Earth Overshoot: Seven top tips for making your business 'one-planet compatible'

Held to mark Earth Overshoot Day 2019 (29 July), edie's most recent webinar saw experts from Tesco, AB Sugar, Global Footprint Network and Centrica Business Solutions discuss how businesses can operate within planetary boundaries. Here, edie rounds up the key takeaways.

Humanity currently uses 1.75 Earths' worth of resources annually - which could rise to two Earths' worth by 2030 if businesses, governments and individuals don't make radical circular economy shifts 

Humanity currently uses 1.75 Earths' worth of resources annually - which could rise to two Earths' worth by 2030 if businesses, governments and individuals don't make radical circular economy shifts 

This week, humanity reached the point at which it has used up its annual allowance of natural resources for the year – Earth Overshoot Day. The Earth has been in overshoot since the early 1970s, but this is the earliest that the day has ever fallen in the calendar year, sparking calls for businesses and citizens to re-examine approaches to consumption and consumerism.

In fact, we are currently consuming the resources of 1.7 Earths in a year, over-exploiting soil, fish stocks, forests and more, according to Global Footprint Network (GFN), which organises the event.

In a bid to help businesses re-think their models of consumption and make their operations “one-planet compatible”, edie hosted an hour-long webinar proving that there is a counter-narrative of businesses transitioning away from linear, degenerative business models towards circular economy-based strategies based on regenerative, closed-loop supply chains.

---WATCH THE WEBINAR ON DEMAND HERE---

Held in association with Centrica Business Solutions and now available on demand, the interactive webinar saw GFN’s director of special projects Laetitia Mailhes, AB Sugar’s head of advocacy Katharine Teague and Tesco’s head of food sustainability, sourcing and waste policy Mark Little discuss how organisations of all sizes and sectors can make circularity a reality and help push back the Earth Overshoot date. Here, edie rounds up seven of their key pieces of advice.

1) Ask yourself the big questions (and don’t shy away from the answers)

GFN’s Mailhes started the session off with a statement that, for boards which are not yet convinced of the moral, environmental and business imperatives for resource efficiency, will be seen as a hard truth.

She said: “Over the next five months, we’re going to be growing the ecological deficit. Humanity is going to live off credit by chipping at our natural capital, essentially taking resources from future generations.”

Mailhes went on to urge all listeners to ask whether their business “supports the long-term success of humanity” – rhetoric comparable to that used by SchoolStrike4Climate leader Greta Thunberg – but to approach that question from a practical angle rather than a moral, noble or rhetorical one.

“We can all agree that depleting our life-support system will only lead to a very undesirable outcome,” Mailhes added.  “This is about one thing only: what works.”

2) Realise that one-planet compatibility is a mindset, not a standalone project

When asked for her one piece of advice on transforming business in line with planetary boundaries, Mailhes argued that ongoing motivation to change, maintained by a change in mindset, is crucial.

While praising companies for successfully completing closed-loop projects, she emphasised the need for these to be scaled up and for circular economy principles to be embedded in day-to-day practice.

“From conversation’s we’ve had, we know that mindset is the biggest hurdle,” Mailhes said. “This is not about GHG emissions or improving sustainability on the margins. It’s about reviewing and revising whole business models. It’s a massively ambitious endeavour.”

3) Take system-wide responsibility 

When looking at your organisation’s waste footprint, Tesco’s Little explained, you may find that the majority of key waste streams by volume or weight are being created at a supply chain or consumer level, rather than within your direct operations. This is certainly the case for food waste in the UK, with 7.1 million tonnes of the UK’s total annual 10.2-million-tonne output being generated at household level, compared to just 26,000 tonnes at retail level.

But, instead of using this challenge as an excuse to pass responsibility for the waste to its customers, manufacturers and farmers, Tesco is instead seeking opportunities to involve all stakeholders with circular economy principles.

“If you factor in all parts of the food system, including hospitality, less than 2% of all known food waste (in the UK) takes place in retail operations, including Tesco,” Little explained. “But this isn’t Tesco saying the problem is elsewhere – it’s not us passing the buck. We’re very clear that retail practices can drive waste in the supply chain and in customer homes, and that we have a shared responsibility to reduce food waste from farm to fork.

