Is our Sustainability Thinking all Wrong?
In recent years there has been increasing support for the notion that greater sustainability leads to improved profitability and success.
If this is true, then making an organisation as sustainable as possible should maximise its profits and positive impact.
And yet most organisations focus on incremental improvements in sustainability.
Should we instead be thinking about organisations’ full sustainability potential and working backwards to figure out how to get there?
Rethinking Sustainability Goals
Every year organisations face the difficult question of what comes next for their sustainability. The answer is usually an incremental improvement on a number of environmental and/or social metrics, with the magnitude influenced by competitor achievements or internal consensus of what is possible.
What if instead the activities of an organisation were examined to identify the inherent full sustainability potential of each activity that it does?
So instead of thinking about moving an organisation’s sustainability incrementally forwards we instead identify its full sustainability potential (environmentally and socially) and work backwards to figure out the big steps to get there.
Interface, the carpet tile manufacturer, did just this in 1994 when it set itself Mission 0 – to have no negative impact on the world across seven dimensions. Maintaining this vision of the company’s most sustainable form (as originally defined in 1994 and recently updated in 2017) has helped it to maintain market leadership and a premium positioning in an increasingly cut-throat industry, competing against much larger companies also offering broadloom flooring.
Was Interface just lucky? Can a full sustainability potential approach be adopted in today’s rapidly changing world?
Below, a case study in another sector demonstrates how working towards full sustainability potential generates environmental and social benefits while reducing costs and creating substantial competitive advantages.
Case Study: Rype Office
Rype Office was established in 2013 in the UK to make it easy for organisations to have attractive, sustainable and lower cost office furniture and flooring.
With over 35 projects completed, and a host of awards won, this rapidly growing business is succeeding because it is defining and rapidly moving towards its full sustainability potential, activity by activity, throughout its operations.
Full Environmental Sustainability Potential in Sourcing
Rype Office identified that the full environmental sustainability potential of once-used office furniture and flooring is reuse, repair and remanufacturing, not the prevailing disposal approaches of recycling, waste to energy (i.e. burning) and landfilling, which are lower on the waste hierarchy.
With this full sustainability potential in mind, the company built processes to source, refurbish and remake furniture to as-new appearance and performance (or as desired by customers), but for less than half the cost of new furniture and with an 80% lower environmental footprint (including 80% lower use of virgin materials).
This enables Rype Office to compete in the new furniture market but with a structural cost advantage and a strong sustainability message to aid with marketing.
Full Social Sustainability Potential in Staffing
Rype Office recognised that its refurbishment processes require limited training, involve no health and safety risks and yet provide variety of work because each item is in a different condition with different problems to be addressed.
This work is ideal for those facing the greatest barriers to employment and so for large projects where a meaningful period of employment can be provided, Rype Office takes on disadvantaged staff.
Eight long term unemployed with disabilities were engaged for a three month furniture project in Wales, creating an employment pathway that resulted in three of these staff finding full time positions at the end of the project.
Full Social Sustainability Potential in Sourcing
For reclaimed carpet tiles, Rype Office has partnered with Greenstream Flooring, a social enterprise creating vocational training for long term unemployed in impoverished Welsh valleys and with a mission to provide flooring to low income households. Rype Office provides profitable commercial customer revenue streams for Greenstream Flooring, while assisting with its business development.
Rype Office benefits from lower cost Grade A reclaimed carpet tiles which are in good condition and therefore provide a structural cost advantage in flooring, with the social impacts also appealing to clients.
Working with the Merthyr Tydfil Institute for the Blind (MTIB), Rype Office has developed a new collaborative soft seating range. Rype Office researched the capabilities of a range of disabled charities (including ex Remploy workshops) and discovered that MTIB has a long track record of providing high quality frames to leading manufacturers of soft seating. However, because MTIB is at the start of the value chain, they are subject to price pressure and are hidden in a long supply chain, despite the very high prices of the finished items.
Rype Office has turned this around so that the MTIB brand is now visible to the customer as part of the providence and branding of the furniture. This is similar to the Fair Trade movement, except focussed on furniture instead of coffee.
So when Rype Office is unable to source collaborative sofas and booths from the office furniture clearance market, MTIB makes the box frames. This creates commercial revenues and brand exposure for MTIB, while enabling Rype Office to source directly to minimise the cost of the furniture.
Full Social Sustainability Potential through Improving Staff Wellbeing
Rype Office identified that current office design practices, as taught in architecture and design schools, are mostly focussed on aesthetic appearance, largely ignoring the well-being of staff.
For the greatest staff wellbeing and productivity an office should:
Inspire staff (e.g. with colour, innovation and style)
Provide privacy and manage noise in open plan formats
Create varied work environments enabling multiple individual and group modes of working
Improve air quality (such as through the use of plants that soak up office airborne toxins like ozone)
Provide ergonomic chairs and desks to reduce pain and discomfort
To create offices incorporating all of these aspects, Rype Office brought together experts from varied backgrounds to create a design service that incorporates these with traditional design considerations in a reinvented design process that is much more iterative and collaborative with clients.
And to make these benefits available to all regardless of budget, Rype Office does not charge for its design service.
This helps Rype Office with its marketing and allows it to better understand the furniture and flooring needs of clients.
Innovation is continuing within Rype Office to define and work towards the full sustainability potential for each of its activities in relation to social and environmental aims. For example, the company is working on upcycling unattractive used office chairs so that they are both visually distinctive and ergonomically supportive in ways that current chairs are not.
Dimensions of Sustainability
Because sustainability is a broad topic, it can be difficult to identify what aspects of sustainability are the most impactful or important. Fortunately there are a number of frameworks presenting dimensions that are worthy of consideration when thinking about the full sustainability potential of an organisation’s activities. One is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (see Appendix).
For example, Rype Office’s sustainability achievements can be considered to be contributing to specific goals:
Reuse, repair and remanufacturing addresses goals 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) and 13 (Climate Action)
Providing employment pathways for disabled and long term unemployed addresses goals 1 (No Poverty), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 10 (Reduced Inequalities) and 11.
Sourcing from social enterprises addresses goals 1, 8, 10, 11 and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals)
Customer staff wellbeing addresses goal 3 (Good Health and Well-being)
Based on the experience of two sustainability leaders, Interface and Rype Office, a full potential approach to sustainability, where organisations transform the activities in their supply chains to the most environmentally and socially sustainable possible, can also drive economic success.
Appendix: Sustainable Development Goals
Goal 1: No Poverty
Goal 2: Zero Hunger
Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being
Goal 4: Quality Education
Goal 5: Gender Equality
Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities
Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
Goal 13: Climate Action
Goal 14: Life Below Water
Goal 15: Life on Land
Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals
For more information on the Sustainable Development Goals, see http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-