What we will cover
I was fortunate enough to find myself at a MarketingKind event recently listening to a talk by one of the founders of the global sustainability movement, John Elkington.
Part of the talk addressed how business tends to adopt and dilute language that was intended to galvanise action around global challenges such as biodiversity loss and climate change. For example, the term ‘sustainability’ has become so closely associated with corporate responsibility and ESG that it begins to take on a slight whiff of greenwashing every time you hear it. Similarly, the more recent trend for businesses to talk about regenerative thinking and practices is likely to lead to the term ‘regeneration’ being diluted and corrupted away from its intended meaning.
John suggested that this dilution of language by business drives the development of new language and ideas because there is a tug of war going on between the reality of the change that is required to address global problems and the commitment that businesses are actually willing to make to transformative change. As the old words are diluted, new ones must be deployed to pull us inexorably towards the transformation required to prevent the worst of the many worst case scenarios currently on offer to the world.
A long way to go
This conversation got me thinking about our ‘sustainability’ journey at Vu. What have we done so far? What have we not yet thought about? What are we shying away from because it’s difficult, commercially, intellectually or otherwise?
Before we get into the details of our journey, just to say, I’m not here to preach. I’m aware that we have a very long way to go before we’re a model for anything like regenerative business. My intentions with this article are to do a couple of things. Firstly, to lay out the steps we’ve taken in the spirit of sharing knowledge. Secondly, to highlight the areas that we’ve not considered or acted on and the massive gap between ‘what we need to do’ and ‘what we are doing’ that I believe exist for almost all of us as businesses and individuals.
So here we go. Vu has operated as a marketing agency for over 13 years and in this time we’ve worked with some great ethical and environmentally conscious businesses. Around six or seven years ago we lost a couple of clients because in their words ‘our values did not align’.
This troubled me greatly because I’d always thought of my business as being socially and environmentally conscious and responsible. It did, however, make me realise that we were doing very little to demonstrate our values to anyone (existing clients, suppliers, potential clients) and that we needed to be more pro-active around sustainability if we wanted to claim anything more than a passing interest in the issue.
As such, we took a look at our supply chain and shifted to a new hosting partner who’s servers were 100% powered by renewables. We then discovered the Green Web Foundation through which we were able to verify that our sites meet an external test for green hosting. We briefly felt proud of ourselves and talked about doing this with our clients and on social media and then we pretty much got on with the day job.
A bit about Carbon
It wasn’t until 2019 that we engaged with an excellent independent carbon consultant to calculate our carbon footprint. We were very lucky here as this person was married to one of our team and we got an exceptionally good deal that may not have been available to other small businesses of our size.
Having gone through and initial carbon footprint measurement exercise we got a bit of a bug for it and have subsequently experimented with three other alternative approaches (PlanetMark, Normative.IO, in house calculation) all of which came out with broadly similar results for the varying emissions scopes covered (Only the independent consultant covered scope 1,2 and 3).
All this measurement has given us a picture of our emissions over the last couple of years that has certainly allowed us to take more active steps to reduce carbon. We’ve given up our large, poorly insulated office space and adopted a hybrid working model. As a consequence of this we’ve dramatically decreased our emissions from travel.
We’ve considerably increased our charitable donations over the last few years, supporting local environmental charities such as Moor Trees and Devon Environment Foundation to do their incredible work of regenerating local ecosystems.
We’re now much more confident in actively seeking relationships with suppliers, collaborators and clients who are engaging with sustainability and at the beginning of 2023 introduced discounts to clients who have achieved a recognised sustainability certification.
Some Thoughts on Carbon Offsetting
This year we’ve also chosen to offset 300% of our calculated carbon emissions. We did this through an organisation called South Pole as they have an established reputation for supporting recognised carbon offsetting projects. If you’re interested you can find out more about South Pole on their website (https://www.southpole.com/about-us).
There is quite a bit of chatter about the true benefit of carbon offsetting and I can see why. This kind of activity can potentially be exploited as greenwashing and in reality if every business offset emissions in this way the fundamental problems (fossil fuel based economy, overconsumption, inequality, etc…) would not magically disappear.
There are plenty of articles that go into this in more depth than I can so if you’d like to read more then here’s a guardian article, here’s one from the economist. Many, many other views are available on this.
For me, it helps to consider carbon offsetting as a charitable contribution rather than as something that reduces our businesses impact on the world in any way. Offsetting negative impacts does not remove negative impacts.
Additional Steps and Future Plans
Outside of our day to day agency work we’ve begun to use our skills to support other businesses on their own journeys. Last October we launched the Positive Nature Network, in collaboration with Helen and Russell Bennett (The Business Network). This online business network aims to encourage businesses to connect with nature and to share knowledge on the key issues of regeneration, the circular economy, waste management, renewables, carbon reduction and inner change.
We can not claim to be experts on these issues but we can use our skills to provide a forum for knowledge exchange, networking and collaboration between people at all stages of their journey.
In the next year we’re going to be looking into the B-Corp certification process. We haven’t gone there yet because in all honesty it felt too big for us, but now it feels like a sensible step to embrace what has become a recognised standard for businesses who want to fully engage with their potential for positive social and environmental impact.
B-Corp has its detractors as this recent Times article explains. There are no perfect solutions here. We have to be able to do our own research, take the steps that seem positive and impactful and accept that not all of them will actually help. We have to be able to look each other in the eye and say ‘I don’t know if this will work but if enough people don’t try it we’ll never know’.
A Problem Shared…
There are plenty more potential avenues for us to explore. For example, we’re trying to get our heads around some potential additional steps like helping to ensure that all of our team are on renewable energy tariffs for their home electricity.
We’re also currently learning about regenerative business and living systems thinking with a view to changing our business model more dramatically. We’re in the early stages here and there is still inner work to be done to break away from the conventional business approaches that I’ve been trained and habited into.
We know that there is more that we can achieve and we’re excited about the challenge. Whether we use the word sustainability, regeneration, conscious evolution or something else entirely, it is clear that all businesses need to stretch the boundaries of the possible in order for us to thrive as humans within this incredible, fragile interconnected world.
The only way we’ll do that is by being openhearted, making mistakes, learning from each other and remembering that whatever label we choose for this vital work, we’re all working for a better world.
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