4) Better measurement means better management

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is a term which gets used a lot within the sustainability profession – but according to Tesco’s Little, that’s for a good reason.

Tesco was the first UK supermarket to publicly publish its food waste data, beginning annual reporting on these figures in 2013. This transparency has led to sizeable year-on-year waste reduction achievements for the retailer – and led Tesco’s international and wholesale arms to follow suit - but was only possible after an in-depth, three-year measurement exercise and independent assurance.

“Transparency is a key principle,” Little said. “Based on the insights from measurements, companies and governments can innovate and scale up the adoption of policies and practices that reduce loss and waste."

5) Disrupt your energy approach

According to GFN, carbon emissions represented 60% of humanity’s ecological footprint over the past 12 months. The energy sector is undeniably a key driver of those emissions, with heating and cooling remaining hard-to-abate across the world and global demand for oil and coal predicted to plateau or even increase through 2030. Both AB Sugar’s Teague and Centrica Business Solutions’ senior customer insight manager Maxine Cook recommended that businesses striving for one-planet compatibility should explore going beyond incremental changes to their energy management practices, in favour of more innovative “disruption”.

Teague emphasised the fact that the past decade has seen AB Sugar begin generating power for its own operations through anaerobic digestion, switch to mainly (86%) renewable energy across its operations in Africa and begin re-capturing waste energy from processes at scale.

“It’s really important for us to start thinking about how we can re-imagine or disrupt energy – not only energy coming in, but how we can use energy differently in our processes,” Teague said. “I think that’s one of the places that we have, over the last ten years especially, invested hugely.”  

Centrica Business Solutions’ Cook went on to emphasise the key findings of her business’s recent Distributed Energy Future Trends report, which found that businesses are increasingly adopting more flexible and digital approaches to energy in a bid to get ahead of the curve on green policy and changing consumer expectations.

6) Keep asking questions, even after hitting targets

While the circular economy may still seem like a concept, rather than a reality, for many businesses, Teague emphasised that this is not likely to be the case in the near future, as resource scarcity begins to affect the bottom line of businesses across the board.

She argued that successful businesses of the future won’t be leaders in their sectors unless they are able to “do more with less” across their entire value chains, meaning that continual interrogation of processes to weed out inefficiencies will become ever more of a competitive advantage.

“When we are putting together plans around waste, we are always asking if we could do something differently, whether there is an opportunity to make it into a resource and where we can go next with it,” Teague said, citing AB Sugar’s work at turning waste into products such as topsoil, animal feed and pharmaceuticals.

“Going forward, many of us, as businesses, are going to be looking for new ways of using waste. We’re going to be thinking about how products evolve and what they look like for the future. The sky’s the limit with this, as technology is coming online very quickly."

7) Collaboration is key

Throughout the webinar, the theme of collaboration kept cropping up, with partnerships playing a key role in both Tesco and AB Sugar’s resource efficiency drives.

For Tesco redistributing surplus food to charities, community groups, employees and firms which process it into animal feed through strong relationships has played a key role in circularity. In 2018-19, it redistributed 63% more food through these channels than the year prior, after strengthening its partnership with FareShare and letting its store teams operate “Colleague Shops”, which offer staff the chance to purchase food on its use-by or best-before date at a discounted price of 1p per item.

AB Sugar, meanwhile, has recently completed an irrigation “challenge”, whereby it asked external experts, from innovative start-ups and individuals to other large companies, for their ideas on how the process could be made more resource-efficient.

“I think there is a piece now about taking [your challenge out] and asking other people to help solve these problems,” Teague concluded. “We’ve had great progress to get to the point we’re at now with the circular economy, product evolution and thinking about what’s coming next – but I think, to reach the ambitious targets that have been set for us in the SDGs, we’re going to have to work very differently in our supply chains and work with lots of different people.”

The webinar is free to watch and available on demand.

Sarah George



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