We need “outrageous optimism” to beat climate change

Andrew Griffiths is the Director of Community and Partnerships for Planet Mark, a sustainability certification that supports organisations and real estate to measure and reduce carbon emissions and increase social impact. He Chairs the Institute of Directors National Sustainability Taskforce and sat on the UK Government’s COP26 Small Business Taskforce and the Advisory Board for the Global Sustainability Film Awards. 

You have a very diverse and interesting background (psychology and management studies), what motivated you to become a sustainability professional?

To be honest sustainability has been an itch that I’ve been wanting to scratch almost since the beginning of my career. I was always that person in an organisation who was trying to find ways to recycle more or come up with different programmes to make the organisation more sustainable. I think it’s because on some level I had recognised that this was the defining challenge of our time. Taking my most recent role before I joined Planet Mark, I was looking at a smart home technology for dementia. I got a lot of meaning and purpose from it. However, I recognised that if we didn’t solve this challenge of sustainability and climate change, then the work that I was doing could well become null and void because we might not live to be old enough to get dementia! That realisation really drove me to want to focus my efforts on my time fully onto sustainability.

What was your experience pursuing a Business Sustainability Management (BSM) course at the University of Cambridge Sustainability Leadership Institute (CISL)? Tell us more about Sustaineers please.

The course of business sustainability management at CISL was fantastic. I couldn’t recommend it more highly to people who are looking to do something that’s fairly short and sharp. It is an 8-week course that enables you to really get to grips with sustainability within an organisational context. It takes you through a process of almost acting like you are consulting for a business. When we finished our course a cohort of us had been gathering every week and Sustaineers was a community that grew out from that. It just escalated to the point where we met up every week for more than a year and continue to meet up to this day. We have a community platform that is open and free to everyone and fundamentally it’s about bringing together people who are passionate about driving forward sustainability within the organisations that they work within or indeed in their own spheres and domains as professionals. 

You have a great perspective on sustainability trends as a result of your work. What evolution have you witnessed in terms of sustainability interest, focus and savviness in the last few years?

Things are moving really quickly when it comes to sustainability from the UK government and the corporate scene. People are becoming more and more aware. They are recognising the impact that it is already having upon businesses and the economy. Moving forwards we’re going to see it continue to accelerate. It’s only going to become more extreme and more rapid particularly as we start seeing more tangible examples of physical changes in our environment. We will start seeing very large businesses being disrupted by climate change and by the wider issues surrounding sustainability on both the environmental and the social side. The transformation is big although we need to see much more. We did our Zero Carbon Tour of the UK over 3.5 months on an electric bus and then in Northern Ireland we did a double Decker hydrogen bus. It was such a privilege to travel all over the UK and hear the stories of tangible examples of what organisations and communities have been doing to cut carbon, to tackle climate change and to tackle social sustainability issues. I’m broadly very positive about the overall trajectory. That being said we’ve barely gotten started  but what gives me hope is that people are waking up to it now and large corporates, small businesses are all beginning to spot that this is the greatest risk that we have ever faced. This is also the biggest opportunity that our economy, our world, and our species has ever come across because of the transformative nature of the solutions that it requires.

It was such a privilege to travel all over the UK and hear the stories of tangible examples of what organisations and communities have been doing to cut carbon, to tackle climate change and social sustainability issues.

You have led the UK campaign Zero Carbon Tour in the run-up to COP26. Tell us about the objectives and achievements of that national tour.

Fundamentally the objectives of the zero-carbon tour were threefold: Firstly, to raise awareness about COP26,  get people, communities, businesses and organisations engaged with COP26 to understand the role that they could play in driving change. Secondly, we sought to gather carbon stories, which are tangible examples of what organisations have been doing to cut carbon and make progress against tackling climate change. Finally, the third objective was to gather credible net-zero targets and spread the word about what that means, so ensuring that we did some carbon jargon-busting helps people understand what net-zero, versus carbon-neutral, versus carbon negative, versus climate positive. Net-zero is the journey that we are all on. Carbon neutral and all of these other terms are very nice things that are good to have, but they are steps on the road to net-zero and must always be used and framed as such.

In terms of the achievements of the tour, we had over 8000+ people attend events and site visits across the country. We visited in total 125 different places and gathered over 200 carbon stories in total, covering 9,500+ kilometers. So those are some key stats but the biggest outcomes from the Tour were the stories and connections that people made at the events. 

You culminated the tour at COP26. What are your take-aways of COP26 and how do you see this new agreement affecting businesses and society at large?

