Being a consumer, trying to decide on a sustainable product or service to purchase is no easy task nowadays. Partly due to the sheer number of products and services to choose from, but mainly because majority of them claim to be green, sustainable, organic etc.

These aspects have led many to believe that anything produced or manufactured at scale is therefore bad for the environment. Our Head of Sustainability, Lee Whitton tries to bust that myth in this month’s blog looking at how sustainability and scale are not only linked but also crucial in today’s competitive business landscape…

For more insightful articles like this, follow Lee on LinkedIn.

One of the Most Misunderstood Topics: Sustainability and Scale

By Lee Whitton, Head of Sustainability at ELeather

There are a few ‘common wisdoms’ in the world that occasionally rile me enough that I either rant somewhat at someone, or write a piece like this. As tonight it’s just me and the cats (and they don’t much care for my rants), I wrote this instead. Feel free to pay more (or less) attention than my feline friends.

Those irritating misconceptions are:

  1. Big business is bad for sustainability.
  2. Local means ‘better’ for the environment.
  3. In business, there are only winners and losers.

Let me explain…

Mom and Pops Organic Farm

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the transition to a more sustainable society is that ‘scale is bad’.

Many of us imagine that doing things on a mass scale is exactly the opposite of what the planet needs. The problem is… it’s the other way around.

If I was to ask you what the more sustainable way of growing the food you eat each day from a choice of two, my money would be on most people choosing the first one:

  • Mom and Pops 3 acre organic farm.
  • Big Food Inc. 300 acre traditional farm.

However, this in most cases would be a big mistake…

The thing a lot of us struggle to get our heads around is that whilst a smaller industry might on the face of it generate less waste, employ less logistics, and generally be a less noticeable neighbor – the products that are being produced are what’s important when measuring impact. Bottom line – the impact of a production process gets divided across the total amount being produced – i.e. the more that’s produced, the less impact per product (assuming they are all used).

Yes – I’ve made some assumptions here… Those would be that 1) Big Food Inc isn’t using exclusively technology from the 1950’s, and 2) that Mom and Pops haven’t discovered some miraculous way of growing food more efficiently than decades of scientific improvements have done in traditional food supply chains. These are fair assumptions, and in the real world Mom and Pops are much more likely to be using that old tractor from the 50’s…

Let’s take another example. The reason why public transport is ‘better’ for the environment than driving is actually down to the same principle – you can fit more people on a bus than you can in a car.

Yes, it needs a bigger engine, and yes that bigger engine will use more fuel (or electricity), but the ratio of ‘metal to people’ is always going to be better on a bus running at a reasonable capacity compared to a car.

Most people will often understand the bus example, and fully follow and recognise why scale in transportation is important in finding a more sustainable solution, but when it comes to seeing a factory producing <anything>, that perspective disappears and many people see industry as the enemy.

Local Spuds for Local People

My evening running route takes me past a large McCain chips factory. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that the lorries that carry the many tonnes of potatoes into the factory seem to sometimes spill some of their load along my running route – meaning I occasionally find myself running home carrying a couple of large spuds. The curse is that when I’m two miles from home, all I can smell is the delicious aroma of cooking French fries… And when I get home – I eat chips (which often defeats the object of the run…!)

Why am I telling you about my potato thievery? I also grow potatoes (picture to the left). When I think about the amount of time, energy and effort I put into them, it’s a massive loss both to my pocket, and actually – a large relative cost per potato from an environmental point view as well.

Whilst I might live in the East of England – a well known potato growing hotspot – it’s well known because the conditions here are just perfect for growing potatoes. We’ve got great soil, the right amount of rain and sun, large open spaces – and a history of growing the things for hundreds of years and developing the best farming science to do so.

I apply just about none of those advantages to my crop. I drive to my garden center, buy compost, water the plants from the tap when my rain water butt runs dry, and worst of all – occasionally forget to harvest them at their best – which is a massive waste. This is why I can guarantee that almost every McCain chip that leaves their huge factory is less harmful to the environment than any of my home grown and cooked versions.

Now if our biggest problems in the world really are my home grown potato’s, then we’re doing pretty well! However I love it as an illustration of how scale is very much misunderstood in sustainability.

Speaking of locally cooked potatoes… Let’s move on to the ‘local is best’ fallacy…

Location, Location, Location

Many people see large container ships traveling the world delivering goods as a terrible drain on the planet’s resources. Speaking as someone who has worked in Supply Chain Management for longer than he wants to admit – this is absolute rubbish.

On real world basis, transporting goods around the world from the places where it makes sense to make or grow them at scale to the places it doesn’t is probably one of the best things we could have ever done to preserve our planet – and something that needs to be recognised for the good that it is.

I’m sorry to labour the potato point – but as an example, in scientific and economic circles it’s un-argued that the impact of growing ‘stuff’ (like potatoes) in an area where the conditions suit it better, and require less intensive farming, followed by shipping them almost anywhere in the world is usually far better from a carbon footprint point of view, from a land use point of view, and often from a water use point of view as well, than trying to force grow something more ‘locally’ in poor conditions.

Yet I still overhear in the supermarket the usual armchair experts tutting when they read their veg is ‘foreign’. ‘Isn’t it terrible for the environment’ they complain…

Of course, let’s not pretend that Potatoes Inc. or the shipping companies are doing the planet a favour out of the kindness of their hearts… It’s the cold hard cost benefit of moving goods at scale that really drives them, but we should recognise and celebrate what that currency represents – it’s resources.

