Emma Burlow, Head of Resource Efficiency at Resource Futures, looks back on 20 years in the business resource efficiency field. Here she reflects on what has changed in this time and whether she is making a difference…
When I started work on the Environmental Technology Best Practice Programme, or ETBPP in 1997, the clumsiness of the title said it all. The focus was heavily on compliance (at that time with the newly launched Packaging Regulations) and waste minimisation. There was little scope for supporting innovation. Eco-design was the vanguard of the brave and whilst these products hinted at an alternative future, they were exactly that, alternative and marginal.
I remember sitting in meetings discussing the barriers to take up of waste minimisation. I thought, if (with what now seem eye watering budgets) they were to hire a marketing guru from Coke or Nike, we’d have a better chance of solving this! Despite the success of the Envirowise Helpline, as it became, and the enthusiasm of countless businesses that I had the pleasure to support and work with, there was a distinct feeling that we were preaching to the unconvertable, of pushing water up hill. There were so many other more pressing issues, all of which had firm numbers beside them.
The iceberg image, a mainstay of every presentation of the day, got the idea of hidden costs across and married with the growing interest in ‘lean’. There was a definite interest in efficiency. Energy efficiency then stole the show and is now a pillar of any facilities manager’s day job. Why? We had icebergs and hierarchies… they had easy to access numbers. The business case for waste reduction was, and often still is, the poor cousin.
The Green Office concept emerged and CSR developed a more rounded approach to sustainability in the workplace. We talked about win-wins and embraced environmental management systems. The Triple Bottom Line added an economics angle and carbon became the new currency for the sector. However, the currency of unit product sales as the barometer for business success, remained stubbornly in place.
Saving Isn’t Sexy
During the 2000’s when running seminars for SMEs, I often started with the ice breaker, ‘Who wants to save £100?’ A few delegates would tentatively raise their hand, with an ‘interesting, but what’s the catch?’ look on their faces. ‘Ok, who wants to make £100?’ they laugh and all hands go up.
Selling is what businesses do. No-one likes to be told to reduce their output, encourage customers to buy less, cut back and be frugal. Saving is hard, tiresome and uninspiring, it doesn’t get entrepreneurs up in the morning. It doesn’t get board rooms buzzing. Our message was wrong.
Whilst our sector adapted to heavy cuts in government support, the business world was responding to ever more demanding customer needs and cheaper manufacturing – consumerism was thriving. The task that we thought was big in the landfill tax era was paling into insignificance now.
On reflection, our sector was slow to adapt to sell our wares in a way that would appeal to business. What seemed obvious to us, wasn’t made relevant enough to everyone else.
Fast Forward 20 Years: What Has Changed?
We may have done a find + replace of ‘waste minimisation’ with the words ‘resource efficiency’ and ‘circular economy’ but how much has really changed? We see the same barriers when trying to engage SMEs today as we did back then. Businesses have so many competing pressures, it’s a small miracle if you catch them open to discussing a new approach. Business wastes remain stubbornly difficult to quantify with increasingly complex supply chains. Commercial waste data? Well don’t get me started.
Today, the ‘true cost of waste’ message has been replaced with the boundless opportunities of a more circular economy. I welcome this more business-friendly message as frankly it couldn’t have got any less sexy…. But, worryingly, for the majority of businesses, the terminology and complexity of circular economy thinking still lands the topic firmly in the ‘not relevant to our business’ pile.
Even when I speak to very innovative businesses, there is a real challenge to get them to think in a more circular way. When they do, often the fix is quick, a recycling bin here or an ebay channel there. The challenge to change the way a business owner perceives the resource they own and sell remains.
Changing The Message
My work in recent years with businesses on circular propositions has changed my approach. I rarely talk waste, preferring to start with the way they sell their product, the services they offer and how they could improve customer loyalty. Have they ever thought about renting their product out? Could they get their product back and re-sell it? I ask them about their customers and how their business will keep them in five years’ time.
The message is selling differently and offering more. This doesn’t mean making, selling and disposing of more resources, on the contrary, creating resource loops in a business, is more likely to make money and reduce raw material and customer retention costs than a traditional, make, sell and forget model.
When a company realises that its product is selling rather well on the second-hand market, that the skills to refurbish it are very similar to those that made it and that their customers want to lease rather than buy… that’s when I can safely say I know how to make a difference. I can bring the old-school principles of waste minimisation, into the new world of service maximisation. Instead of convincing businesses to cut back, I’m encouraging them to push on, to find the return loops that can grow their business. As I look forward to the next 20 years in the business, it is those win-win lightbulb moments I still love being a part of.