How businesses keep their tills ringing to a sustainable tune
by Claudia Ruane
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reckons we’ve a mere 12 years to seriously pull our socks up if we want to avoid catastrophic environmental breakdown. This means individuals and businesses need to start asking themselves some pretty difficult questions and start making some seriously big changes.
Trouble is, it’s not always easy being green. It requires more thought, more time and more money. We need the sustainable option to be the cheap and easy option - otherwise things are going to get uncomfortably warm, crowded and watery round here.
So what are businesses doing to help people make the right choices? And how is technology helping?
I’ve spoken to a handful of business owners - from one-woman-bands to major retailers - to find out how they are adapting and how they are effecting change within their customer base and beyond.
The gift of giving
Steph Douglas started Don’t Buy Her Flowers in 2014. She disrupted the gift market for new parents by offering gift bundles that truly have a new mum in mind because no new parent needs yet another thing to worry about keeping alive.
“I don't think it's about having sustainable businesses versus 'other' businesses anymore - I think it should be more that anyone running a business has a duty to think about the responsibility a business brings with it, whether that's how you look after employees and customers or the environment. Basically, don't be an arse and make good choices wherever you can.
“The majority of our products are from small to medium sized British companies. It's not something we make a big song and dance about; it just makes good business and environmental sense. We used to use bubble wrap to protect breakable items, which wasn't ideal, but there didn't seem to be an alternative when we launched. Now we use Geami - it's basically brown paper that pulls out in a protective honeycomb pattern so actually looks nicer than bubble wrap. It's eco-friendly and works out slightly cheaper. [And] crucially, it works.
“The beauty of having your own business is that you have a choice about all these things. Whether that's how we look after our team or using sustainable packaging, I want to build something I'm proud of.”
The stiff drink
Victoria Christie, owner of Graveney Gin, started distilling in Tooting, South London in 2015. The gin is organic, so has a lower environmental impact, and 10 per cent of all profits go to the conservation charity Gearing Up For Gorillas.
“From the beginning I’ve been very mindful of the knock-on effects a business can have. So I’ve tried to do the best I can with the knowledge I have. If you think and act sustainably there are going to be higher costs in some areas which makes things more expensive for consumers.
“Large manufacturers are good at reusing the water required for distilling gin, but, it would require a lot of investment for me to do it. The larger you get the more you can invest in sustainable technologies. But my gin is 45 percent proof, using less water in the first place.
“I’m looking into collecting and reusing the gin bottles (customers always ask) as it would reduce my carbon footprint.
“Being a small business and walking to deliver bottles to neighbouring bars and restaurants helps too. Sometimes people are surprised to see the distiller hand delivering the bottle when they expect a delivery van.”
The food for thought
Ben Reardon is Operations Director at Abel & Cole, an organic grocery company that has been delivering for 30 years.
“Plastic is the big thing at the moment, yet 90 per cent of the packaging industry is focused on excess packaging that makes goods seem more attractive and luxurious. Changing this is like trying to turn an oil tanker. It’ll take miles to slow the tanker down, let alone turn it around. We’ll keep trying though!
“Five years ago we introduced ‘carrot bags’ - biodegradable bags made from vegetable starch. It’s compostable, but put it in the recycling and it contaminates the load. So, after an enormous amount of work, we’ve found a paper with a starch film on the inside which makes it heat sealable. It’s 100 per cent recyclable and 100 per cent biodegradable. It’ll cost us, but it’s our duty to move things forward.
“We’re also working on reducing our carbon footprint. We’ve always delivered food sustainably by only visiting an area once a week (instead of multiple times a day like others do). But we use diesel and need to change. Electric has ethical issues so we’re focusing on compressed natural gas (CNG). It dramatically reduces the CO2 and particulates and it can be made from food waste.
“By the end of 2019, 20 per cent of our fleet will run on alternative fuels. I think we have to use people power too. I see many electric bicycles in our future!
“I feel like there’s a movement in the attitude of the general public. It gives people the mandate to make positive change, to say to their employer: ‘Hey, we should be doing something about this!’”
The waste not want not
Laura Hipkiss started BYO Tooting - a packaging and waste-free shop - just a month ago, with the aim of helping people reduce their impact on the planet.
“For my grandparents' generation buying produce by weight, without packaging, was the norm. My store is stepping backwards to move forwards. However, much of the technology to recycle things we think are unrecyclable exists, it just needs to be made commercially viable.
“I have worked in large companies for the last 15 years and 'responsibility' wasn’t taken seriously. However even in the last few weeks public opinion has really shifted. People realise how serious the problems we face are. It’s becoming an easier landscape for ethical businesses although there is still much work to be done.
“A lot of what I sell is cheaper than in a supermarket as it's a local business with very few staff and removing packaging has its cost advantages. Organic can be more expensive, but we may, probably soon, have to start paying taxes to fix the problems that non-organic farming causes, so paying a bit extra for your oats or whatever doesn't seem such a big thing. I have customers saying their bins are much emptier since shopping at BYO. This lightens the load for the council so we need to think of the bigger picture.”