Sustainability Makes Small Smart

Sustainability is no longer a nice business practice; it is a key competitive advantage.” — — Paul Polman

Photo by Jie, March 2020

Our house is on fire.” said Greta Thunberg in Davos 2019 — the ‘next generation leader’ named by Time Magazine. Her vivid picture is not an understatement. Facing global challenges, like climate crisis, biodiversity losses, environment degradation etc, we turn to policymakers and commercial leaders, from both public and private sectors, expecting them to change the course of our planet’s trajectory.

Sustainability is ramping up

Gladly, there has been huge progress from leading businesses, either willingly, or under huge pressure from consumers and governments. For instance, 10 years ago in 2010, Unilever set out a journey to become a sustainable business through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). 2020 onwards, they are even more committed to become a purpose-led and future-fit business, and even further, to bring suppliers and comsumers on the journey too. Besides FMCG, as a late comer the financial sector is catching up too, more than $30bn has been added to global environmental, social and governance (ESG) funds in the first nine months of this year, more than all of 2018 and 2019 combined (Financial Times article).

SMEs as the main drivers of the global economic growth

But it’s far from enough to solve the problem. Don’t forget Small and Medium enterprises (SMEs) which contribute to about 70% of total employment, according to an OECD report (2017).

Though two thirds of UK SMEs have signalled their intention to improve the sustainability practices in a recent Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking’s Business Barometer surveyed. Many SMEs haven’t yet started their sustainability integration. Why? The reasons are numerous and vary by sectors. One of the most common barriers is a lack of the “know-how” — how to adopt and integrate Sustainability principles in their business strategies and daily operations?

In the past 10 years, my job as a sustainability consultant and advocator has been mainly advising policymakers and businesses of the importance of climate change, sustainability, circular economy, and why they need to act quickly and timely. Simply, I have been talking the talk, but now I wanted to do something. Something tangible and practical to answer the most common questions I was asked in my daily job:

Can I really make money while doing the right thing?

Would it make a difference in the end if I could?

This journey is my attempt to answer these questions.

Inspiration from wildness

I am fortunate to be given the trust and the opportunity to run a living lab — a café located on the south coast of England, Weymouth.

With beautiful soft sands, scenic Jurassic coast and shallow waters stretching miles into the sea, Weymouth’s long arc of seafront is second to none. Recognised as one of Top 10 beaches in the UK, it’s a place where families bring their children on holiday, enjoying the beach, building sandcastles, splashing around in the clear blue sea, and crabbing along the harbourside. It’s heaven for children, our future.

But it more than just majestic scenery. It connects with people at the deepest level. Being able to smell the fresh air and disconnect from your phone, laptop, tablet which dominates our modern life 24*7 — there is nothing like it.

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvellous.” — — Aristotle

Nature Reserve in Weymouth. Photo by Jie

Convince the boss

Every time, when I stroll down the Esplanade, I am in awe of the combination of nature wonder and great human civilisation. On one side, it is wild nature, and on the other side is the grandeur of 18th century Georgian buildings where all the hotels and B&Bs are. Apparently, businesses here are blessed with an abundance of nature scenes, but how does businesses look after the nature that brought them so much fortune?

Additionally, facing millions of guests each year, and lots of them are children, business could be a perfect place to raise public awareness, couldn’t it? So it came to me pretty quickly that no business should be operating at the expense of the environment.

When I presented my idea of running a sustainable café to the owner Steve, who is a veteran in the hospitality industry, to my surprise, he immediately agreed.

Where to start?

The café is on the ground floor of a gorgeous Georgian building by Weymouth Bay. When I first walked into the place, it brought me straight back to 1960s’. As much as I love the nostalgic feeling, the carpet, wallpaper and furniture was pretty much worn out after 50 years of consistent use and lack of care.

“Careful what you wish for!” Steve smirked at me. Not exactly where I wanted to start with indeed, but better. I was excited about its potential and a modern transformation ahead.

We had no choice but stripping off the carpet and wallpaper. Having the circular economy advocate hat on, I started looking into carpet recycling.

After removing the carpet, the beautiful wooden floor was revealed. They are all in different sizes, length and width. They were put in around about 200 years ago. Without mass production, so each one of them carries its own identity. As most of them are still intact, it would be perfect after polishing them up and keeping them as the floor. During the process, they were taken out in order to put the insulation underneath. (Energy saving is another big element to consider that I will delve into in the following blogs.)

All the floorboards are piled against the wall. Photo taken by Jie on 11th February 2020
All floorboards laid down and sanded. Photo taken by Jie on 18th March 2020
Nice wooden floor after sanding and waxing. Photo taken by Jie on 27th May 2020

This is only the first step. From the beginning I knew this wouldn’t be an easy journey, but I certainly didn’t expect the challenges to include something like COVID 19 and national lockdown (twice!). But this crisis makes sustainability even more relevant to business and a green revovery. That’s my intention of this blog. I am taking this challenge, and will keep writing about the successes and failures, the excitement and frustration, lessons learned and experiences gained. No matter what the result will be, let’s hit the road first.

Jie 2020 Novermber

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Jie Zhou

Jie Zhou

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Current student of MSt Sustainability Leadership@ Cambridge University (2020–2022)