Prize worthy sustainability

14th January 2014


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Kathryn Barber

Becky Allen asks winners of environment awards why they matter and for tips on how to make your entry stand out

By any standards, 2013 was a good year for Vegware. Following a 15-fold growth in turnover and staff numbers over the past five years, the Edinburgh-based pioneer of completely compostable food packaging last year won a mantelpiece full of green gongs, from first prize in the Scottish Green Awards to best business in Scotland in the Federation of Small Businesses Streamline Awards.

But for Lucy Frankel, Vegware’s communications director, a Queen’s Award for Enterprise was the crowning glory. “Two of us went to Buckingham Palace – myself and the sales director Dominic Marjoram – on the hottest day in July and met the Queen,” she recalls. “But the best part was when the entire team went along to the city council in Edinburgh to be presented with the certificate and crystal bowl from the Lord Provost, and we could celebrate as a team.”

In times of austerity, it is easy to forget to celebrate success; but winning an award is about more than a good night out. “It’s been a fantastic boost for morale,” says Frankel. “We’re a close, hardworking team, all collaborating, so it’s fantastic as a group to be recognised. It’s all positive reinforcement for what we’re doing.”

In the spotlight

For staff at Bluestone National Park Resort in Pembrokeshire, environmental awards have been a big boost too. Sustainability is central to the operation of the resort, which opened at the height of the recession. Its Blue Lagoon waterpark, for example, is heated by two 28-tonne boilers fuelled by biomass grown on local farms. The biomass boilers reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 3,000 tonnes compared with conventional oil-fired boilers and ensures that the heating bill of the waterpark is half what it would be if powered by oil. It was this initiative that won Bluestone the resource management category in the 2012 Business Commitment to the Environment (BCE) Leadership Awards.

According to Richard Harris, Bluestone’s quality control and resource efficiency manager: “When we went to the BCE Awards at the Royal Albert Hall – a very glitzy affair with lots of big companies – and they announced we’d won, it meant so much to my chief executive and commercial director. They’ve sweated blood for this company and to have that validation, that moment in the spotlight, was really rewarding.”

As well as celebrating the work of senior managers, winning awards can also help make a sustainability team more visible in their own organisation, says Andy Cutts, waste minimisation and recycling manager at Warrington Borough Council. His team won a Green Apple Award in 2012 for a project that improved recycling rates in the most deprived areas of the borough by up to 65%.

“In local authorities at the moment there’s lots of pressure to save money, make efficiencies, and we struggled to take the time to raise awareness of the good work we’re doing. We felt that applying for awards raised the profile of the team,” he says. “Internally people are more aware of what we do, especially at senior level and among councillors, who have such a wide range of other issues to keep up with.”

Kathy Hilton, building facilities manager at the Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge, agrees. The Gurdon also won a Green Apple Award in 2012 for a successful behaviour change campaign that significantly reduced electricity consumption. Hilton says: “Winning Green Apple and University Green Impact awards in 2013 led to a visit by the university’s chancellor, which provided a platform to show off both our science and our commitment to sustainability.”

Badge of approval

Externally too, awards can help organisations build their reputation, particularly if they are new businesses, such as Vegware and Bluestone.

Although winning an award will not necessarily result in acres of press coverage, validation from a third party is invaluable.“We’ve looked at awards as a means of raising our profile. We’re a young business, we don’t have an unlimited marketing budget and it’s a way to get our name more widely known,” says Harris. “The key was independent, external verification of what we’re doing. We can trumpet our green credentials, but without external agreement it doesn’t mean much.”

The same is true for companies involved in the food industry, where consumer confidence is crucial, says Frankel at Vegware. “We work with the UK’s largest contract caterers and distributors, government departments and NHS trusts, so we’re not niche, we’re mainstream and entering and winning awards demonstrates that they can trust us as a supplier,” she says. “It takes work, but third-party approval – where assessors come in, talk to us and get the measure of what we do – is incredibly useful as a badge of approval for customers,” she adds. “There’s lots of greenwash out there and, by winning awards, we’re setting our company apart from the white noise of dubious green claims in the marketplace.”

According to the RSA (Royal Society of Arts), there are around 400 environmental award schemes in the UK. So, which awards are worth applying for? The RSA accreditation scheme helps simplify the choice by guaranteeing that awards meet its quality and validity criteria. Moreover, winners of its accredited awards are the only UK businesses able to enter the biennial European Business Awards for the Environment, which have been run by the European commission since 1987.

“Accreditation is important,” says Dr Malcolm Aickin of the RSA environment awards forum. “To gain it, awards must have robustness and transparency, a credible set of judges, a credible set of entry criteria and a set of judging criteria to match.”

Accredited awards

Together with the Green Apple, the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) and Guardian Sustainable Business awards, the RSA has accredited the City of London’s Sustainable City Awards (SCAs) – which this year merged with the BCE Awards.

The SCAs were established in 2000 and attract some 250 entrants a year across 12 categories, which between them represent the three pillars of sustainable development – the economy, society and the environment. The continued success of the awards is, in part, down to them being regularly refreshed, according to Simon Mills, head of sustainable development at the City of London: “We try to keep a fresh approach by focusing on a theme. For our 2012/13 awards it was fashion, and the year before it was food. For the 2013/14 awards the focus is entrepreneurship: we were inspired by the fact that so many superb startups apply, so we wanted to focus on the buzz in this sector.”

