The big question: How can business change behaviour and attitudes towards sustainable resource management?

1st December 2017


Chris Murphy

Deputy chief executive, Chartered Institution of Wastes Management

“It makes long-term business sense”

The evidence to suggest that sustainability is good for business is becoming ever harder to refute. Some of the world’s biggest brands are leading from the front – with Unilever setting a zero-waste-to-landfill target across its global factory network to the Coca-Cola Company in Western Europe and Coca-Cola European Partners committing to collect 100% of packaging to ensure no litter ends up on the street or in the ocean, and to double the use of recycled plastic in its PET bottles to at least 50%.

These decisions are not being made through simple altruism but because it makes long-term business sense to be more resource efficient, to reduce waste, and develop a brand image that shows consideration for the planet.

Customers do expect it. In 2015, a global online study by Nielsen found that 73% of millennials were willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings, up from 50% in 2014. There was also a rise in the percentage of respondents aged 15-20 (Generation Z) who were willing to pay more for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact – up from 55% in 2014 to 72% in 2015.

It is a bottom-line issue too, as material and energy costs continue to rise. Research by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs in 2011 suggested that British businesses could save around £23bn a year by being more resource-efficient.

Nathan Gray

Head of sustainability, Helistrat

“This is the missing link to turn ambitions into reality”

Sustainability is not a new concept. However, with the advent of the circular economy, rising customer expectations and government regulations, what was once seen as a ‘nice to do’ is now a requirement for successful businesses.

Robust sustainability plans with ambitious targets have become the norm. But when it comes to delivering on them, faced with the daunting scale of their goals, businesses often hit a brick wall.

Resource management is the missing link in developing roadmaps that turn ambitions into reality. This will require businesses to rethink what they believe they know about waste management and to embark on strategic partnerships.

As industry and society acknowledges the cost of waste, an inevitable evolution has begun where we are now talking about resources. Prevention of waste is paramount – everything produced must be seen as a resource to be reused or transformed into something new.

This first step is to work out what waste you produce, why, then create processes to prevent or reduce it. By managing waste at the outset, you can deliver shared value and create new revenue streams, rebates and innovation, improving the environment, creating social opportunity, limiting carbon impact and creating cleaner, greener energy.

Businesses must look beyond waste management as an end-of-pipe service and see resource management as a strategic partnership.

James Dixon MIEMA CEnv

Head of sustainability and compliance, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

“Nurture champions”

Times are hard. We’ve all got to do more with less. NHS trusts across the country have to save millions of pounds, and sustainability professionals can help.

Sustainable resource management makes sense. Long-term, no business, organisation or ecosystem would exist without it. In NHS terms, saving money frees up valuable funds for patient care and helps make this cherished institution that bit more sustainable.

Behaviour change is widely cited as the intervention that provides the biggest return on investment. But in a large organisation whose number-one priority is patient care, convincing people of the need for efficient resource use can be challenging.

You’ve got to pick your battles and share your successes in the hope that they multiply. We’ve had most success by engaging like-minded members of staff – our green champions. In tailoring our methods and priorities of different staff groups, we have made sustained improvements in recycling, water and energy use, sustainable catering and low-carbon models of care.

Working with these keen individuals has allowed us to make them part of the solution. We’ve developed ways of making the ‘right’ choice easy and limiting the ‘wrong’ choice. This could be as simple as correct bin placement in a ward, or ensuring only the CEO can sign off air travel. Bureaucracy can sometimes have its benefits!

Judy Proctor

Deputy Director for Waste Regulation, Environment Agency

Every so often something significant happens in the way we think about environmental management. For waste, our focus has moved towards looking through a lens of resources and seeing opportunities.

After years of gradual shifts towards waste prevention, re-use and recycling away from disposal (the waste hierarchy), we talk more about resource efficiency and cost-benefits. Conservative estimates suggest remanufacturing potential in the UK is worth £5.6billion.

At an EU level there is the Circular Economy package, with over 50 actions that span business sectors, product design, water and waste.

The UK government is developing strategies looking ahead to opportunities to make the UK a world leader in resource efficiency and competitiveness – notably a 25-year Environment Plan, Waste and Resources Strategy and Industrial Strategy. Their aims include improving resource productivity, reducing waste, improving markets for secondary materials (and make them more resilient) and creating new generation technologies.

Government policies, legislation, and economic drivers change behaviours – and we need them all. The Environment Agency has seen, for example, the producer responsibility policy instrument leading to an increase of around 28% to 61% in packaging recycling rates over 20 years, and about 5% to 45% in portable battery recycling rates since 2009.

The next big gains will involve looking upstream to focus on product design and product life-cycle. For example, some companies now use fewer plastic polymers in their packaging, improving rates of collection and recovery.

We need to make it clearer and simpler for businesses to do the right thing, demonstrating financial and environmental benefits and options. Plus we need to make it harder to do the wrong thing. By focussing on resources, we can influence what’s done early on in production processes. This will reduce pressure on resource-use in a growing global population where demand for resources is ever-increasing.

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