16th May 2019
Paul Coverdale is an independent sustainability consultant and the founder of Winchester Sustainable Businesses, a community of companies and individuals that collaborate and innovate to make a positive environmental and social impact on the city and beyond. As a trained B Leader, Paul guides businesses through the certification process and is a passionate advocate for the movement. He advised Studio Republic on their journey to become Winchester’s first B Corp.
Business is uniquely placed to effect positive change on the planet and society. A company is an important node in a wide network that incorporates investors, shareholders, employees, regulators, suppliers, customers and the communities where it operates and sells its goods and services. The way it behaves and interacts with each of those other actors can have a profound influence on them, and in turn on itself. There are constant feedback loops and flows of information, energy and money. These flows are not equal or constant and can sometimes be uncontrollable.
Yet the negative impact of business is undeniable and it must radically change the way it behaves if the internationally agreed targets of the 2015 Paris Accord are to be met. Environmental issues have never been higher in the public consciousness thanks to the upsurge of recent grassroots movements like Extinction Rebellion and the youth climate strikes, and figures such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough speaking out. While politicians work out how best to address the growing clamour through policy initiatives, business is under increasing pressure to act too. Consumers are more environmentally aware and demanding than ever before and increasingly discerning about who they spend their money with. Those companies that do not anticipate this change in attitude and change themselves will be left behind, and ultimately, fail.
Acting sustainably is more than simply responding to consumer pressure, avoiding negative PR or protecting the right to make profits. Much more. It is about businesses recognising that they have an impact on the planet and society in the first instance, and then making a conscious decision to minimise that impact – if not be regenerative. Arguably, there is a moral imperative for businesses to act responsibly but there is a strong business case too. There is mounting academic and financial evidence that companies that do so outperform their competition, attract and retain talent and are perceived to be a positive (or at least less negative) actor in society. Most important of all though is that this responsible activity is creating real, tangible benefits for the planet and society, whether it is from reducing emissions or improving workers’ rights. There is still much to do but a company that behaves sustainably can undoubtedly be a force for good.
When I first learned about Studio Republic (SR) in July 2018 I was pleasantly surprised to find that sustainability was already front and centre on its website. After meeting Chris and Jack, I was very quickly persuaded that the company was serious about changing its relationship with the planet and not just tinkering around the edges. Several months later, and after a lot of hard work, it is clear that the company has begun to embed sustainable and ethical thinking across its day-to-day operations and decision making. This first Sustainability Report is the culmination of the great strides it has made and reflects the open and transparent approach that goes hand in hand with that thinking.
Investing in its employees has been a major theme for SR this year. Formalising policies, implementing processes for staff feedback, training and performance review, as well as offering support services and paid time for volunteering, have been important steps that are starting to bring benefits to individuals and the business as a whole. Achieving this during a period of such rapid growth as staff numbers have quadrupled is all the more impressive. It is clear that the company culture is one that truly values its employees beyond their business generating output.
Undertaking the B Impact Assessment – a fundamental part of the process to certify as a B Corporation – has helped SR to take a more holistic view of the business. It identified blind spots and internal processes that were otherwise neglected, reinforced the need to undertake certain activities and also confirmed that many of the steps they had already taken on the journey to be more sustainable were the right ones. As an ongoing process, the company is now in a great position to review its baseline performance and build on it in future years.
Studio Republic is at the vanguard of a post ESG movement and I look forward to watching its progress in 2019 and beyond.
Thinking and acting to become your business more sustainable can be challenging, complicated, take time, and, initially at least, there may be financial costs. It is easy to get it wrong by focusing on the wrong things at the wrong time or failing to recognise where the greatest points of leverage are. The first step to avoiding mistakes is to assess what information is known about the business – and more importantly what is unknown. There may be missing data about the amount of emissions from production or shipping, the ethics of suppliers or the retention rate of employees for example. Only when this information has been uncovered can businesses begin to work out where their greatest impacts occur.
Measuring impact is only half the story, however. To become truly sustainable, a business needs to embed sustainable thinking and acting into its culture beyond simply reducing energy use or carbon emissions. It should be asking itself what the fundamental purpose of the business is; purely to make profits for shareholders? Or something else? Sustainable thinking should be a factor in all decision making; choosing who is employed, which suppliers to use, and even which customers to sell to. Culture change is challenging too, and this side of the equation may be more difficult to achieve than recording tangible variables. It requires leadership in tandem with an inclusive approach. No single person has a monopoly on good ideas, and in larger companies there will be many different valid perspectives about what being sustainable might mean. Undertaking a sustainable approach in everything a company does, and then communicating it to stakeholders – being transparent about the hurdles along the way – will allow the business to exert a positive influence on its wider network, which is when truly transformative change starts to happen.
To begin with though, all that is needed is to start a conversation to metaphorically plant a seed of change.