Whenever we use more resources than needed, we’re not doing the planet any favours. It doesn’t matter if we’re making and adding more fertiliser to my favorite tuber so we can grow them somewhere inappropriate (like a ‘potato bag’ next to my greenhouse) – or if we are insisting that only ‘local’ raw materials should be used in the latest technological gadget, it’s often completely missing the point that every supply chain has an impact – and in the vast majority of cases – the logistics is often not much of the overall impact of the product.

The key takeaway from this is that if there is an organisation that does something at scale – in one part of the world, and they do it well, then despite what we’re often told – supporting that organisation is going to be far better than ‘buying local’. If you add to this the quality benefits that come from ‘buying from the best’ that lead to less waste – the reduction in the impact to the environment is easy to imagine.

Potatoes?

I’ll be honest – I’m going to struggle to fit spuds in for this next bit… But whether I manage to fit a root vegetable analogy in here or not – we now need to talk about possibly one of the biggest misconceptions that can impact business being done sustainably or not. That is that business is just about competition, and that collaboration and co-operation has no place. Whilst that may have been true in the ancient past (the 80’s 😉) for my entire career, it’s not a reality I’ve lived in – and I’ve worked in some fairly aggressive and ‘competitive’ places. Let me tell you about one.

I was extremely lucky to begin my career in a pretty cool place – that was the wacky world of Formula 1. It wasn’t just working for a mid-field team either, I was privileged enough to work for the Mercedes part of the Mercedes-McLaren partnership and started there in 2007. Whilst that partnership didn’t last more than a few more years (and my colleagues and team went on to win fairly consistently with their own chassis partner – and still are!) I saw some of the best of the best working harder to ‘beat’ the competition with such heart and gusto, that experiencing something like that can’t help but fundamentally change the way you look at competition and collaboration.

Whilst on the face of it, competition is the point of motorsport, no team was an island. We all shared to some extent our supply chains, and those supply partners in some cases had really important innovations that allowed us to compete better on the track. Collaborating intensively both internally and externally with the wider world was what allowed us to achieve such great successes, and create and deploy energy recovery technologies that didn’t just lead us to win – but are becoming now common place as part of making the passenger car powertrain more sustainable.

Although that experience is straight from the heart of the apex of motorsport, it’s true of most modern businesses today. I spent my career in procurement going from an intense negotiation with a potential supplier one day, to working as part of an innovation group collaborating with them to introduce new technologies the very next day. Collaborative competition is the way modern business is done – leading many more people to all win together.

It takes producing things at scale to make the best use of limited resources. It takes the best minds, goods and services from across the world to come up with the least impactful products. And it takes competitive collaboration to drive sustainability up and down the supply chain.

I’m not naive to the reality of competitors and imitators out there in the business world though. For any fanatic F1 fans out there, you will probably remember that the year 2007 that I mentioned as my first year in the sport was not a quiet year when it came to my team. Whilst I was too young and inexperienced to really understand the reality (and probably never will) of what went on with the McLaren/Ferrari ‘cheating’ scandal that year, I still to this day harbour a ridiculous and completely illogical aversion to the Ferrari brand. In my young head that year – they cheated us out of the constructor’s championship, and being a tribal human being – it’s something that still sticks with me all these years later (as absolutely insane and wrong as that might be).

Even potential competitors can become allies though. At ELeather we process waste from the leather industry into our own sustainable leather based high performance material. Our main raw material therefore is waste from the leather industry. Someone with a simplistic understanding of ‘business’ and economics might question how we could collaborate with potential competitors, but I can tell you in no uncertain terms that some of the strongest business relationships I’ve held in my career have been with our waste suppliers. They know what we do with their waste, but like many modern businesses, they actually care about what they are doing. When the choice is to dump your waste, or see it turned into something else productive – they make the right choice, and in turn we, with our own waste streams do similar things that some would argue creates competition with ourselves as well.

The truth is that we work together because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s partly because many businesses are beginning to think about the triple bottom line, and not just the ‘bottom line’. This means not just looking after Profit, but also People and Planet. When I look up and down our supply chain to our customers, suppliers and various other partners – I see that collaborative triple bottom line approach across the whole thing and this is important, because just like in F1 land – no team is an island.

Our use of waste materials, and others use of our waste materials, and our suppliers use of waste materials is a wonderful mix of waste and recycling and good business that scales larger and larger the more our joint business grows. ELeather by itself is just a building with some clever people in it, but when I add our customers, suppliers and partners to it – our approach to sustainability finds common ground and scales from end to end.

Sustainability and Scale

So what’s the point of all of this? If I could sum it all up into one sentence it would be this:

Sustainability is at its most effective at its biggest scale.

In the real world, once the math is done and the well crafted marketing messages are ripped away revealing the reality of supply chains and manufacturing, you’ll find that doing things with the planet in mind oftentimes is the opposite of the common narrative out there. It takes producing things at scale to make the best use of limited resources. It takes the best minds, goods and services from across the world to come up with the least impactful products. And it takes competitive collaboration to drive sustainability up and down the supply chain.

All of this is why when I see our new, larger factory that is capable of running faster and more energy efficiently, and when I talk with our suppliers and customers across the world that we ship from and to bringing in and supplying the most sustainable materials, and when I spend time with our partners in the leather industry that some would call ‘potential competitors’ – I know that I’m surrounded by others that understand that Sustainability is at its best, at scale.

Lee Whitton – Head of Sustainability