The University of Newcastle, Australia

Competitive, collaborative and green?

An expert on environmental sustainability, Dr Sidsel Grimstad is seeking to discover how being green in business can be a competitive advantage and how it can be supported through collaborative networks.

Dr Sidsel Grimstad is interested in tackling one of the world’s pressing issues – environmental sustainability. She’s intrigued by the ways in which small firms pursue their business objectives to earn their livelihoods, while at the same time reacting to policies and pressures created by a growing number of ecological challenges.

“National and regional institutional frameworks result in small businesses dealing with environmental challenges in very different ways,” she divulges.

“Social capital and networks have a large impact on environmental adaptation as well.”

As eco-conscious as she is conscious of the 21st century need for collaboration, Sidsel is committed to exploring the cooperative actions – or inactions – of small firms. Especially interested in those operating within rural industries, the early career researcher aims to determine the extent to which external changes confront or lead to successful business clustering and regional development.

“This work is an extension of what I learnt during my Honours Degree from the Norwegian Agricultural University and later, my MBA from the University of Newcastle,” she elaborates.

“It is also complemented by 10 years’ professional experience in the environmental sector in Norway and 10 years working in development which included a position at the United Nations in Rome appraising and supervising rural development projects throughout Africa.”

“My outlook is strongly international.”

Not quite apples and oranges

Sidsel’s research career began in 2008, when she commenced a PhD in Management at the University of Newcastle (UON). Masterfully undertaken in two languages, the five-year probe sought to compare apple farming in Hardanger on the west coast of Norway, and wine production in the Hunter Valley.

“Both agriculture-based tourism areas announced they were wanting to ‘go green’,” she recalls.

“So I endeavoured to find out exactly what it is that helps and hinders their adoption of eco-friendly practices.”

Originally setting out to find similarities between the two, Sidsel concedes it was the “marked differences” in each country’s respective institutional frameworks that were most surprising – and illuminating.

“The Norwegian Government, as is mostly the case in Scandinavia, is very proactive in what can be termed ‘environmental reform’ – it continuously introduces legislation and incentives to encourage a process towards environmental sustainability,” she explains.

“As a direct result, the region’s traditionally quite conservative farmers are able to commit to long-term environmental improvements as a community.”

“This social cohesion and peer pressure was less noticeable in an Australian case of wine-tourism business, even though they had a strong community feeling and their outlook was less traditional, their focus was more short-term because there were fewer incentives.”

“The Australian environmental policy regime has primarily been that environmental action should be driven by voluntary efforts.”

From stepping stones to building blocks

Sidsel stayed on at UON after receiving her award in 2013, signing on to lecture and develop her research profile within the Newcastle Business School. She has since been involved in a number of promising projects, most recently weighing up the collaborative potential of small firms in and around Newcastle.

“This work is in line with some of our Faculty’s new initiatives around cooperatives and other organisational forms, which are part of the new sharing economy,” she states.

“I want to see how these new collaborative ways of doing business may also benefit the environment.”

“This requires cross-disciplinary approaches and I have been actively involved in the establishment and facilitating of a new cross-disciplinary research group called WISED, the Workshop for Institutional and Socio-Economic Development”.

An active collaborator, Sidsel is teaming up with Dr Julie McIntyre (UON), and Associate Professor Rumina Dhalla from the University of Guelph, Canada, to explore how various types of social, cultural and historical capital influence the Hunter’s prosperous wine region.

She is also working with Professor John Burgess and a team of academics from Curtin University, examining and supporting through industry seminars the collaboration and knowledge sharing among small businesses in the Swan Valley wine region.

More recently she has worked with Tourism academic Dr Po-Hsin Lai examining the relationship between coal-seam gas activity and the Gloucester tourism industry.

“We wanted to understand how the community has dealt with this externally-imposed new phenomenon,” she comments.

“I’m specifically studying the role that the local media has played in the process. It is fascinating to go over 10 years’ worth of discussion and representation.”

Adopting UON’s well-known ‘I look ahead’ motto, Sidsel is already planning to add to this impressive and far-reaching list of current pursuits.  Giving us a glimpse into her not-so-distant future, the eco-conscious academic plans to do further research in the area of eco-innovation and business collaboration, potentially in renewable energy and environmental conservation.

“These will be increasingly important areas of focus in the future,” she asserts.

“During the last couple of years, I have been involved in cross-faculty postgraduate teaching on social and policy considerations of disaster management with the Faculty of Engineering,” she says.

“This has opened my eyes to the positive impact small business cooperation can have in increasing community resilience and mitigating the impact of extreme weather due to climate change in developing countries.”

“I am hoping to pursue research in this area in the future, as I think there might be important organisational innovations developed in resource-poor countries that we can all learn from and support.”

“As governments continually retract, I believe a lot of the problems and solutions will be found in the private sector.”

“I also firmly believe that there is a need for greater collaboration across the urban-rural and developed-developing divide.”