The Sustainability Leaders Forum (24-25 January) brought together senior representatives from a range of firms including AkzoNobel, Ikea, Dell, ING and many more. Throughout the two-day event, speakers shared insight and inspiration on how they plan to deliver a sustainable future – both on a personal and professional level.

Sandwiched either side of the Sustainability Leaders Awards, the Forum also provided a brief glimpse at edie’s brand new Mission Possible campaign for 2018, which will inspire and empower businesses to achieve a sustainable future, today.

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 are five inspiring messages…

1) Sustainability and business growth CAN go hand in hand…

Many players in the corporate world have undergone major transitions in the past few years. The likes of Heathrow Coca Cola EP, L’Oreal and The Body Shop are just some of the big names to experience rapid business expansion or company mergers in recent times.

Another firm to undergo a major corporate shift is tech giant Dell, which completed the purchase of EMC in the largest technology merger in history in September 2016. Since then, the company’s CSR strategy has gone from strength to strength, with headline targets put in place to boost its sustainability credentials.

Speaking on the first day of the edie Sustainability Leaders Forum, Dell’s senior vice president for UK & Ireland commercial business Claire Vyvyan said that, contrary to popular belief, acquisitions such as the one experienced by Dell can deliver a “net-positive” environmental and business impact for all parties involved.

“There is a theme in the world right now that big business is evil,” Vyvyan said. “Lots of you will be involved in mergers and acquisitions at this moment in time as businesses look for economies of scale in the world.

“But the opportunity of putting businesses together is always to do more and not to do less. If we were having a positive environmental impact as eight individual companies, we can have a much bigger impact as a single company.” 

2) We need a joined-up approach to deliver circular innovations  

The circular economy has hit the ground running since the start of 2018, with a host of corporates lining up to take action on issues such as coffee cup and plastics waste. But as demonstrated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Initiative, the global resource efficiency agenda will require multi-stakeholder partnerships to find solutions to these challenging issues.

This was a point stressed at the Sustainability Leaders Forum by Anna Maria Rugarli, senior sustainability and senior director at VF Corporation.

“Looking at the circular economy can give great insight into how businesses can become more innovative, but also looking at other businesses and how you can partner with other industries,” she said. “There are a lot of examples of industries to develop a circular economy. So it will be a great opportunity for those businesses that haven’t fully embraced it yet.”

Tile manufacturer Interface is one of the many firms which has fully embraced the collaborative opportunity, having formed a collaborative initiative alongside General Motors and Dell to create the world’s first commercial-scale supply chain for ocean-bound plastics.

Speaking to edie at the Sustainabillity Leaders Forum, Interface’s co-innovation partner Jon Khoo said: “Plastics remains a global problem and the real challenge that we are seeing is that there are great ideas and pilots, whether that is by entrepreneurs or companies, but scaling them is really tricky.

“It is only by companies working together, and being pushed along by Government too, that we will find the scale and solutions that will help society, the environment, in a way that makes business sense.”

3) Big business can learn sustainability lessons from smaller firms

Although global corporations tend to dominate the sustainability headlines, a healthy small business sector is essential to a prosperous green economy. Many SMEs are realising that pursuing strong business ethics and values can help to develop trust with customers, and that environmental practices can help to reduce waste, streamline processes and cut costs.

As such, Cranfield University lecturer in data-driven innovation Dr Mariale Moreno believes there are plenty of lessons for big corporates to learn from the smaller business model.

Speaking on the second day of the Forum, Moreno said: “There are a lot of SMEs now that have in their core values the circular economy and sustainability. Because they have that in their core value, they have done much more than many other businesses.

“I have been very fortunate to work with some SMEs and having really big challenges of trying to put their products and services into the market with that sustainability value can disrupt the business model. They are the disrupters that are changing and making that happen.”

Her thoughts were echoed by Sarah-Jane Stewart, head of sustainability at Atkins Global, North region, who stressed that big corporates must “think like a small business to get it right.”

“If you’re a big business, you could make a lot of big mistakes,” Stewart said. If you get the ins and outs completely wrong you have a business that isn’t sustainable will die. The principles are the same no matter what size the business is.”

4) Make your sustainability strategy accessible and actionable

From breaking down interdepartmental language barriers to aligning specific CSR targets with broader corporate goals, effective communication techniques have become something of an art form among sustainability professionals in recent times. 

To gain the full backing of the rest of your organisation for a CSR project or process, it is essential to use a common language and translate your strategy into actionable steps, according to Philips Lighting’s head of sustainability strategy Maurice Loosschilder.

“It’s about translating concepts and themes to the board and higher management to get their approval in their mindsets to make sure they look at business differently,” Loosschilder told edie. “Also, you need to make sure that it is actionable. Whatever concept I have been pitching to the board has to be translated into actionable steps and a plan for the departments and the colleagues around me, people in my team but also in other teams, from concept, to business plan to action.”

5) The sky is the limit for sustainability professionals

Not many sustainability professionals join a company with the intention of eventually becoming CEO. This thought had certainly not crossed the mind of E.ON boss Michael Lewis when he was appointed to the role of environmental specialist 25 years ago.  

But speaking to the edie Sustainability Leaders Forum audience last Thursday, Lewis reflected on how his personal career trajectory and the company’s low-carbon transformation soon became the “perfect match”.

“It was a transition of myself becoming more commercial as well. I had to learn a lot along the way, about finance, strategy and all the rest of it. I made a gradual transition towards a much more commercial position and the company made a transition towards sustainability and the two met perfectly as far as I am concerned.”

George Ogleby

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