“We don’t spend a lot on energy – we don’t use much. Our consciences are pretty clear…. Do you find people have been really reluctant to be honest because it’s Angela Howell photoso accusatory?” This quote is from one of my many interviews conducted with owner managers of small New Zealand businesses (SMEs) and highlights the morality embedded in how we discuss energy efficiency.

The research for my MCom has come a long way from where it started in late 2014.  Then, I was earnestly trying to understand why businesses were not behaving rationally in trying to reduce energy spend and looking for the barriers that cause this.  During this journey, it slowly dawned on me to ask some other questions. Why do we expect SMEs to behave rationally, and why do we expect individual businesses to expend effort to improve their energy efficiency?  At this point, I quote another participant who exclaimed “Getting people to be energy efficiency for the community of New Zealand; I think it is worth f*** all.” Stern stuff, indeed.

The gulf between what I was expecting to find and what my participants shared with me was illuminating. The literature told me that businesses experience pressure from their customers to ‘be green’ but many of my participants laughed at the idea; “Our clients don’t care and it’s not a big cost. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.” As for our assumption that every business person wants to save money, in my interviews, energy spend was not known by any of the business owners.   When asked for it in either dollars or percentage of costs, not one owner manager knew an accurate figure.  As one admitted awkwardly: “I really don’t know.  I just look at the income and the invoices!” These people are running businesses across the SME spectrum – some doing better than others – but all functioning.  Maybe our normative view of the ‘rational business’ could benefit from a descriptive overhaul?

There were also high levels of suspicion voiced in regards to the government’s genuine interest in improving energy efficiency “I think there is a conflict of interest going on actually. They are worried about power companies’ profits.”  The perceived hypocrisy was summed up by this participant: “As long as the eco-people get their budget, ministers can talk about it without being tripped up.” It was pretty bleak out there at times for an enthusiastic researcher being funded by the government via some eco-people!

So what can we take from this? How can I interpret my findings in a useful way, to help New Zealand businesses improve their energy efficiency? For starters, the moral obligation to halt climate change does not sit with the individual business owner any more than it sits with the individual consumer. , Any legislation designed to improve SME engagement with energy efficiency involving compliance would not be popular..  When I asked my participants how they would feel about energy audits, one said “I would just hang my head and be like “I can’t even keep up with my GST and they want to get up my arse about this as well?”. The government needs to be seen to be taking a lead, as one of the owner managers said “get their own house in order”. Many of my participants pointed out an apparent hypocrisy right at the top – and the observation spanned all political leanings.

To conclude, I did work out what the biggest barriers our SMEs encounter in relation to energy efficiency. It is the moralistic way that ‘we’ collectively expect ‘them’ to fix this problem without inconveniencing ourselves.  How do we fix that?!

Angela Howell

Masters with Department of Management

Work stream contributing to:Energy Cultures  Energy Use and Efficiency Potential in SMEs

Email address: angela.howell@otago.ac.nz