It’s amazing how sustainable the word sustainable has become. It seems all-pervasive and is mentioned in despatches covering every aspect of our lives: the food we eat; how we travel; the clothes we buy; and business investments we take. Quite right too.
To some of us that have been banging the drum for many years, it is hard not to roll the eyes in a meeting when young Ginny/Johnny-come-lately uses ‘the s word’ in an unconscious bid to demonstrate their affinity with the zeitgeist theme. A form of ‘virtue signalling’ – the on-trend term that is often a simple criticism levelled at people or businesses wanting to appear to take the moral high ground by expressing their support in doing the right thing or displeasure at those who don’t.
But virtue signalling aside, from a business perspective there are clear and strong reasons for acting now.
The global backdrop
In the UK – and likely in many other European countries – there is huge (and justifiable) pressure to ensure that your business is doing the right thing, for the right reasons. The US, on the other hand, has historically focussed less on the pressing issue of climate change, and more on the longer-term sustainability measures that are embraced by Environmental, Society & Governance (ESG) strategies to ensure they are more appealing to investors. It may be the case that this will change under President Biden.
Of course, we come at this from different founding principles etched within our historical psyche. The EU (now not including UK) approach is about the greater good of collective societal benefit, and despite the UK model being traditionally more aligned with our American cousins, the laws that we base our environmental stewardship on were set at EU level, adopted and subsequently enhanced through the Climate Change Act to be the first country to enshrine a net zero target into law. The US is more individualistic – a land of infinite opportunities but only if you are prepared and able to work hard to get it.
As such, it is with great pleasure that many businesses – especially through public procurement contracts – are forcing companies to take action. Firstly on emissions disclosure, and secondly on having verifiable actions, which are reducing our footprint to comply with legislation.
Take Brewdog as an example. The owners of the business are passionate about creating something that is truly sustainable and thus came up with the concept of removing twice the carbon they emit. Buying over 9,000 acres of forest is a real statement, and whilst nature-based solutions can’t be the only answer, it certainly demonstrates a commitment (and hasn’t done their brand any harm either).
The case for action
Put simply, commercially it makes sense. Whilst there is undoubtedly a cost, some of this can be mitigated by taking a longer-term view with return on investment (ROI) – consider it an investment that adds value to your brand. It ensures that you have full access to new business opportunities and future proofs you against the inevitability of carbon costs built into the products and services you want to sell into the market. The only question is about how soon this snowball will hit you and how hard.
The ethical case is equally strong in my opinion. Whether you believe that we exist on this planet by the grace of G-d or a fluke of evolution, the fact remains that we only have this one planet and it’s currently a burning platform. We all have interest in wanting a better future for our family and friends, and at a macro level it doesn’t really matter whether the actions you take are large or small. All the best journeys start with small steps.
The UK is somewhat of a net zero world leader, having been the first country to announce that it will be net zero by 2050. Of course, aspirations and results do not match up, and so the challenge now is one of finding the right solutions to help us get there.
Finding the right starting point for your business
Thankfully for business owners, the range of offsetting options on offer has expanded at a startling rate in recent years, with new schemes emerging and old schemes closing thanks to high levels of interest. Be it purchasing a singular wind turbine, or investing into carbon capture technologies, the menu of options is seemingly endless.
However, as time has passed the distinction between those schemes that deliver on what they promise, and those that are simply ‘virtue signalling’ has become increasingly clear. The term “offsetting” has been in our dictionaries for almost half a century, but we are still very much in the process of fine-tuning what this means in practice to ensure proper protocol is followed.
Fortunately, we’re now starting to see recognised verification standards come to the fore. Whilst serving as compelling evidence of your business’ green credentials, companies can receive additional commercial benefit and strengthen their hand in the new business competition by going beyond this.
Net-zero through the procurement lens
The fact that public sector contracts should have an increasing element of spend that trickles down to SMEs is now well understood. This is particularly true for government departments, where the commonly used procurement frameworks such as Scape and Crown Commercial Services are now ‘encouraging’ the development and reporting activity and spend within the SME supply chain.
What’s more, thanks to what Green House Gas Protocol defines as Scope 3 emissions – those that are produced along the supply chain, encompassing goods and services purchased – self declared carbon net zero businesses can offer an increased benefit to their clients.
Of course, it’s equally imperative that you revise internal Scope 3 emissions too. To this effect, the Cabinet Office recently published guidance on how best to conduct and demonstrate this for all Departmental procurement contracts with a minimum annual spend of £5m. In short, the guidance urges suppliers to complete a Carbon Reduction Plan (CRP) template report, which should be easily accessible and visible on their website.
As previously outlined, investment options into offsetting schemes are plentiful, and businesses can now take their pick between international opportunities. However, in addition to the environmental and social merit brought through any properly accredited and verified scheme, the social value of regionally-based solutions may give UK options the upper hand.
Though it is difficult to quantify, investing into a tangible scheme in the same region your business operates in can offer much-needed reinvestment into local communities – particularly as local towns continue to grapple with the economic repercussions of Covid-19. What’s more, planning objections are typically far less frequent when locals have a share in its profits and locally-derived benefits.
Where local opportunities are scarce, businesses can also become the driving force behind the creation of schemes via ‘carbon insetting’. In other words, this means searching within their own client and supply chain to develop a compliant scheme that can be recognised by the verification standards.
Keeping one step ahead of the competition
The above suggestions are not intended to be one-stop solutions – rather, a blended approach comprised of several elements – from nature-based offsetting solutions to reviewing Scope 3 emissions – is the recommended route to becoming a truly sustainable business.
It is worth remembering too that those businesses that do proper due diligence on contracted work schemes will ultimately be better placed to capitalise on the commercial rewards, as they will not just satisfy, but exceed client expectations on sustainability.
Couple this, then, with investment into a regional carbon offsetting scheme and the environmental and economic benefit that generates, and your sales proposition – with the added benefit of doing the right thing – will likely be all the more compelling.
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