Small steps to meeting the sustainability challenge

Knowledge: Jonathan Walker, North East England Chamber of Commerce assistant director – policy, provides plenty of food for thought as he considers the impact that individuals and businesses can have on the national drive to improve our environmental performance, and the realities and challenges of implementing a ‘greener’ approach

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Jonathan Walker

This morning I filled my re-usable coffee cup, before picking up my homemade lunch and getting into a fossil-fuel powered car to drive into Newcastle.

Throughout the day I made a conscious effort to go paperless, but picked up a plastic-wrapped snack in the afternoon.

I also left my bag for life in the car.

This might be considered hypocrisy, inconsistency or simply a decent effort in the face of a world designed to promote convenience over sustainability.

But the fact that I noticed these things when even just a few years ago I wouldn’t have given them a second thought, shows just how much the environmental and climate challenges facing society have permeated into everyday life.

The same inconsistencies may well apply in your own business. You’ve got lights that switch off when you leave the room, but computers get left on overnight. You’ve got a cycle to work scheme but staff that are out on the road all day. Or a sign encouraging people to go paperless sitting uncomfortably alongside the plastic cups in the water cooler.

Despite all of this, we shouldn’t overlook or disregard the cumulative impact that even seemingly small changes can have. The pressure on businesses to place greater emphasis on their

environmental impact has never been greater. Not only is there a moral compunction to do so, but increasingly suppliers, customers and prospective employees will assess a business based on their sustainability credentials.

For some businesses, the areas in which they could make the biggest carbon reductions or reduce their waste may be obvious, even if the solutions are not.

But for others, a transformative change can only come about through the right combination of company policy, colleague behaviour and business strategy.

You might want to do this, but have no idea where to start. Elsewhere in this issue you’ll find some great examples of businesses in our region who are leading the way in terms of innovation in this field, which will hopefully provide ample inspiration.

But if you want to take your colleagues, employees and customers with you, then an intelligent approach to behaviour change is needed alongside these innovations.

You may have heard about the Government’s ‘Nudge Unit’, or Behavioural Insights Team, set up during David Cameron’s tenure as Prime Minister and credited with innovative thinking on policy initiatives, perhaps most notably increasing payment of income tax by reminding people that most of their neighbours had already paid.

Changing people’s behaviour in this way might feel underhand or manipulative, but in this context it is about creating an environment that motivates people towards sustainable, and away from unsustainable, activities.

There isn’t the space here for me to talk about every small change a business can make to reduce their environmental impact. Nor do I think the best approach to this issue is to lecture or patronise.

However the purpose of these articles is to stimulate and challenge your thinking on business topics, so hopefully what follows will at least do that.

Let’s look at one of today’s most prominent environmental issues.

Single use materials are an understandably hot topic at the moment. It is estimated that around 2.5bn single use drinks cups are used in the UK every year, almost 38 per person.

In an era of increased environmental awareness, not to mention the ‘Blue Planet’ effect, it genuinely astounds me to see single use cups still so prevalent in the various companies and business centres I visit.

The problem is that they have become the default option in society. While policy levers may be used to combat this, the lesson that can be learned from ‘nudge’ theory is to change or eliminate the default option.

Remove them from the workplace, go back to cups and glasses, encourage staff to bring in their own reusable options
or even supply them yourself. Evidence shows that individuals change their behaviour quickly if the options available to them also change.

Or think about pairing your sustainability objectives with something that might appeal to people’s personal motivations.

An example of this in practice exists in the exciting world of loft insulation. For years, governments have spent large sums of money encouraging homeowners to improve the energy efficiency of their houses, with very mixed results.

However, what prevented people from getting their lofts insulated often wasn’t a lack of interest, but the sheer hassle of removing all the junk they’d stored up there in order to get it done.

A successful scheme with a major DIY retailer showed a remarkable uptake in subsidised loft clearances on the condition that they subsequently installed insulation.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this is that the pilot scheme actually ended up costing people more than the cost of insulation alone under previous Government initiatives.

You might not have a loft to clear out, but think about what this could look like in your business.

If you’ve got a lot of car users, what about a vehicle leasing scheme that incentivises uptake of electric or hybrid cars? Staff get the opportunity to drive brand new car, while you reduce your overall carbon footprint.

Similarly a more flexible or agile working policy may allow people to adopt working patterns that better suit their personal circumstances while potentially reducing their travel and resource demands in the office.

Of course, these solutions aren’t directly applicable to every business; size or sector may preclude you from making the changes you’d like to. Agile working is far easier to implement in a professional services office than it is in a factory, for example.

But that doesn’t mean a new way of thinking isn’t worth trying. As society becomes more aware and enthused by climate and environmental issues, businesses that don’t take these things seriously will run the risk of being left behind.

So learn the lessons and take inspiration from the stories you’ll see throughout this issue, but don’t forget to sweat the small stuff. Don’t forget your bag for life either.