Why the time is NOW for sustainable business practice

James Deacon, head of corporate responsibility at technology company Ricoh UK, offers his advice for businesses looking to become more sustainable in 2015 and beyond

Green thinking can bring huge benefits in reducing bottom lines costs and increasing employee engagement

Green thinking can bring huge benefits in reducing bottom lines costs and increasing employee engagement

Sustainability shouldn’t be an add-on, or an afterthought for today’s business leaders. There are tangible business benefits to be had from embedding sustainable practice and behaviour into company operations on a daily basis.

The United Nations has estimated that by 2050 there will be nine billion people on the planet, and if general day-to-day business continues to operate in the same way- not being environmentally friendly or not challenging how things are done- three times the current planet’s resources will be needed by 2050. This strongly suggests that businesses have a responsibility to change the way they operate, not just for themselves but to help mitigate the negative effects of climate change.

So, what steps can your business take to become more sustainable and how can this benefit your company in the long-run?

Flexible workplaces and employee engagement

It’s important to carefully define what we mean by ‘sustainability’. Many would be forgiven for thinking it’s all about ‘being green’: recycling, car-sharing on our way to work, or helping to protect local habitats. Yes, ‘sustainability’ is all of these beneficial things, yet it’s also so much more. Being sustainable or implementing a sustainability strategy also means making changes to internal company operations and streamlining how things are done. Making the simplest of changes on how a company operates can not only result in cost reductions, but can also help in attracting and retaining the best possible talent. At its heart, sustainability is all about people and collective action, so it is important the workforces’ voices are heard.

With the continuing rise of technology trends such as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), the workforce is increasingly having more say in how and where they might like to work more than ever before. The best businesses are adapting to cater for a flexible working environment, tailored to the needs and expectations of their employees. The emerging new ‘digital generation’ of young workers is increasingly expecting a flexible working culture, including remote working, and top talent is already actively seeking employers that have such cultures in place. After all, this ‘New Way of Working’ can offer the best of everything – increased productivity, reduced travel cost/impact (both to business and to commuters), enhanced work/life balance and, ultimately, increased employee engagement and advocacy. If employees are happy and passionate about the company and how it operates, they can be the best brand ambassadors out there by simply sharing their experience with friends and family etc. The power of this advocacy should not be underestimated.

Engaging and continually communicating with employees is the key to remaining competitive in today’s environment. Poor morale amongst staff or the failure of the business to try and equip staff with the right technology for mobile working, for example, can reduce productivity. Recent Ricoh UK research found that the poor use of technology is holding back UK productivity. 61% of people surveyed said that they sometimes work from home, but almost half of those who do work from home 44% said that not having the right technology hampers their productivity.

It is clear that technology is one of the greatest enablers of efficiency and productivity. Harnessing technologies such as tele or video conferencing and interactive whiteboards, for example, can drive positive change by helping employees to cut down on travel to and from meetings. Furthermore, the greater availability of technology such as tablet devices can help to reduce paper from the workflow process, saving time, space and the environment in the long run. Catering for all of this change falls under the ‘sustainability’ umbrella - investment in technology now will result in a long-term return on investment.

Be part of the circular economy

The circular economy embraces all aspects of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ waste management hierarchy.

For example, a printer can be fully factory remanufactured with minimal input of new materials, significantly reducing the ‘upstream’ environmental impact of the product’s lifecycle. Similarly, the parts and components can be refurbished and reused again, either for use as in-service repair/maintenance spare parts, or incorporated into compatible ‘new build’ products. Finally, if none of the previous reuse routes are viable, the end-of-life products and/or parts can be reprocessed back into recyclate for use instead of virgin raw materials.

For the circular economy to work best, the products need to have been designed with ‘re-lifing’ already in mind, incorporating a significant amount of ‘future proofing’ within the design. For technology products in particular this can be something of a challenge to avoid premature obsolescence, but a move toward modular design and standardised components can enable significant life-extension either through modular in-service upgrades or returning the end-of-first-life product for full remanufacture.

Ultimately, the circular economy addresses all three of the ‘people, planet, and profit’ triple bottom line aspects of sustainability:

People: create long-term sustainable employment opportunities

Profit: mitigate potential future supply chain issues around costs and security of materials supply

Planet: mitigate the current over-consumption of raw materials and consequent environmental impact

Analysis by Mckinsey has forecasted how shifting towards ‘circularity’ could contribute $1trn to the global economy by 2025 and create 100,000 new jobs in the next few years. Organisations that embrace circular business models such as remanufacturing or lifecycle management will be able to innovate quickly on an international scale. More work clearly needs to be done to encourage business leaders to seriously consider the life-cycle of raw materials, and to adopt a circular business model, especially as The European Commission has recently announced how it will unveil a circular economy strategy later this year following in the footsteps of the likes of China and Japan.


Business leaders should take notice here. Sustainability measures can bring huge benefits in reducing bottom lines costs, increasing employee engagement and talent attraction/retention, as well as streamlining efficiencies across the company. If implemented as a holistic approach, all of the above techniques can truly transform and help to combat the harmful effects of climate change.

I hope to see more businesses, large or small, champion sustainable best practice in 2015 and beyond.

James Deacon, head of corporate responsibility, Ricoh UK


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