N8 Science Events. July 2010. Published 30.6.10 at 3.30.
Key elements of a green Business agenda
Helen Gavaghan, Leeds
Report of a one day meeting about sustainable business development, at Leeds University Business School (LUBS) on 8th June, 2010.
The keynote event of the conference - Making Business Sense of Sustainability (8th June) - was Mark Orpin from ASDA, speaking about the supermarket's approach to a green agenda. ASDA is owned by Wal-Mart, a company which if it sneezes could give the world a financial cold. It is obscenely large, said Mr Orpin, telling his audience of MBA students, newly minted MBAs and business leaders that if Wal-Mart were a country its GDP would fall between that of Pakistan and Columbia.
Mr Orpin's talk showed that by "obscenely large" he was not speaking as an anti-globalisation activist at a G20 meeting might. The next fives years are crucial for ASDA, he said, saying ASDA was looking for growth and strategic alliances, in particular with utility companies. We were "murdered" in 2008 by a 40 per cent hike in our fuel bill, he said. His view being that the only sensible option was to use less fuel.
Mr Orpin has a background in transfer pricing as an accountant in the oil industry, and he told LUBS a story of a faltering start in ASDA's sustainability agenda. More than once he said he was unsure what sustainability meant but that he knew it was a concept here to stay. Applications to Councils needed to show serious attention to an agenda of environmental sustainability if they are to be competitive and win the right to operate supermarkets, he said. And his repeat message was that ASDA is competing. The company, for example, want to buy Netto and when he spoke the potential deal before the Competition Commissioner.
Meeting Council requirements for a green agenda is in line with a strategy set in 2005 for Wal-Mart by the retail giant's then chief, Lee Scott. Mr Orpin interspersed his talk with references to one made five years earlier by Mr Scott, giving me his own well worked and highlighted print of Lee Scott's talk when he had finished speaking to LUBS.
Earlier in the day Simon Pringle, the founding director of management consultancy Mason Hardy and Alex Sobel, general manager of Social Enterprise Yorkshire and Humberside gave excellent overviews of general devlopments in the sustainability agenda.
A focus on compliance can lead to complacency, said Mr Pringle. Leading to the attitude of why do what you don't have to do. So good sustainable development has now moved beyond compliance to operations and a lot of benchmarking. "One could argue that the best corporate responsibility report is one that does not exist because it is part of the corporation's ethos.
"In the past two to three years we have moved to a communication led model, seeking to build new relationships with customers. But superficial communications can erode trust, and marketing led messages are not necessarily good."
Pringle argued that for many corporations the sustainability agenda is not a threat but an opportunity. And in a well run business, he said, people understand the aims. "People," he said, "like being engaged in sustainability, leadership and giving something back."
Alex Sobel, general manager of Social Enterprise Yorkshire and Humberside, spoke of the comparatively new corporate structures of social enterprises. Their defining characteristic, he said, is trading and entrepreneurial activity, giving community and social benefits with social ownership and defined, limited profit.
He gave a variety of examples, such as a social enterprise running a low, carbon economy and introducing school children to where milk comes from. Or, he said, one could have development trusts which revive a particular community through development. There can also be co-operatives, worker or customer owned.
Mr Sobel outlined five routes to social ownership:
public sector spin-offs;
private sector conversions;
charity or voluntary sector conversions
During Q and A Mr Sobel made clear that social enterprises are not receiving hand outs but are competing in the market place like anyone else.
Running as a thread through all presentations and discussions was the question of how to intergrate a green agenda into corporate strategies. All were conscious of the need to avoid green washing -- disingenuously spinning products as environmentally friendly.
And one of the easiest messages to understand came from Ph.D geologist, Dr Sarah Mckay of WSP. "My five year olds knows that if you turn off the light you save the polar bear," she said.
MasonHardy can be found at: http://www.masonhardy.com/ and Social Enterprise Yorkshire and Humberside at http://www.seyh.org.uk/about-seyh