Sustainability still seen as an optional extra, says MD

EXCLUSIVE: Sustainability is still seen as something that's "nice to have rather than essential" for big businesses - an assumption which is stifling the UK's transition to a green economy.

That’s the view of Rich Clothier, the managing director of  Wyke Farms. As Britain’s largest family-owned cheese company, Wyke Farms has recently implemented the 100 % Green initiative; reducing water use by up to 850,000 litres a day and fuelling the business entirely from onsite renewable energy.

Speaking exclusively to edie, Clothier said the view of sustainability as an ‘optional extra’ is still prevalent among financial decision-makers at big companies, and is holding back many other green programmes.

“I talk to people who work in sustainable roles in big PLCs, and their biggest problem is getting the stakeholders to commit the funds because there are always other priorities,” said Clothier. “I think that’s one of the biggest challenges – leveraging the finance.”

For Clothier, the decision to future-proof the family cheese business via the 100% Green initiative was easy, sparked by dwindling local water supplies, increasingly extreme weather events, and a recognition that, ultimately, sustainability sells.

“60% of consumers are looking for ‘green’ products,” he added. “It’s a no-brainer”.

Speculate to accumulate

Since 2010, Clothier and his management team have sited solar panels on farm building roofs, installed a water recovery plant which saves around 45% of waste a year, and an AD plant which converts around 75.000 tonnes of cheese-related waste into biogas every year.

“They’re saving the business a huge amount of money,” says Clothier. “We’ve invested a lot of money, but we’re saving nearly two million pounds a year, which is critical to the business.

“We’re hoping to recoup that initial investment in five or 10 years’ time, but of course you never truly get that money back, because Green 100% is a journey and as technology moves on, we are going to invest in getting even greener – it’s an ongoing investment in a circular economy.”

Low-hanging fruit

That initial outlay is what puts a lot of business off, says Clothier. “It’s expensive, especially for a private company like us,” he said. “Things like AD are very front-loaded on the investment front, and when we started out some of the big banks and the green banks didn’t have the level of expertise to understand the risks, and when they’re not on board that’s a problem.

His advice to businesses that haven’t yet embarked on a sustainability plan is to start small but move fast. “Take the low-hanging fruit,” said Clothier. “Don’t think it has to be a big upfront investment, quite often it can be scalable. With solar, start with 30kw, 50kw or even a megawatt. It can be incremental – do it and when you got some profit back, extend the programme.

“It’s the same with organic waste. You don’t need to set up an AD plant. Just look at the waste and see if to can be used and maybe collaborate with other local businesses to split the costs.”

Cut costs not corners

The third-generation family business was also able to implement its ambitious intitiative by doing the research in-house, largely avoiding expensive consultancy fees.

“It’s relatively simple to do,” Clothier added. “We’ve used energy surveys and professionals in certain technical areas but in terms of building the business strategy, it’s something the management team have done with our own analysis of the natural assets of the area.”

While the so-called ‘greenest Government ever‘ has been criticised for its single-minded support for fracking, Clothier said renewables subsidies have been “absolutely critical” to the Green 100% initiative. “The Feed-in Tariff for renewable electricity and the Renewable Heat Incentive for injection of green gas into grid have both been very important because it helps return the capital costs of investment,” he explained.

But, against an increasingly volatile backdrop, Clothier advises any would-be sustainability converts to move quickly. “The technology is moving so fast, now we [Wyke Farms] are looking at the next generation like energy storage, and the danger for people who aren’t on board now, is that those guys will be at phase one when others are at two and three.”

What’s next?

At Clothier’s farm, these ‘phase three’ innovations take the form of energy storage and heat recovery on the solar side of things, and a new project involving the AD plant. The management team have recently been evaluating the feasibility of running their delivery fleet on compressed biomethane from the anaerobic digester.

“We might be a year or two away, but we’re evaluating that – the subsidies and the tax breaks – and talking to lorry manufactures about lorries that can run on gas, and that’s the next phase of the project here.

“The technology is moving so quickly that we have to keep challenging ourselves to keep up.”

Rich Clothier at Sustainability Live 2015

Rich Clothier will be a keynote speaker at the brand new Sustainability Live Conference in April, where he will be talking in a session titled ‘Making it happen: What Resilience Looks Like’.

Find out more about Sustainability Live and register to attend the new conference for free here.

Brad Allen

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie