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For the first time, wind power has now replaced gas as the largest source of electricity for the UK. In our efforts towards a carbon-neutral economy, this is clearly a major milestone.
This is important and highly positive news. However, we need to remember that the quest to reverse the effects of climate change cannot be limited to single, one-off events. A few months ago, DesignSpark hosted a roundtable discussion in which major companies talked about how they were addressing the question of sustainability. In this light of this latest news, I listened to the discussion again and realised that I needed to ask myself some fundamental questions.
Do I understand how my efforts to be more sustainable affect others?
It is important to make sure that we have a complete view of sustainability. In my previous article, I discussed an example in which one company reduce their overall packaging costs by using a machine that would custom-build cartons for individual parcels. This reduced cardboard waste caused by shipping smaller products in large containers.
While this is a classic example of “reduce” from the mantra of “reuse, recycle reduce,” the supplier found that this initiative could have a negative impact. Their customers found it harder to reuse cartons that had been custom-made. Although the packaging can still be recycled, this uses more energy than simply reusing a box for a second, third, or fourth time.
It is great to see large organizations take greater responsibility for their environmental impact. Larger companies, with their greater resources, have a correspondingly larger potential to affect change. However, it is vital that all stakeholders are taken into consideration when formulating plans. This led me to another question with a wider scope.
Do I need to change my sustainability strategy for different customers?
As business leaders, we need to understand that different organizations play different roles in our quest for sustainability. The small-to-medium enterprise (SME) forms the heart of our business world and, due to their size, I believe that many SMEs are often more aware of their impact on the environment. Small companies simply cannot afford to spend significant amounts of money to create an environmental strategy. Instead, they need to find simple and effective ways to reduce their impact.
I would encourage suppliers to bear this in mind. It is far easier for a large company to create committees and formulate strategies, but they cannot congratulate themselves prematurely. Large suppliers cannot lose sight of their many different stakeholders. Is it possible that one environmental policy may not necessarily suit all customer types? If you provide customers with a choice of how to interact with you, will you find that customers will choose you, simply because they feel they are part of the process?
Am I blinded by headlines?
There has been considerable discussion over the last few years about plastic. Recent surveys have highlighted the enormous volume of plastic waste that has made its way into the ocean, entering the food chain and endangering wildlife. These reports have made us very aware of the dangers of single-use plastics.
One of the panellists, a manufacturer of plastic industrial equipment, discussed the problems they faced when taking their products to market. Following the recent headlines, they have encountered resistance from customers who feel that they should avoid the use of all plastics.
This is an instance where the power of a negative headline might overwhelm sensible engineering decisions. As the panellist was keen to point out, not all plastics are identical, and there are reasons why plastics present a sustainable solution.
Choosing the right material has a very positive environmental impact. In this specific example, the panellist discussed the use of modern engineering plastics which are designed to provide a long life. They can be used without the need for lubricants, eliminating the resulting pollution. Manufacturers are also developing smart plastics that can self-heal or self-monitor, further extending their operational life and providing important feedback about their condition.
Therefore, we cannot be blinded by overly simple, catchy headlines that tell us what is good or bad. In the case of plastics, while we must remember that single-use products must be avoided, there are informed choices to be made.
Am I challenging my own ideas enough?
Many of us are wary of change, but we need to alter our behaviour to have a positive impact. It is easy to embrace the reuse of cardboard boxes or the adoption of recycled plastics in packaging, but we need to change our attitude when it comes to reusing existing equipment. We all like new stuff, but the planet simply does not have the resources to sustain the continued manufacture of new products.
Rather than replacing old with new, a more sustainable option exists with the increased use of refurbished equipment. However, manufacturers must change their attitudes toward the ongoing life of their products. In the modern business world, we often view product returns in a negative light. After all, a product return usually means a quality control issue that needs to be addressed. Most companies use the number of customer returns as a metric for the performance of the factory.
The panel discussed the circular economy, in which manufacturers must embrace the return of old equipment. This will allow them to refurbish and resell the equipment at a far lower cost in energy and resources when compared to a brand-new unit. This will require the manufacturers to challenge their view of customer returns and the way they are measured. Is it possible that the new goal will be to receive 100% returns? At the same time, customers must be far more willing to give up the convenience of buying brand-new equipment.
If the manufacturers do not adopt this change, the next big innovation might be the rise of the refurbishing supplier. Will they rival original end manufacturers in the size of their market and their overall popularity? Will they be seen as the great white hope for SME customers, who are happy to accept refurbished equipment to keep their cost and environment environmental impact to a minimum? All these outcomes will require a significant challenge to our current ideas.
Ask Your Own Questions
Returning to the start of our story, the growth of renewable energy such as wind and solar power is having a major effect but if ever arrive at a time when energy is no longer a key concern, we must remember that we have other problems that need to be addressed. If we ever win the battle against polluting energy, it is still just one victory, and other struggles remain.
We must be to be vigilant when it comes to their behaviour. Do not assume that simply switching to renewable energy sources will solve our problems. Climate change presents a clear danger to billions of people around the world and so every impact that we can make, small or large, is worthwhile.
Make sure you ask the questions. Make sure you understand how your actions affect the overall climate. Make sure that you challenge yourself, both as individuals and as business leaders and employees, because we all have a role to play in this struggle.