I could write an essay on the outcomes from COP26, but I’d say the most important thing for businesses and communities to realise is the ripple effect that some of the announcements will have. Perhaps most importantly is this 2023 deadline for organisations listed on the London Stock Exchange and financial institutions in the UK having to have a net zero target. Now why would that affect you if you are a small business? Well because you’re in the supply chain of larger businesses, so you may not be one of these larger companies, but if you supply someone, or you supply someone who supplies someone that is a listed company then they are going to be coming to you for your carbon footprint. There are already examples of this happening: Microsoft and Salesforce have put into all of their supplier contracts that you must have a net zero strategy in place within the next couple of years or they will cease to buy from you. Tesco, immediately before COP26, sent out an email with four demands: Firstly you must give us your carbon footprint by the end of this year, secondly you must set a net zero target by the end of 2022, thirdly you must set a science-based target with a 50% reduction by 2030 by the end of 2023, and finally if you haven’t switched to renewable energy provider yet, just do it! 

The ripple effects and interventions that are coming down the supply chain from large clients are accelerating.

Linked to the previous question, what does still need to happen to make the global economy greener and where do you think there is more potential for leading on action against climate change?

There are a huge range of things that need to happen to make the economy greener but broadly you can summarise it into key industries. We need to change the way in which we move around our transportation system; we need to change the way in which we source our energy and we need to change the way in which we interact with products and services in terms of how we buy them, where we buy them from, how we make them , how we dispose of them and embrace circular economic principles. Fundamentally it does require a significant shift in our way of thinking and going back to how people lived in communities but now powered with technology. 

What are the key sustainability trends, risks and opportunities forward-looking companies need to be aware of and start preparing for (and how)?

Basically, if you don’t get on the right side of sustainability within the next couple of years I think you’ll be out of business by 2025. We saw this kind of rapid change happen with digitisation and that was purely driven by economic principles. Take the case of Blockbuster versus Netflix. No one regulated to say the blockbuster’s business model was antiquated or to drive them out of business because they didn’t digitalise fast enough it just happened. With sustainability, we have the economic pressures that are mounting because already renewable energy is cheaper than non-renewable and ESG linked funds are outperforming non ESG linked funds. In the next couple of years, we’ll see regulation come in to speed things up like it never happened with digitisation. On top of that, the greatest human instinct, our survival instinct, will start to play a part. All it takes is for someone to experience a single event of a flood, a fire at a hurricane which is tangibly linked in their minds to climate change. Their level of caring about what organisations are doing will increase overnight.

if you don't get on the right side of sustainability within the next couple of years you'll be out of business by 2025.

What best practices have you seen in industry in the various countries your work with which we need to showcase to inspire others to follow suit?

Best practices really is to make sure that sustainability is being discussed at every board meeting and in every product design and every service design. It has to be a question that is on the table every single time. How does this affect our carbon footprint, how does this affect the sustainability of our organisation? It is only when we start making these kinds of questions and seriously seeking to answer them into the very fabric of our decision-making process that we will begin to make the required changes.

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

As always one of the greatest advantages that small businesses have over the big corporates is their ability to pivot incredibly quickly when they decide that something needs to change. As a result, sustainability is an opportunity for small businesses to stand out, to have a niche, to secure a loyal customer base because they can stand out from the crowd in taking more action in sustainability than their competitors. It need not cost huge amounts of money. For a lot of the changes under sustainability you don’t need to justify them using the “s” word as they just make good business sense. Do you want to reduce your energy bills? Yes! Would you like to reduce your cost of waste? Yeah! Would you like to use some of your waste as a resource so that you buy less resource and embrace circular economic thinking? Yeah! That sounds brilliant! You don’t have to always think about this as a huge cost to the business. Rather, it can help grow your resilience and annual profit line as a business. I would encourage people to really spend some time and energy thinking it through because it will bring direct benefits to the bottom line.

What keeps you motivated to continue this uphill fight for systemic change?

Because it’s that or give up and I’m not someone who gives up. This is the defining challenge of our generation. We have to tackle this or we will either be the generation that saves the human species from extinction or we will be the generation that let it happen. I know which side of history I would rather be on.  It takes a certain amount of stubbornness and resilience to push forward with sustainability because you spend all of your days contemplating what will happen if we don’t. I think it takes optimism to work in this space and also outrage. My favourite podcast is “outrageous optimism”. I do think it takes those two things – you’ve got to be outraged at the situation we now find ourselves in largely through no fault of ours as individuals but you’ve also got to have optimism about our ability to tackle it. 

Best practices really is to make sure that sustainability is being discussed at every board meeting

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