Turbocharging the transition to a low carbon economy

The public’s mind has become increasingly focused on the issue of the climate crisis and what they can do to lead a more sustainable life in recent years. Global movements like School Strike for Climate, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, have captured the hearts and minds of particularly younger people who see climate change as an issue impacting their futures. 

In 2019, the UK became the first major government to set a legally binding target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. And with more than six million SMEs in the UK – accounting for 99% of all businesses and 25% of the country’s emissions – it’s not just the multinational corporations and individuals that need to make dramatic changes in order to reduce carbon emissions. 

With that in mind, and in partnership with UBS Wealth Management, we brought together a panel of leading entrepreneurs in the sustainability space for a (virtual) discussion alongside other industry entrepreneurs. 

We were joined by Rowena Bird, co-founder of LUSH, Will King, founder of King of Shaves, and Rodrigo Gonzalez Garcia, founder of Notpla, a company producing seaweed-based packaging that can be consumed or biodegraded in a matter of weeks. 

Take responsibility, don’t weaponise sustainability

Will King began by highlighting the need for greater awareness of what true sustainability is, and his subsequent frustration with the growing use of the term. 

“I’m not a big fan of ‘sustainability’. It’s become a highly weaponised term by marketers who are trying to convince consumers that what their business is doing is really good for the environment,” he started.

“I’m much more of a fan of ‘responsibility’. We have always tried to do what we feel is the right thing.”

Will added: “We’ve got to be honest and true to ourselves, and responsible for what we do as business owners.”

Rowena Bird explained that LUSH as a brand doesn’t like to use “sustainability”, either. 

She said: “We like ‘regenerative’, and ‘responsibility’ is really good too because if we’re all taking responsibility then we can all move forward.”

“It’s great that a lot of brands are thinking about reducing their environmental impact, but there is certainly a lot of greenwashing. There are a lot of words floating around at the moment that brands are hiding behind because they’re seen as a good thing.”

‘Offsetting’ is one specific term Rowena referred to. The practice of using carbon credits to reduce the overall carbon footprint of their activities is nothing new, businesses have been doing it for well over a decade. But awareness of the practice and the term has only increased among the public in recent years. 

“Some people and brands now think ‘Oh well I offset, so I’m carbon neutral’,” Rowena added. “But this issue with offsetting is that you’re adding more carbon emissions into the environment.”

Carbon insetting, however, involves actively making direct reductions to your own carbon footprint. For example, carbon offsetting might involve a brand planting a tree for every order it receives, whereas carbon insetting might involve that brand switching to a manufacturer that operates from a warehouse that is run entirely on renewable energy.

Responsibility is a journey

A significant aspect of taking responsibility when it comes to the environment is knowing that there is always room for improvement, the panel explained. There is a growing acceptance that sustainability is a rapidly changing issue. 

“You can’t always get it right. But you can be pulled up on something if somebody looks into it. And taking responsibility means that once we know something, we can’t unknow it and we have to sort it out,” Rowena explained. 

She explained how LUSH launched a scheme to encourage customers to bring back their plastic pots, offering them a free facial in exchange for five pots. It didn’t work. The return rate wasn’t as high as they would’ve liked, Rowena admitted. LUSH could’ve, quite easily, left it at that and enjoyed the PR boost. Instead it switched to offering customers a discount on their next purchase, and return rates picked up significantly. 

Rowena also recalled several examples from the past where it has been pointed out to LUSH that a particular material or ingredient is having a negative impact, and the company has removed it from use. 

Will King also stressed that businesses need to be prepared to invest in order to reduce their carbon footprint, but they also need to improve their messaging alongside it. 

“Being responsible costs more money,” he said. “But you have to get your customer to buy into that responsibility.

Will explained that King of Shaves sells a 250ml refillable shave gel pot that retails for £6, which is twice the price of its 150ml tube of shave gel, which isn’t refillable. However, the important point is that the cost per shave on the refillable option is less. So King of Shaves is not only doing the right thing from an environmental point of view, but reducing the overall cost per use for its customers – and that’s what brands need to get consumers to buy into.  

