbon Business Network project enters its third year, we look at the impact it has had on advancing the pro-environmental orientation of its members. Among many tangible benefits leading to acceleration of the economic, environmental and practitioner benefits, we note the value of learning and establishment of the network community which is enthusiastic, forward-looking and driven by finding solutions to the Clean Growth challenge. Find out more about the Low Carbon Business Network.

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About the author

Polina Baranova talking

Dr Polina Baranova
Associate Professor of Strategy and Sustainability

Polina Baranova is a Senior Lecturer in Strategic Management. Her research lies at the intersection of strategy, business and society. In particular, she specialises in the development of the environmental capabilities in various organisational settings through stakeholder engagement and stakeholder management.

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