Innovator Profiles

Elizabeth Sheehan

Elizabeth Sheehan, Climate Smart

Elizabeth is the President of Climate Smart, a Vancouver-based social enterprise that helps small and medium-sized businesses measure and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

“There’s something that ties Climate Smart businesses together; they have demonstrated that you can reduce carbon emissions, save money, and take action on something you care about. Taking action on something you care about is good for your business,” says Elizabeth Sheehan, reflecting on the common thread that binds Climate Smart alumni together.  Elizabeth is the President of the Vancouver-based social enterprise Climate Smart, which, wedged neatly between Gastown and Victory Square, has recently measured its one millionth tonne of CO2. The organization, having the feel of a startup, works with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to help measure, reduce, and offset their carbon emissions; not surprisingly, greenhouse gas emissions represent energy and waste and reducing these emissions means saving money.

“My vocation is community economic development. I was working with businesses to help them account for heating, housing, and other costs and testing out some new protocols from the World Resources Institute when I had an ‘aha!’ moment,” reflected Elizabeth. A new model was born and Climate Smart was started in 2007.  It has since put 750 businesses, ranging from Modo to Van Houtte Coffee Services to Fairware Promotional Products, through its carbon-cutting program.

Elizabeth is clearly passionate about what she does. When not biking with her husband Brian or helping her two granddaughters with art projects, she is busy helping small enterprises do what they do best. “Entrepreneurs are innovative; they’re creative, they’re risk tolerant, and they’re also overlooked. Small enterprises constitute a majority of the economy: they are large employers, contribute significant amounts of GHGs, and are major consumers,” says Elizabeth. Sitting in her brick-lined office, she explained that SMEs have enormous flexibility to innovate in their own supply-chains and are light-footed enough to change direction quickly. While large organizations, like the kind you would find on the TSX and Dow Jones, are stewarded by organizations such as CERES and often have entire ‘sustainability’ departments, small firms frequently lack the capacity or specialized know-how to count or cut carbon. That’s where Climate Smart steps in. “We put entrepreneurs on the path to dematerialization. We nurture them and network them with their peers,” says Elizabeth. 

While many might think that small businesses are at a disadvantage when it comes to reducing emissions compared to large organizations, Elizabeth has a different point of view. “Small businesses are less wasteful, their energy footprints are tangible. Sometimes a larger firm will make a top-down decision to shrink their GHGs or to bring in a specialized outsider to do the task. With small and medium-sized enterprises everyone has to be involved in a carbon audit, it requires horizontal cooperation that fosters a sense of buy-in,” reveals Elizabeth. Important components of Climate Smart’s work include offering targeted support, rigorous yet very accessible methods, and the opportunity for peer learning.

When asked if Vancouver’s environmental ethic or the Province’s climate policies played a role in the success of Climate Smart, Elizabeth had this to say: “The government really took a leadership position and made a commitment. Not only is there supporting legislation through the carbon tax, but also a forward-thinking atmosphere here in Vancouver.” Clearly the price of carbon in British Columbia, at $30/tonne, is pushing enterprises to innovate new technologies and processes that pursue resource efficiency.

Climate Smart is also focusing on strategic partnerships with Certified General Accountants (CGA) and the Urban Development Institute. They want to play a role in training the next generation of accountants. Although carbon dioxide is a colourless gas, it’s an increasingly heavy liability that should play a role in all business decision-making.

I asked Elizabeth, “What’s next for Climate Smart? What does the future hold?” to which she shared her vision with me. “Strong businesses [the ones who adapt and survive] are always actively measuring and reducing emissions, they’re always comparing themselves to their peers - they’re always competing,” reveals Elizabeth. According to her, the real push and the real change comes when companies look to see how they are doing relative to their neighbours; whether it’s reputation, pride, or striving to be the best, this driving force cannot be overstated. Elizabeth wants to amplify this peer network: “I want to create an online ‘dashboard’ for Climate Smart businesses in the City of Vancouver and I want to be able to link enterprises here with SMEs in different cities. We want to drive businesses from different regions to look at each other.”

Nevertheless it’s not always about competition. When I asked Elizabeth why she liked working in Gastown she pondered the question and replied, “Gastown has heart and compassion.  There’s social and environmental values here, and a real sense of innovation.” It makes sense why Climate Smart is located where it is. Entrepreneur accelerators and incubators from Launch Academy to instituteB are clustered here; Climate Smart is elbow to elbow with Vancouver’s hi-tech startups in the entrepreneurial core of the city. It’s a collaboration zone where peer-learning plays a role as important as competition. 

That’s where it comes back to the community. One of Climate Smart’s strengths resides in its collaboration with entrepreneurs; they are developing processes for the entire spectrum of SMES, from air travel to urban development to consumer products. What else brings Climate Smart businesses together? “A shared commitment,” says Elizabeth, “We make those connections that allow for cross-fertilization, which hopefully continue into the future.”