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…
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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:
- Big business is bad for sustainability.
- Local means ‘better’ for the environment.
- 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…
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.
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).
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.
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