Sustainable business was well and truly covered at the NEC Birmingham exhibition centre last week, as thousands of energy managers, sustainability professionals and resource efficiency experts sat in on practical, CDP-accredited seminar sessions and crowds gathered at the edie Leaders Theatre throughout the two days.

As epitomised by our inaugural Sustainable Business Covered podcast at the end of the week, the show offered up some truly inspiring words of wisdom from green innovators, industry experts and sustainability stalwarts alike.

Whether it was WRAP and Nimber discussing new business models on the edie Leaders stage, or the Carbon Trust and Costa Coffee analysing energy-reduction initiatives over on the Energy Efficiency theatre – the show had something for everyone across the spectrum of sustainability and energy management.

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’s 7 things we learned…

1) Sustainability is about seeing the BIGGER PICTURE

A particularly lively morning debate on the edie Leaders Theatre on the opening day of the show saw Policy Connect’s Owain Mortimer outline the potentially “detrimental” impacts of ever-changing green policy (full story here). Also speaking during that session was Aldersgate Group director David Symons, who imparted his own views on how businesses should adopt a “beyond compliance” approach to sustainability.

Symons’ six lessons for success were simple: Conveine the right team to drive your sustainability agenda; instil enthusiasm throughout that team; build up a strong business case for all initiatives; focus on deep engagement with those initatives; always have a clear plan; and always maintain a long-term mindset.

Speaking on the Sustainable Business Covered podcast just before his appearance on stage, Symons reiterated the need for edie Live delagates to take a holistic approach to the way they manage their organisation’s sustainability programes.

Symons said: “This exhibition is about sustainability, and so often sustainability gets brought back just to environmental issues and environmental issues just get brought back to carbon. Carbon and energy is a huge game for business – there are lots of opportunities to innovate and cut costs. 

But there’s also waste, security, innovation, vision – there are so many other opportunities that exist for business and it’s really important for busy environmental and sustainability managers to think wider than just energy and just carbon.” 

(Listen to the full podcast episode here).

2) Responsible business is about the customer “heartbeat”

The benefits of a circular economy-ready business model can be vast, if applied at an organisational or process level. That was the view put forward by Whitbread’s procurement manager Barry Edwards, who likened his hospitality company’s “good together, force for good” sustainability approach to a “customer heartbeat” model.

Speaking on the Resource Efficiency theatre on day one of edie Live, Edwards said: “Teams, customers and investors expect a company like Whitbread to be a responsible business and that extends to waste management.

“Having this at the heart of the business means that there is a strategic boardroom level buy-in, which makes it easier to get waste management initiatives decided upon. There is also cultural acceptance among our 48,000 team members that waste management is part of what we do.”

3) ‘Business as usual’ is all but dead

Speaking to edie after a great session on remanufacturing within the Resource Efficiency theatre, Innovate UK’s Nick Cliffe reiterated that the concept of remanufacturing has a “crucial role” to play in every large-scale heavy industry business approach.

Cliffe also explained that a disruptive mindest will be required from businesses to become more resilient against future environmental threats. “Drivers such as resource scarcity, a growing population and rice volatility means that for many firms, business as usual, if not over, is certainly under threat,” he said. “Companies really need to start to think about how they access the resource they need to deliver products and services.

“To compete globally, businesses related to raw materials have to be smarter. They have to capitalise on the technology, the academic rigour and expertise and new business models to stay competetive and keep improving productivity.”

4) Think bottom up, not top down

Businesses must adopt a bottom-up approach to embedding sustainability within the company culture – a view so eloquently put forward by Ramon Arratia, the sustainability director of carpet tile manufacturer Interface.

Closing off the edie Leaders theatre on day two of the show, Arratia said: “Usually, the approach in sustainability is to form a campaign so that all of the employees know all the great things we are doing – and it’s a top-down approach. All of the internal communications team send an email and we end up doing minimal common-denominator stuff, so that everybody can do a little bit and end up just turning off the lights and all that crap that is useless.

“What you actually need is a bottom-up approach and ideas from many people. One of the things we learned is that you have to target different people in the company who have different ways of understanding sustainability.”

Arratia – who also featured in our new podcast – was also keen to stress that control of the supply chain holds the key to sustainability success. “Most of the environmental impacts are in the supply chain,” he said. “Make challenges to the supplier – if the supplier isn’t willing to commit to ambitious sustainability targets, don’t do business with them.”

5) Sustainability leadership can be found at EVERY level of an organisation – you just have to find it

“How to succeed as a business leader” was the subject of great presentation from Balfour Beatty’s group head of sustainability Paul Toyne – speaking within the same session as Ramon Arratia on day two of the show.

Toyne powerfully articulated the importance of leadership at every level of business, from entry-level employees to the company chief executive. Taking a motivational approach to his presentation, he walked out among the edie Live audence, encouraging them to get on their feet and remind themselves of their own leadership qualities.

“Stand up! Everyone has a role to play – you all need to be leaders,” Toyne said. 

It’s an important point – sustainability leadership is about embedding a culture throughout an organisation, rather than putting the power for change in the hands of few. 

6) The power of the Internet of Things should not be underestimated

In January, we reported that 2016 would be the year that the Internet of Things market starts to make a profound impact on the world of sustainability, with endless possibilities to slash global emissions through interconnected devices and objects.

At edie Live, we heard about this vision becoming a reality with Tech UK – the trade association for Britain’s technology sector – claiming that the Internet of Things phenomenon will play a “critical role” in creating efficient reverse logistics within supply chains – with big players such as Samsung, eBay and UPS already recognising its potential.

Speaking within the Resource Efficiency theatre on day on of the show, Tech UK’s head of environment and compliance programmes Susanne Baker told a packed show audience in Birmingham that companies should look to streamline supply chain logistics by utilising the IoT, which is set to have a “hugely disruptive impact across all industries and systems”.

“The IoT will revolutionise the way we collect, store and act on data,” Baker said. “It can unlock a huge range of opportunities for the circular economy. It has the chance to revolutionise products, avoid wholesale issues in manufacturing and really shape how we manage materials and energy use in supply chains.”

Writing in a follow-up blog to edie Live, Debbie Griffiths – a visitor of the show – highlighted the Internet of Things as an essential circular economy enabler

7) The circular economy will only become a reality if EVERYONE believes in it

We conclude with some final insights from that blog from Debbie Griffiths, who wrote that it was “refreshing to learn about circular economy activity outside of manufacturing”.

“This included Veolia’s transformation from waste contractor to circular economy partner. It’s doing some very interesting work with Diageo on creating energy and fertiliser from the by-products (not waste) of whisky distilling.

“I was also surprised to hear how Whitbread, owner of Premier Inn, has dipped its toe in the circular economy waters, recycling old uniforms into building insulation. The seminar on fashion waste highlighted different initiatives and studies that close the loop on fabric recycling, too.”

Debbie also noted how numerous speakers at edie Live seemed to agree that changing human hearts and minds was a bigger challenge than solving technical and logistical difficulties, when it comes to driving a circular economy. “We live in a society where the full environmental and social costs are not included in the price paid for resources – this keeps the existing take-make-break linear economy artificially cheap. 

“And because a new item costs relatively little, and is so heavily marketed as something we must have, consumers don’t realise the benefit of keeping hold of something and looking after it to extend its life as long as possible.”

So there you have it – seven fascinating insights from an edie Live which leave us all feeling a little more optimistic about the future of sustainable business.

Luke Nicholls, Matt Mace & George Ogleby

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