There is a gap in practical sustainability information for SMEs

David Caygill  is a sustainability consultant and Global Executive Strategy Director at Iris Worldwide. His role is shaping long term futures for brands, specialising in creating sustainability strategies which deliver for people, planet and profit. 

David started the Sustainable Business Guide to support SME businesses who seemed to be underserved by the sustainability industry yet are some of the organisations most in need of help transitioning to a low carbon and sustainable business model.

What motivated you to become a sustainability professional?

Having spent quite a couple of decades in the tech, strategy and innovation world, I’d always been trying to crowbar ‘good’ into my projects – sometimes the clients liked it, sometimes it was more of a crusade.  When I discovered ’sustainability’ as a profession I realised that this was my cause, defined as a set of skills and capabilities.  Also, I grew up around hippies in West Wales and have always been very inspired and enjoyed the natural environment so feel very motivated to protect it.

What was your experience pursuing a Business Sustainability Management (BSM) course at the University of Cambridge Sustainability Leadership Institute (CISL)?

I took it on during lockdown, however as a non-furloughed person I was also double-busy with the day job, so it was a real challenge to keep up with the pace and depth of the work. I found the course very rewarding though and it really bought a strong grounding to my work in sustainability

Now you are a CISL course assessor. How have the insights and perspectives gained impacted your work?

It is wonderful to be able to help others on their sustainability journey, so I find the assessor role rewarding. It is also very interesting to read about many different types of companies and how they navigate sustainability challenges.

You have recently founded the Sustainable Business Guide along with CISL alumni. Please tell us about this project and what you aim to achieve.

The Sustainable Business Guide is a real collaborative effort between the 2021 graduates of the CISL BSM course.  The course was great at fostering a sense of community between students and we went on to have a thriving WhatsApp group and the off in real life  meet up!  As part of those discussions the idea of writing on sustainability came up, and as I have a background in launching tech companies and also a keen interest in business sustainability I thought we could co-create a website and newsletter.  I had also noticed a real gap in practical and useful information for companies, particularly smaller SME-size companies, to pick up and follow, a lot of it was quite biased into one provider’s solution or else a bit shallow and poorly researched. The Sustainable Business Guide is really designed to meet that need. It is co-authored by a team of CISL graduates and we work as a distributed team on Trello, Zoom and WhatsApp. It has been a great experience so far and I can’t wait to see where we take it.

I had noticed a real gap in practical and useful information for companies, particularly SME companies, to pick up and follow. The Sustainable Business Guide is really designed to meet that need.

You have very diverse and rich experience promoting and advising on innovation/digitalisation and sustainability for many different organisations and sectors. Tell us about the learnings throughout your career in terms of sustainability innovation.

Sustainability has slowly and surely been rising up the agenda. I often think of it as kind of like how digital was in the 90s. I used to work in Digital Transformation and Innovation back then.  People knew it was coming, they didn’t quite know how to adapt their businesses to it but they knew they had to. We had believers and non-believers, it was both cultural and technical.  Very similar.  Sustainability has many names – purpose, is another way of looking at it in the branding and comms space, we’ve been doing that for a long time too!  My main learning is to find the believers and work with them, from there even in the biggest corporate you will find your ways in.

My main learning is to find the believers and work with them, from there even in the biggest corporate you will find your ways in.

What evolution have you witnessed in terms of sustainability interest, focus and savviness from the corporate world in the last 15 years?

It has moved from being a niche interest of a few into being what is sometimes termed an ‘enterprise risk’. It is now on the CEO and full C-suite agenda. A lot of this is driven by the finance world, but also by the head of talent, the marketing team and the customers themselves. 

gap practical sustainability information

Where do you think there is more potential for leading climate progress? Do you have any good examples of companies you’ve worked for?

The rubber is starting to hit the road on the big corporate target announcements which were set over the last few years. 2030 is now a lot nearer than it used to be, so a lot of the work I am doing is helping companies develop sustainability strategies to meet the targets they’ve announced. That’s where all the hard work is now, we need to help everyone deliver on their goals.  I’m working with Pizza Hut in the Yum! Group on their food strategy and sustainability strategy. They have some really big ambitions, but like many businesses they need to take small steps to change the business and build momentum and confidence in their restaurant managers and owners.  In terms of good examples, I love the work Ikea has been doing recently across the board – in sourcing, circularity, product and service. They have been working on sustainability for years, but are now really starting to get some traction.  We also work with Adidas and I think they’ve been on a journey but now getting some real traction. The Parley work is good and they’ve pretty much removed virgin plastic from their supply chain, which is ace.

What are the key sustainability trends innovative companies need to be aware of and start preparing for?

Smart companies are looking at what is coming down the pipe in terms of regulations and policy changes and triangulating those insights with what they think their customers want and their companies can realistically work on. So the actual initiatives really vary by company – but typical things are zero waste, circular products, social purpose and reducing emissions through new materials.

What advice would you give to SMEs and start-ups willing to start the sustainability journey and become responsible agents of change?

Just start. Yes it is complex and confusing but start with what you can do. Identify easy things to change – e.g. renewables and LED lights.  Think about the biggest and most important issues and see how others have tackled it.  Share your story but don’t greenwash it.

Sustainability is complex and confusing but start with what you can do. Just start.

What keeps you motivated to continue this sometimes seemingly thankless career of pushing for systemic change to allow for a more sustainable future for all?

Hahah, I actually think it is quite fun!  Yes, at times it can feel like a big mountain to climb, but there are good people walking with me and we are making progress each day.  

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