edie Live 2018: eight key things we learned

After a fascinating two days of inspiration, insight and expertise, edie looks back at some of the most crucial messages taken away from edie Live 2018.

The sustainability and energy management community descended upon the NEC Birmingham in their droves across two days on May 22-23 with sessions at full capacity throughout the show.

Hundreds of industry experts appeared on stage during the show, including the likes of E.ON’s chief executive Michael Lewis and Kingfisher’s head of sustainability Caroline Laurie.

To re-live some of the best moments from the show, the edie editorial team have rounded up some of the best quotes and most valuable nuggets of information gained from the highly-engaging and motivational event speakers from across the two days. Here are eight inspiring messages…

1) Sustainability must be built into business systems, not just campaigns on hot topics

It is always promising to see a big sustainability campaign from a large corporation, but during a packed session at the Resource Efficiency Theatre, we were reminded that being truly sustainable as a business relies more on the proactive, long-term work behind the scenes than on reactive, front-facing PR campaigns.

During the discussion, Ecover’s long-term innovation manager Tom Domen and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s head of innovation Ken Webster were asked whether the current focus on plastic waste in the UK was causing businesses to focus on improving one product rather than building sustainability into their systems.

“We live in an era of distraction where we are not encouraging young people to see what’s behind the system in a way that would enable discussions about the best systemic changes, which would enable businesses and consumers to do much better than with standalone projects,” Webster said. “Yes, this is more abstract in some ways, but it opens up a new level of debate.”

Domen echoed Webster’s sentiments but added that while stand-alone campaigns cannot solve wider systemic issues, they can “provide the start of a sustainability journey” for companies.

2) Failing to meet an ambitious target may well still be a success

“Shoot for the moon because if you miss, you will land among the stars” proved to be more than a catchy slogan for a motivational poster at this year’s show. Several big-name companies proved that failing to meet lofty goals could still count as a success, as they enable a degree of action that may not have been achieved by more lenient targets. These companies included Tesco, which recently announced that it had failed to meet its two-year target of eliminating all food waste from its UK, cutting around 66% instead.

“Businesses are not optimistic about their potential to achieve ambitious targets,” Tesco’s head of environment Kene Umeasiegbu told the audience at the Sustainability Keynote Theatre. “But you must evolve your company from doing something to doing everything possible, because doing just one thing is no longer enough.”

Umeasiegbu was joined in a panel by Capgemini’s global head of corporate sustainability James Robey, who agreed, whilst citing his firm’s own recent failure to hit its target of cutting travel emissions by 40% in six years, achieving instead a 22% reduction. Robey claimed that if his team had not set such a “bold target”, they would have gotten “nowhere near” as much of a result, adding that they would “not be afraid of setting ambitious targets” going forward because of this failure.

3) Businesses are entering an ‘age of disclosure’

While aiming for more transparency and disclosure will not reduce your business’ environmental impact, it is “essential for engaging with sustainability” as the number of big corporates which are disclosing their environmental impacts including deforestation, water use and climate change has skyrocketed.

That’s according to the CDP’s chief executive Paul Simpson, who told delegates at the first session in the Sustainability Keynote Theatre that there has been a 20-fold increase in the number of large companies in the world disclose their climate change impact since 2000.

“We think you need to collect and disclose data to better evaluate environmental risk and opportunity,” Simpson said. “This will not create a sustainable economy in itself, but it does mean that we can track progress. Once you have disclosure and awareness, the glass is more than half full.”

4) There’s no silver bullet for energy storage

As expected, energy storage provided much discussion and debate at the show. While E.ON boss Michael Lewis spoke of his optimism for an energy storage ‘revolution’ within the next decade, many speakers concurred that battery storage technology is still struggling to find routes to market and to be scaled up.

Speaking at the Energy Innovation Theatre on day two, panellists from UK Power Networks (UKPN) and Regen SW concluded that despite “very significant interest” from operators and innovators, the business case for investing in storage solutions has not yet been fully formed. Flexible and local microgrids – where storage solutions provided for substations struggling with capacity – were cited as a potential catalyst for driving a storage revolution.

