During a sustainability leadership webinar hosted by edie last week, representatives from Tideway, Business in the Community (BITC), WSP and EDF Energy gave their advice for sustainability and energy professionals looking to turn green ambitions into tangible actions. Here, we round up their key takeaways.
In preparation for our biggest sustainability show of the year – edie Live 2019 – which will take place on 21-22 May at the NEC in Birmingham under the theme “turning ambition into ACTION”, the edie team hosted an hour-long webinar on Thursday (25 April), exploring how companies can help their business reach the “green turning point”.
Hosted in association with EDF Energy and now available to watch on demand, this interactive webinar heard from some of the experts who are seizing the huge, transformational opportunity for businesses to achieve a sustainable and profitable future in the face of key social and environmental challenges.
During the webinar, Tideway’s head of sustainability Darren White, BITC’s head of circular economy Libby Sandbrook, WSP’s UK director of sustainability David Symons and EDF Energy’s director of energy solutions Vincent De Rul outlined how sustainability and energy professionals can take bold action to accelerate change in their organisations and beyond – with a specific focus on carbon reduction and achieving a circular economy.
Topics discussed throughout the hour ranged from zero-carbon buildings and operations, to circular economy solutions and purpose-led sustainability communications. Here, edie rounds up the speakers’ key takeaways.
1) Establish a baseline and identify your specific challenges
When outlining instances in which their organisations had gone above and beyond to deliver transformational sustainability change, all of the speakers emphasised the importance of first measuring your organisation’s environmental impact in depth, breaking it down into specific business departments, markets or parts of the project life-cycle.
By doing this, organisations can identify the areas in which their actions can drive the most positive improvement – boosting the business case for actions and showing stakeholders they are not greenwashing.
For Tideway, these areas were the materials and transport needed during the construction phase of the super-sewer, which are projected to account for 84% and 3.5% of the project’s lifetime carbon emissions respectively. But for WSP, business travel – particularly by air – was found to be an “Achilles heel”.
2) Start with one change
Both BITC’s Sandbrook and EDF Energy’s De Rul urged listeners to begin with one key change or start in one specific business area, arguing that some organisations are struggling to carve out a sustainability pathway due to the sheer scale of global green challenges and the scope of actions which can be covered by the term “sustainability”.
“Concepts such as the circular economy can be complex in some ways, but taking simple steps, one at a time, at an early stage, can make things much easier,” De Rul said.
“When you have one initial goal you can easily make sure progress is happening by monitoring your internal and external stakeholders.”
Sandbrook agreed, claiming that BITC’s Circular Office initiative had helped businesses “break down” an often “overwhelming” concept and frame one specific setting as an “opportunity”.
3) Go beyond standard targets
As the webinar continued, Sandbrook cited the advice of Ikea’s former chief sustainability officer Steve Howard, who recently told delegates at a Bloomberg summit in London that setting 100% targets can yield “breath-taking” results for corporates and SMEs alike.
Specifically, she claimed that the setting of ambitious targets could encourage companies to find their purpose and align it with sustainability, or vice-versa.
“Simply doing what we already are doing in a slightly better way may be the solution sometimes, but turning ambition into action often requires you to look right at the core of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what products or services you’re offering and how you might do that not just better, but differently altogether,” she said.
4) Take a holistic approach
When it comes to sustainability and CSR, the buzzwords of the past few years have been “embedded” and “de-siloed”, with sustainability teams at companies such as Unilever and Henkel now striving for a future in which every employee is a member of their firm’s sustainability team.
The speakers were in agreement that such an approach can help businesses go beyond a “tick-box” approach to sustainability, which, they argued, could be hampering the uptake of ambitious actions.
“Sustainability, rather than being an add-on, has become a key driver for business and, if it hasn’t for you yet, now is a good time to work hard to make sure it is,” Sandbrook said.
Tideway’s White, meanwhile, added that telling staff about how the project’s green initiatives were developed with employee and community benefits in mind was key to driving engagement.
5) Use the momentum of current events to achieve stakeholder buy-in
In light of the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London and the continued global growth of Greta Thunberg’s #SchoolStrike4Climate movement, our speakers concurred that sustainability professionals should now be able to frame sustainability leadership as a key driver of retaining public trust.
They agreed that boardrooms and consumers alike are now more likely to be aware of climate challenges than they were several years ago, paving the way for business models in which sustainability and profitability are directly aligned.
“From a business perspective, now is our moment,” WSP’s Symons said. “Sustainability ambitions and actions are becoming a licence to operate and an innovation opportunity to grow the top line of businesses.”
His claim echoes the findings of a recent survey of 2,000 UK adults by Barclays, which found that 57% are now actively selecting low-carbon products and services and that 70% would consider their employer’s green credentials before accepting a job offer.
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) April 26, 2019
6) Understand the power of engagement, inside and out
During their presentations, each of the speakers evidenced ways in which they had led by example to help stakeholders outside of their operations to make green changes – which often had a higher positive benefit than their own internal programmes.
WSP, for example, is helping its clients to adopt new energy, water and waste reduction initiatives, while Tideway’s demand for low-carbon construction materials and river freight has spurred suppliers to either make more of their existing green products, or to innovate and develop even more efficient alternatives.
But, as EDF Energy’s De Rul highlighted, internal engagement is also a key facet of sustainability leadership.
“We believe it is really important to communicate to communicate small successes because this helps make sure everyone in the company is on-board with your ambition and willing to support it,” he added. “Solutions are often technical, but will also always rely on the behaviour of people.”
7) Don’t rely on innovation for ‘silver bullets’ or future-proofing
In our discussions with sustainability and energy leaders across the UK and beyond, edie often hears from organisations that are waiting for solutions ranging from energy storage and carbon capture, to textile recycling and biodegradable plastic alternatives, to become commercially viable in order to turn their ambitions into actions.
WSP’s Symons urged webinar listeners to get out of this mindset and to innovate their processes using what is already available before reaching for futuristic technologies, arguing that doing so can often drive more positive results and be achieved at a lower cost.
“It’s essential to have process and ownership as well as innovation, because innovation won’t solve everything,” he explained. “We challenge staff to design not only to current standards, but to those which are likely to be necessary for the low-carbon, resource-efficient urban economies of the future.”
The webinar is free to watch and available on demand.
Turning ambition into ACTION at edie Live
“Turning ambition into action” is the overarching theme of edie’s biggest annual show, edie Live, which is taking place next month (21-22 May 2019) at the NEC in Birmingham.
Under this topic, we will be bringing attendees the inspiration and solutions needed to achieve a low-carbon, resource efficient and profitable future for their organisation. Visitors will have access to discussions from expert speakers across four stages; a dedicated Plastics Hub; an electric vehicle (EV) showroom and a Future Systems Hackathon, among other interactive features.