One of the attendees, Geoff van Sonsbeek, founder of Baukjen – the UK’s highest rated B Corp, suggested that brands need to take their customers on the journey with them to get them to buy into it. 

“The biggest way to change behaviour and change the world, in my sector, at least is to bring the customer with us,” he explained. “Bring them on the journey and raise their awareness of the problems you’re facing and the solutions available.

“It’s a tricky balance, but the game is to cut through greenwashing and change consumer behaviour.”

To B (Corp), or not to B (Corp)

Conversation quickly moved onto the topic of B Corp, widely considered to be the standout leader in sustainability standards and certification. With less than 500 of the UK’s six million SMEs as certified B Corps, debate has been growing around whether or not awareness of B Corp certification is cutting through to consumers.

Another attendee, Jo Chidley, founder of Beauty Kitchen, suggested that while B Corp certification has primarily been an inward tool for improving sustainability so far, it is now starting to cut through to consumers. 

“The B Corp framework helps me to understand where the business is today and analyses where we need to improve, whether that’s with packaging, the supply chain or staff,” she said.

“Even though it’s only a small portion of the country’s businesses at the moment, the movement is definitely growing and we can see that because mainstream retailers are taking notice. If you look at Boots, Waitrose and Ocado, they’ve created sections online that are dedicated to B Corp certified businesses. And that is where this whole movement starts to get really interesting.”

Do we need government intervention?

With the 2050 target and rules on electric cars, the government has shown some appetite and willingness to intervene in some areas when it comes to climate change. It has led to some debate about the level to which it needs to step in in order to make sufficient changes to the way we live our lives. 

Rodrigo Gonzalez Garcia believes government intervention on daily lives is a positive step in the fight against climate change. 

“It can definitely help with certain things like, for example, putting a price on a shopping bag. It forced people to think a bit more about that,” he started. 

“Certainly, policies will help to facilitate that understanding of that responsibility.”

Another attendee, Laurence Kemball-Cook, founder of Pavegen, also supported the idea of greater intervention when it comes to consumers behaviours and the ways brands behave. 

“Washing machines aren’t built to last, we know that. They’re built to last a few years so we have to buy another one,” he explained.

“You’ve got to have government intervention here and I’m hearing a lot of rumours that white good companies will have to give 10 year warranties in the near future. 

“Similarly, McDonald’s doesn’t care about littering. Why not intervene and fine McDonald’s for every piece of McDonald’s litter found on the streets?”

Even if McDonald’s doesn’t truly care about the environmental impact of litter and single-use packaging, it will care about the financial cost of littering and very quickly seek out biodegradable alternatives, Laurence argued. 

Geoff van Sonsbeek also called for greater government intervention and is looking to the COP26, the UN’s climate change conference taking place in November, to prompt an influx of policies from governments around the world. 

He said: “The pathway to survival on this planet is so tight that we must have intervention from governments. I’m quite positive looking at COP26, that we’ll give the carbon price and start imposing carbon taxes. 

“We must change and we can’t sit here complacently. The government must act and it has to be a mechanism along the lines of a carbon tax.”

Collaboration not competition

Perhaps the most challenging point to come out of the discussion is the idea that brands will need to work together, not compete with each other, if we are to achieve a low carbon economy. 

It was put forward by Jo Chidley, who fully recognises the difficulties that poses to brands and businesses driven by profit and competition.

“When we talk about sustainability and the circular economy, it’s a different way of doing business with each other, because we can’t use it as a competitive advantage,” she said.

“We all need to collaborate. Whether we want to or not is not up for debate. If we really want to make those big impacts, we are all going to have to work together. We all know retailers don’t really want to collaborate with anybody, and actually they’re the ones that can potentially bridge the gap with consumers.”

She concluded: “I think this big pot of discussion that we’re having at the moment is really exciting. We need to challenge each other and try to get everyone else on the journey, too.”