No snow, no ice, no business: How climate change is forcing companies to come up with Plan B

Dr. Elspeth Murray, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Social Impact at Smith School of Business. Supplied
Dr. Elspeth Murray, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Social Impact at Smith School of Business. Supplied

As climate change leads to milder, shorter winters, businesses are finding ways to become more resilient and more sustainable, according to one Queen’s University professor. 

For winter-dependent businesses – particularly those in the tourism and recreation sectors, such as ski hills and resorts – a series of warmer winters with decreased snowfall over the past few years has been a wake-up call, said Elspeth Murray, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Social Impact at Smith School of Business. 

“When you’re heavily reliant on snow, it’s a challenge,” Murray told OBJ in an interview Tuesday. “(Those industries) certainly have been hit hard in the last couple of years. And we’ve seen a lot of adaptations.”

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Murray points to winter recreation companies in Eastern Ontario, for example, that have started shifting their priorities based on snow conditions, even more than before. Instead of snowmobiles, some companies are pivoting towards ATVs that can be used year-round. Others have taken advantage of the warmth to offer outdoor spas, outdoor camping and outdoor dining during the winter months. “Fat biking” has also become a popular winter activity alternative, allowing visitors to bike on a variety of soft terrains, including snow and sand. 

“When you’ve been doing something for a long time in the same way, sometimes it’s really hard to get creative,” said Murray. 

According to Murray, diversifying is key to becoming more “climate-resilient.”

What she’s seen in recent years, she said, is a greater willingness from businesses to plan for every outcome, something she said is necessary to become more resilient to climate change. 

“What I see organizations doing is sitting down and talking about Plan B,” she said. “They’re not hoping that it’s going to snow next week. They’re saying, what are we going to do if we have three or four years of limited snow or ice or whatever is required, foundationally, for business.”

And when they hit a roadblock, Murray said more businesses are turning to their communities for feedback. 

“Putting that Plan B together, it entails not trying to do it alone at home,” she said. “Engage the community, engage customers. What else could we do? What are they interested in doing? First and foremost is getting some really interesting ideas on the table that you can explore.”

While winter-dependent businesses have been forced to adapt their business practices, the warmer weather has been an advantage for other industries. 

“One industry’s challenge is another’s opportunity,” said Murray. “Not that anyone’s thrilled about this, but there are a lot more weeks and, in some cases, months available to do other things.”

Trade industries such as construction, electrical and plumbing have all been given a boost as the shorter winter season allows contractors to take on more work. Murray said one of her students, who owns a solar panel installation company, has also benefited. 

“When you have six or eight more weeks to pour cement or frame up a house or build an apartment building, those are real gains for those industries.”

But, according to Murray, it doesn’t mean those businesses are turning their backs on climate change issues. 

“The whole notion of climate change kind of slams you in the face with the realization that I have to do my part in mitigating the impact of what is happening in our world,” she said. 

Many firms that consider themselves progressive have been putting more effort into climate-friendly business practices, she said. That includes adopting more sustainable business practices, such as finding different energy sources, minimizing waste, and looking at eco-friendly transportation options. 

“It’s the silver lining,” she said. “The slightly good news there is that everybody starts thinking about how, wow, this is really a challenge and I’ve got to get with the program and do my part.”

When it comes to evaluating and addressing a business’s climate resilience, Murray said local economic development organizations, which often have incubators and accelerators to support innovation, can be a great place to start. 

She also recommends reaching out to local post-secondary schools to tap into their student populations for unique and unconventional ideas and inspiration. 

The push she’s seen for climate resilience among businesses in recent years feels more genuine than other corporate campaigns she’s seen in the past, she added.

“We’re all about looking at opportunities for business for good,” she said. “I’ve been looking at (whether) this push for sustainability is really legit, because we’ve seen this before. But there are some big indicators out there. I think people have the message that they’ve got to do something. It can’t just be for profits anymore. What is the business-for-good aspect of what people are thinking of doing?”

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