As well as rewarding hardworking staff and raising the profile of their work, Mills believes awards like the SCAs have a larger role to play, showcasing UK talent and using the City of London’s influence to promote sustainability among business leaders. “The first Lord Mayor was appointed in 1189 and there’s been a centre of government at the Guildhall site going back to the Romans. We take a long-term view, which is why we’re very interested in sustainability,” he says. “A word in the ear in the City of London carries around the world – the City has huge influence. Demonstrating that we consider the sustainability of leading firms important can influence attitudes in boardrooms around the world.”

And sustainability is intimately linked with cities, because by 2050 about 6.4 billion people – 70% of the world’s population – will be city dwellers. “That presents immense challenges,” says Mills. “As a city we need to face up to these, but for our stakeholders it’s a huge opportunity. The UK has a huge contribution to make; from our academic base in engineering and planning to our financial, legal and insurance services. The awards provide a showcase for the breadth of talent the UK has.”

Sharing best practice

Because achieving major improvements in sustainability requires raising environmental standards across sectors and learning from the best, schemes such as the Ashden Awards and the Guardian Sustainable Business Awards are heavily focused on sharing best practice.

Now in their fourth year, the Guardian Sustainable Business Awards attract around 300 entries and allow the Guardian to showcase the most successful approaches to corporate sustainability, says Caroline Holtum, head of content for Guardian Sustainable Business.

“When we launched Guardian Sustainable Business our aim was to support people in their professional lives, to provide a platform for people in sustainability to do their jobs better,” she explains. “We wanted to start a conversation about best practice, how you define it, how you exchange it. For us, being the Guardian, we felt we needed a robust process to define best practice.”

Meanwhile, the Ashden Awards – launched by Sarah Butler-Sloss in 2001 – take things a step further, using the annual awards process to select the most promising sustainable energy projects to support in the long term.

Dr Mike Pepler, Ashden’s UK awards manager, says: “Lots of people make grants in the environment sector, and there’s definitely a place for that, but what makes the Ashden Awards different is that we get people who already have a track record; their idea works.

“We want things we can grow or replicate, so we’re always looking for best practice in a given sector or technology, not just to hold up as a good example, but to help the winner make a bigger difference by leveraging our expertise and networks.”

Since 2001, more than 140 sustainable energy pioneers have been recognised for their work.

Raising the bar

Petrol and diesel supplier Greenergy agrees that awards can play an important role in raising sustainability standards. In 2012, Greenergy won the low-carbon fuel initiative of the year at the LowCVP Awards for its new biodiesel pre-processing plant at North Cave, Yorkshire. The only facility of its kind and scale in Britain, the plant will increase the range of waste feed stocks that can be used in Greenergy’s Immingham biodiesel plant.

Greenergy enters few awards, but does participate in the Forest Footprint Disclosure Project (FFDP), a finance sector initiative encouraging the disclosure of sustainability data now merged with the CDP. According to Patrick Lynch, Greenergy’s biofuels sustainability manager: “We entered the FFDP as a validation of our ethos that disclosure is good and because it creates competition in sustainability, which is good for internal practice and for the industry as a whole. It brings the base up.”

Unlike other awards, Lynch believes the wide-ranging scrutiny involved in the FFDP provides vital feedback. “The process demands you stop what you’re doing and take stock of your whole sustainability practice – everything you do – not just the areas you want to talk about. It goes through the whole business, no stone is left unturned,” he says. “And you get good feedback. Each area is scored and that keeps us submitting because it’s extremely useful for the business.”

By sharing best practice and encouraging better performance, many awards help build a community around sustainability that can be especially useful to sole traders like Emily Reid who runs Eco-Drama, the small Scottish business that uses drama to take sustainability issues into schools. According to Reid, who last year won a Scottish Green Award: “The awards ceremony was a nice way to link up the green sector in Scotland. There’s a thriving community out there all pushing on the same social issue, so it’s nice to feel part of something bigger.”

For those still sitting on the fence on whether to apply for an award, Hilton advises: “Go for it. It brings you into contact with many people from different fields, with fantastic ideas on being green, and it’s infectious. The more you talk and read about what other people are doing, the more you to want to do!”

Why enter green awards?

  • By recognising hardworking staff, awards can boost morale.
  • Awards can raise an individual’s or a team’s profile – inside and outside your organisation.
  • Winning can help build your organisation’s reputation.
  • Being judged by external experts is useful third-party validation.
  • Applying is a good opportunity to take stock of sustainability in your business.
  • Measuring yourself against others can help improve the performance of every participant.
  • Award schemes help to share best practice.
  • Awards are a chance to network and feel part of a wider movement.
  • Entering can help change behaviour in your own organisation.
  • Winning an environmental award is a good reason to celebrate.

Top tips for impressing the judges

Make sure a good communicator writes the entry so that judges know exactly what you mean.

Awards often ask for supporting data, so bring your entry to life through a pdf scrapbook of pictures of customers and their testimonials.

Look for the magic ingredient, the thing that makes your organisation special. Even small things done with commitment to detail and put at the heart of an organisation can impress judges.
It sounds obvious, but most awards have clear criteria so it’s important to read and understand them. Approach your entry like an exam; answer the question you’ve been asked, not the one you want to answer.

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