Katie Coyne meets Rachel Brown, CEO and founder of New Zealand's Sustainable Business Network
Sitting in the corner of the Auckland café in the laid-back, leafy suburbs of Ponsonby, Rachel Brown sits hunched over her mobile phone.
It is just one day after the 6.3 magnitude quake hit Christchurch, New Zealand, and killed (unbeknown to us at that time) around 220 people. And although the country’s largest city is less than 500 miles away from the devastation, New Zealand is a “close knit nation,” according to Brown, and her phone has not stopped ringing. “Everyone knows someone who lives in Christchurch,” she says.
As the founder and CEO of New Zealand’s not-for-profit organisation, the Sustainable Business Network (SBN), Brown knows a lot of people. The network is usually used to promote sustainable practices among businesses, but this time it was being used to check that everyone was OK.
These close ties are due in part to the smaller population (around 4.5M), which also benefits New Zealand environmentally as fewer people create less waste. The prevailing winds also help, blowing away any air pollution that the country does produce. But because New Zealand is so remote it is also in a strange sort of forward/backward mode of existence.
Its farming practices, for example, are very forward looking in terms of animal welfare. The mostly temperate climate and acres of space mean that animals can be left outside for the majority of the year instead of being kept inside cramped barns.
“New Zealand is blessed with some natural assets; we are quite remote. We have lots of land and our farming practices are good. We haven’t been forced down that road of industrialised farming,” says Brown.
Dairy farming is huge in New Zealand and last year milk-related exports were worth around £5.1B and accounted for 35% of the world trade in dairy products, according to trade association DairyNZ. Because there is demand for more exports – concentrated or sweetened milk, butter, fats and oils – there is pressure to industrialise milk production, which could jeopardise the good animal welfare practices currently used. This is in contrast with European trends, which are moving towards less industrialised and improved animal welfare practices. Brown argues that it would be a shame if New Zealand lost out on its lead.
New Zealand projects an image of being super green, but in reality that isn’t the case across the board – although Kiwis know this and are keen for reality to catch up to its image. But at the moment Brown argues it has a “real issue” with waste, energy use, and transport. Because energy has traditionally been cheap in New Zealand there has not been an impetus to conserve it and while you may see a lot of wind farms you’ll find it difficult to spot any double glazing or wall insulation.
Meanwhile, car usage per person in New Zealand is on a par with the US. “We are really behind in terms of how we get around,” says Brown. “We have got a pretty poor public transport system. The infrastructure just isn’t there because the population doesn’t justify it – although it’s probably about there now.”
Even Brown drove in to meet me as she had appointments later in the day in different parts of the city. So while she regularly catches the train into her office each day, Auckland’s train network can’t yet cope with a schedule of appointments spread across districts.
It was actually a journey of a different sort – a three year world trip – that inspired Brown to set up the SBN in 2002. Brown decided to work with businesses because she felt that they were ideally placed to make a positive contribution environmentally and that being sustainable was also in its own interests.
“Our purpose is to help businesses see the value of sustainability,” says Brown. This might be in terms of improving staff loyalty, improving costs by becoming more energy efficient or reducing waste.
Brown chose to work specifically with small and medium sized businesses, feeling that they were able to move more quickly on environmentally friendly innovations.
“We set up this organisation aiming at SMEs. In some ways we’ve made it difficult for ourselves as these businesses don’t have a lot of money,” says Brown. “But they are more interested in innovative ideas and can move more quickly on them. The bigger companies have to get their innovation from head office.”
Brown argues that working together is a way of spreading innovation. “Business is much more inspired by other businesses. If you know of a business doing novel things – that’s much more effective at sparking ideas than me telling them what to do,” she says.
While the SBN tries to be a ‘yes’ organisation, it will turn businesses down. But if Brown believes a company is unlikely to get through the selection process she will warn them so that they can decide whether to go ahead with the application process. The criteria used to approve businesses membership is “directional,” says Brown.
It has to prove that it is making strides in the right direction as well as the right noises. “Businesses do need to be making a genuine effort to improve their sustainability, although we are flexible about what that means,” she says.
Each year the SBN membership criteria for each individual business, is made stricter to keep companies moving in the direction of improved sustainability. So even if a company joins having gained a relatively low level of sustainability it will be expected to keep on improving. Each membership application has to be approved by the SBN’s board, which sits quarterly.
The SBN uses the Natural One Step Framework – a set of guiding sustainability principles based on the laws of thermodynamics and natural cycles – in its work. The framework was designed by Swedish cancer specialist, Karl-Henrik Robèrt, in the 1990s, to help individuals and organisations work towards sustainable practices.
The SBN has ethical guidelines, which are weighed up when deciding whether a company is allowed to join.
“We have some moral guidelines and we have some industries that we really struggle with,” she says. “The challenging sectors are extraction services, tobacco, alcohol and the sex industry. But we don’t have a great number of these kinds of businesses trying to join. We have only had one business we have had to say ‘no’ to and that was a tobacco company. The problem for us is that we can’t see any ethical or moral benefit for tobacco,” says Brown.
However, the SBN does have one fuel company as a member. “Fuel companies contribute negatively to climate change, but the thing is that they have something that society requires and then we work with them on improving their environmental impact,” says Brown.
The fuel company that has joined SBN is called Gull and it achieved membership because it has invested in biofuel development. Other members that might seem at odds with what SBN stands for include the New Zealand operations of Toyota and Honda – but Brown says these firms are also interested in alternative fuels.
She adds that the SBN looks at the work global companies are doing in New Zealand and that attitudes at their offices in countries overseas may be different.
Two outside attitudes driving New Zealand towards sustainability are tourism and export. “In the UK, the population has higher expectations around sustainability, whereas New Zealanders don’t get quite so stroppy about it,” says Brown.
This trend is forcing businesses to reduce waste and recycle, and conserve energy. Tourism can have a big impact because it is so important to New Zealand’s economy, contributing £8.4B each year.
Global supply chains such as the big supermarket chains like Tesco and Sainsburys – important to New Zealand businesses – are also under pressure from consumers to move towards more sustainable practices, which are then passed on to suppliers. Recognising a growing interest in sustainability the SBN launched a consumer facing website (www.greenlist.co.nz), 18 months ago to help people source green businesses and services. It also set up an awards programme to celebrate and publicise companies making green strides.
New Zealand might be remote, but global trends are forcing it to become more sustainable and its vast tracts of land and can-do attitude make it ideally placed to achieve highly on this score.