Nikwax: Using green chemistry to stand out from the crowd

Winning the Queen's Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development is no easy task. But for Nikwax, it was deserved recognition. From harvesting rainwater to adopting a stringent restricted chemicals policy, the waterproofing and aftercare manufacturer is leading the way as a truly 'sustainable' business.

The company, founded in Wadhurst in 1977, has perhaps become best-known for its chemicals policy that, in contrast to industry norm, prohibits the use of flammable and aromatic solvents – chemicals widely used by other companies producing water repellent treatments. It is this policy that earned the firm the Queen’s Award earlier this year. 

With Nikwax now exporting to over 50 countries and 70% of its near-£10m turnover coming from overseas sales, what impact does this green chemistry policy have on the bottom-line? And what other sustainable initiatives have helped Nikwax continue to stand out from the crowd? Edie recently spoke with the company’s head of environmental management, Jon Nash, to find out more about the Nikwax’s approach to sustainability.

Congratulations on winning the Queen’s Award. Are you proud to be rewarded for your sustainable development?

We’re extremely pleased and delighted. It’s something our founder and managing director Nick Brown has been working towards for a long time – he had it in his mind since he started the company.

We received ISO14001 accreditation about seven years ago and we’ve been evolving our sustainable systems since then, always ensuring product quality isn’t affected. We just want to have the minimal impact on the environment with what we’re doing. But it’s been a long process and it encompasses a lot of different areas of the business across the waste, energy and water segments.

The company’s ‘green chemistry’ has been cited as the main reason for picking up the Award – can you explain exactly what that is?

A lot of our competitors use fluorocarbon technology. But there are a lot of concerns about the use of fluorocarbons in products because of their potential effects on human and environmental health.

Since Nick founded the company 37 years ago, Nikwax has never used PFCs. We offer an alternative way of waterproofing. Flurocarbons are not illegal, but there’s a big push to eradicate fluorocarbons from certain products across Europe.

We have a restricted substances list which goes beyond the international legislation. We perceive there to be potential risks and we therefore won’t use them.

Nikwax has regularly campaigned against the use of PFCs – why is the company so passionate about this issue, and about sustainability in general?

It all stems from the Nick. It’s something he cares about deeply and it’s in his character – he cares about the environment, staff and customers.
Of course, it’s a balancing act because you’ve got to make money. Running a business that is successful in a way that has a limited impact on the global environment can be difficult. Less ethical can be cheaper and we spend money on projects we don’t have to do, but we want to share our knowledge and give something back.

Over time, I think this approach has actually helped us significantly. There’s a growing interest in the UK about the environment and sustainable business. More people want to buy from an ‘ethical’ company. I’d like to think people will look at us and think we’re a good business to buy from.

What other sustainability initiatives have you been running in terms of reducing Nikwax’s energy, waste and water consumption?

We are very open about all of this and publish our targets on our website. We benchmark all of those targets based on the quantity we have reduced. But we can’t reduce things overall. A lot of our products are made using water – if we use less water, we make less products so we lose business.

In terms of energy, we recently invested in a solar generation system that virtually provides the entire electrical usage of the main office unit, and we are carbon balanced though the World Land Trust. We’ve also done all of the basic things – we’ve insulated and double-glazed. And we’ve been educating staff about how they can impact the business – we send round a monthly sustainability report that covers the energy usage of all of our buildings.

Our waste-reduction initiative has already seen the company’s proportion of waste recycled go from 16% in 2006 to 71% in 2013. We’ve gradually increased the number of recycling lines we have – we now have 10 or 11 recycling lines. We have an 80% target for 2014 and I’m confident we’ll hit that. We are aiming to become waste and landfill-free in five years.

And for water, we’ve got a rainwater harvesting system at our manufacturing site which was put in about three years ago. It’s not a huge system as yet – it’s collected around 30,000 litres of water, but we’re looking to develop that a lot more in the next financial year.

A lot of this is about awareness and informing staff. If they can’t recycle certain things at home we ask them to bring it in and we’ll happily dispose of it in the right way. We also have a bike-to-work scheme which works quite nicely, and we planted some fruit trees on-site so staff members can have fruit from the tree in the summer.

But we’re very honest in our reporting on all of this – if we haven’t hit our target we’ll tell people.

What has Nikwax been doing in terms of supply chain management?

We send out a reasonably in-depth survey to everybody on our supply chain and any firms that we’re looking to buy from. The survey asks them various things about their business – what systems they have in place, whether they are accredited to certain standards and if they have a restricted chemicals list in place.

We then score each supplier, based on their answers. We have scoring criteria – if a company has ISO14001 they may get 10 points for that, but if they have a prosecution against something, they’ll be minus a certain number of points.

Based on the scores, we produce a list for the supply teams. We have a ‘green’ list of suppliers we are happy to use; a ‘yellow’ list for the OK businesses; and a ‘red’ list of suppliers that we would look to change as soon as we can.

It’s a really big task because of the amount of people we buy from – it goes from big chemical suppliers to every magazine we’ve ever advertised in and even people we buy stationary from. It’ can be hard work getting people to respond but if they don’t respond they get ranked appropriately.

What’s been the biggest challenge for becoming a sustainable business?

There’s no one thing I would say has been really difficult to change. But as everyone knows, sustainability is not just about the environment, there’s also a social aspect and how you look after your staff and actually making money.

So I suppose a challenge for us has been bringing all of that together so that it all works at the same time. It’s that balance of having a business that has a minimal impact on the environment, is making a good level of profit, maintains high staff morale and contributes to the local community.

Another challenge has been the fluorocarbon issue. Getting people to understand why we don’t use PFCs and trying to put the message out there that we don’t think other businesses should use them has been difficult. But the message is certainly starting to get out there which is great.

And what’s been Nikwax’s greatest sustainability achievement?

The chemicals policy has been a standout achievement for us. Having that belief and sticking with it all these years has been really gratifying. A lot of work has gone into the solar panels and rainwater harvesting initiatives too, but the chemical side of things is beginning to have a real impact at a wider level.

Are there any sustainability initiatives that Nikwax has in the pipeline?
On the community side of things, we’ve been working a lot with schools, helping to give lessons during science week. We also recently donated £3,000 to enable Ticehurst and Flimwell Primary School to build an outdoor science classroom.

We’ve just launched the small grants programme, which gives six £500 grants to charities or individuals that have an initiative they need funding for. Three initiatives have been approved for funding so far this year .

What are your key pieces of advice for other businesses that want to do more in the area of sustainability?

The first thing you need to do if you want to be sustainable is to actually measure what you’re doing. You can’t change anything if you don’t know what your existing output is.

Once you have the data, begin by looking at the quick fixes – changing light fittings or putting recycling bins in place. These things are very cheap and quick to do but they can actually make a big difference.

I’d also encourage businesses to go down the ISO14001 route because that’s a really nice way of managing environmental impact. It provides a clear methodology of how to be more sustainable and that process can be incorporated into any business.

Luke Nicholls

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