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Last month, DesignSpark hosted a fascinating round-table discussion on the subject of sustainability. You can still watch the full interview here, but the DesignSpark team has asked me to give my reaction to the discussion.

Sustainability - the world

The panel for the video comprised delegates from some of the best-known and most influential companies in our industry. They included manufacturers of electronic and electromechanical components, along with leading names in the world of distribution. I have broken my reaction into two articles. In the first, I will address some of the challenges that businesses face, and how the delegates and their companies are addressing them.

My overwhelming impression is that we need to find a new way to talk about sustainability. Each of the delegates had an interesting – and unique – understanding of what sustainability means. Despite the wide spread of opinions, none of them are wrong. In contrast, the very fact that there are many understandings of the phrase just reinforces that this is a huge topic and clear communication is vital.

Common Ground

There is some common ground. All the delegates agreed that the first step toward sustainability is the efficient running of a business which, at its simplest level, is about good habits. We can all make efforts to avoid waste and use energy effectively. This is an endeavour in which technology can play an important part. Efficient motors, low-energy lighting and other energy-saving devices are easy to implement, and even more sophisticated systems are now easily available.

These are activities in which it is possible to state quantifiable goals, both in terms of absolute energy consumption and the larger impact on the environment. Many of the delegates talked about their goals to become carbon neutral by a specific date in the future. However, as a non-expert in the global ecosystem, I would be interested to know how this is to be achieved.

There was mention of the subject of carbon offsetting. The concept is simple in theory: it is possible to reduce a company’s overall carbon footprint by reducing its overall net contribution to carbon emissions. This is to be achieved using one of a range of methods, from the planting of trees that capture atmospheric carbon as they grow, to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by more industrial means. A quick web search will reveal a number of companies that can offset your carbon footprint in this way – for a fee, of course.

The same web search will also reveal several articles that ask whether carbon offsetting really works. Not only do we need to be aware of the speed and efficiency of these methods – and whether they will generate a measurable effect quickly enough – but there are also accusations of climate colonialism. The charge levelled at affluent countries is that they might use less powerful nations as their carbon sink, whether in the form of massive reforestation or industrial carbon capture. Whatever your opinion, and it is clearly a highly charged topic, the key message is that there are knock-on effects of all our environmental actions.

This was illustrated with a specific example during the conference. We are all being encouraged to reuse and recycle wherever possible, and as consumers, I think many of us will have experienced some frustration will the over-packaging of our purchases. How many times have we received an order wrapped in an over-sized box filled with yet more packing materials? I do understand why - it is quicker for a shipping company to use a standard-sized carton than to try to reduce its size. It is also more efficient to procure fewer sizes of cartons, allowing the shipping company to purchase in bulk. However, this means that, on average, more cardboard is used for smaller orders than would seem necessary.

Knock-On Effects

One of the delegates described how their company had installed a new, state-of-the-art packaging machine. The machine uses cardboard supplied as a continuous sheet, which is cut to size and folded to create a bespoke carton based on the exact size needed for the part that is to be shipped. The savings in packaging materials are significant, simply by using the exact amount needed.

However, when the delegate visited one of their customers, the knock-on effects became clear. For many years, the customer had been able to reduce the packaging costs of their own products by reusing the boxes that they had received. The supplier, by employing a new process that reduces their own cardboard needs, has resulted in increased costs – and environmental impact – for their customer.

This also serves to illustrate how the quest for sustainability affects small businesses. In each case, the companies they represented are large enough to appoint key personnel to address the sustainability problem. Small businesses cannot afford the same luxury. How a small business is classified varies around the world, depending on its exact number of employees. Regardless of their exact size, more than 90% of companies are small and medium enterprises (SMEs). I have spent most of my career working with companies like this.

When compared to the global efforts of large corporations, you might assume that small companies are powerless to affect environmental change. Their small size means that their environmental impact is smaller, and so it is easy to assume that the impact of any changes they might implement might also be smaller. However, I think that we should not underestimate the influence that small businesses can exert over large suppliers.

The delegates agreed that the most successful sustainability initiatives will be led by individuals, whether customers or employees, although technology will of course play its part. In my second article, I will look at other ways in which we can approach sustainability. The delegates discussed such interesting concepts as smart materials and the future of the circular economy. At the heart of all of these initiatives, there must be a willingness to change the way in which we work in order to have the greatest impact.

Stay tuned for my follow-up article and in the meantime, take a look at some of the other ways in which we at DesignSpark are embracing sustainability.

Connector Geek is Dave in real life. After three decades in the industry, Dave still likes talking about connectors almost as much as being a Dad to his two kids. He still loves Lego too. And guitars.