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Gareth Kane

Member Article

What does sustainability really mean to your business?

It’s environment focus week on Bdaily, and we are looking at what the low-carbon economy really means for UK SMEs, as well as picking apart the nuts and bolts of adapting business to “go-green.“ Here Gareth Kane, director of Terra Infirma, asks: what does sustainability really mean to your business?

For businesses, taking environmental sustainability seriously is a bit like going on holiday in a completely alien country. Most people join a tour of other people from their own country and get whizzed around the historic sites with a scripted bland commentary, taking a few clichéd pictures before being plonked back in the safety of their hermetically sealed hotel that could be anywhere in the world. But a minority will make a real effort to venture out on their own, learn a few words of the language, eat in the local cafes, go shopping in the same places as the locals and use public transport. Who has best experienced the country?

I use this analogy as most businesses follow a completely generic approach to going green, oblivious to their own circumstances. They produce an environmental policy which could apply to any business, they commission consultants to develop an environmental management system to get a nice certificate, they stick ‘switch it off’ messages on the light switches and they may even appoint environmental champions to ‘spread the message’. If you ask them why they do all this stuff, the honest answer is “because everyone else does it.” If you ask them if it is working, the honest answer is usually “not really.”

The difference between the best businesses on sustainability, eg Marks & Spencer, B&Q, Procter & Gamble and InterfaceFLOR, and the rest is the best get a proper understanding of what sustainability really means to their business. They make sure that sustainability gets under the skin of the business just like our adventurous tourist.

The first step is to understand the business case for sustainability as it applies to your business. It may be that the big business benefit for you is winning more tenders, brand enhancement or attracting and retaining the best talent rather than a simplistic “go green, save money”. If it is, it completely alters the strategy you should adopt. For Marks & Spencer, the main driver was to protect their position as the most trusted brand on the highstreet, so they invested £200m into their Plan A sustainability programme without expecting a direct financial return. They got one, but that’s another story.

The second step is to understand what the big impacts of your business are and how you might address them. If you have a massively energy intensive process then you need to tackle that as a priority rather than spending too much energy trying to persuade people not to print their e-mails (who does that anyway?). For Procter & Gamble, the priority for their washing detergents was to reduce the water temperature required to wash clothes effectively as that is the biggest impact of the process. Their Ariel Excel Gel allows washing at 15°C.

The third step is working out how to embed sustainability into the culture of your business. If you are a cutting edge engineering company then presenting your staff with a guilt trip on the plight of the polar bear probably won’t work. Get them involved in developing engineering solutions for sustainability instead – playing to their strengths rather than trying to correct their weakness. I call this approach ‘Green Jujitsu’ after the martial art which aims to use your opponents’ strength to get them where you want them.

So if you want to do sustainability properly, don’t follow the lazy, generic, superficial route that everyone else tries. Instead you need to work out what sustainability really means to your business and use this understanding to embed it into the deeper structure, culture and processes. And like the tourist who seeks out the real flavour of a country, the journey is so much more satisfying.

Here are some other environment focus articles that may be of interest to you: carbon reporting in logistics firms; what are the benefits of electric vehicles?; we talk to a print business about why SMEs need to go green; and find out how one innovative business is using ozone as a cleaning tool.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Gareth Kane .

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