However, Regen SW’s senior project manager Ray Arrell said: “I don’t think it’s a silver bullet, it don’t think (local) is the magic source of income to make all storage business cases stack up, but it is an additional source of income that operators and investors can consider.”

To find out more about energy storage, you can download our edie Explains report by clicking here.

5) Building a business case for sustainability still relies on proving the short-term financial benefits

It’s no secret that many sustainability professionals continue to struggle with achieving the boardroom buy-in needed to achieve ambitious targets, as senior executives often resist the idea of short-term capital expenditure despite the prospect of long-term carbon reductions and financial savings.

During this year’s show, we learned that successfully pitching a new sustainability agenda can be a very lengthy process even for sustainability leaders, with Tesco head of environment Kene Umeasiegbu revealing that it took his team two years to get the financial backing necessary to set a science-based target.

To overcome this issue, Umeasiegbu urged the audience to tell their CEOs that while achieving cost neutrality is possible and cost additions was “a bonus”, they should place the longevity of the business, and therefore its future potential for financial growth, above short-term spending.  

“Sometimes, it can be damaging to your case to admit that cost savings will not be immediate,” he said. “You want to evolve your business so that it can do something right for the environment at cost neutrality, so that when you save money, you are able to reuse it on sustainability measures. This will not be difficult to argue.”

6) Businesses need to be more ambitious than governments with sustainability targets

Carrot-versus-stick analogies proved to be a common theme throughout the two days, with several visitors quizzing panellists on whether businesses should align their sustainability goals with government policies or whether government policies, conversely, come about because of business initiatives.

While both are clearly possible, Surfdome’s head of sustainability Adam Hall told edie that businesses “are at the centre” of driving national and international sustainability solutions due to their ability to prove change is possible within a short timeframe.

“Businesses can change internally within a quarter, while changing consumer patterns is the long game and changing government legislation is notoriously slow,” Hall said. “If we can change as a business within a quarter and influence our customers, at the same time we can convince governments that it is actually possible to change policy within a short period, albeit in a business context.”

He boldly claimed that governments in future will not change sustainability legislation until similar targets are proved to be viable within businesses.

7) If you set a new, purely reactive sustainability target, you may well create a problem elsewhere

Amid companies rushing to set reactive packaging goals in the wake of the ‘Blue Planet’ effect, delegates were warned several times over the course of the show not to set targets to appease customers without considering the knock-on sustainability impacts they could breed.

During a session on setting smarter and more ambitious targets, William Jackson Food Group’s sustainability director Gavin Milligan warned delegates that any sustainability decision may have adverse consequences. He cited the example of supermarkets being petitioned to remove single-use plastic wrapping from cucumbers – even though the packaging extends the vegetable’s lifespan considerably and therefore helps reduce food waste.

Milligan’s sentiments were echoed by WWF-UK’s corporate stewardship director Natalie Smith, who added: “We don’t want organisations to stand up in 2025 and say ‘we have met our targets but we have really missed the point and we have been going in the wrong direction’. The solution in many cases is not as simple as it may seem.”

8) Ask not just what the future will bring to you, but what you can bring to the future

While the ever-increasing amount of sustainability strategies being set by businesses can undoubtedly serve as inspiration, there are times when getting involved with the world’s environmental issues may seem daunting or it could seem like a case of ‘too little, too late’.

In the face of big sustainability challenges produced by Industry 4.0, the importance of creating corporate leverage despite fear of failure was emphasised by The Climate Group’s corporate partnerships director Mike Piers, who told delegates to ask how their business can actively shape the future rather than passively being shaped by it.

“It is easy to be blasé when you look at these global megatrends, and when you realise how remarkable the scale of action needed to manage them is going to have to be,” Piers said. “But business can drive monumental change through collaboration.”

edie staff

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