By Bridget Gourlay
They say travel changes you. That’s certainly true for Sustainable Business Network (SBN) founder and CEO, Rachel Brown.
As a New Zealand-raised child, her schoolteacher parents encouraged her do sediment sampling in local mangrove swamps. The family went sailing around the top of the North Island, admiring its pristine environments. And she was hugely inspired by her lecturer Jeannette Fitzsimons at university. But on her OE, she saw real poverty and rivers black with pollution. When she returned to New Zealand, she was determined not to let us go down the same path.
What was SBN like in its origins in 2002 compared to today?
“We began in a small office above Ecostore in Auckland. We had only two staff members and we focused on why sustainability was important to business. We had to explain the connection between environmental and social issues and demonstrate the business case for sustainability.
Membership took off between 2006 and 2009. For example, in 2007, membership grew 40 percent. The then Labour Government recognised the trend and the growing demand for better environmental and social performance from key industries like food, tourism and exports so had a number of programmes in place to future-proof our business and economy.
They introduced Govt3, a government-wide purchasing policy which asked suppliers to demonstrate their environmental and social commitments prior to winning contracts. As the nation’s biggest spenders this had a huge impact on business. 2008 saw the recession, a change of government, and a shift away from sustainability. When National came to power, SBN, along with a number of other NGOs lost its funding. It’s been a challenging process, one which many businesses and NGOs have had to go through. SBN had to rethink how we operated – we became more commercial and refocused on supporting our membership. It was a good reminder about what we are really here to do. There’s always a silver lining to change and the loss of Government funding has meant we can focus solely on members rather than reporting to Government.”
Do businesses join purely for environmental reasons, or do they see it as cost-cutting and a marketing tool as well?
“The bulk of those who become SBN members join for business reasons. A smaller percentage, say 10 percent, join purely because of values. Most want support from the Network and to hear from other members about their experiences and the business benefits they have achieved.
I’ve been in this area for a long time now and have seen a lot of change in that time. Businesses are becoming seriously well informed and are integrating sustainability into their visions and strategies.
They are asking big questions like ‘What are the big social issues that need solving?’ and ‘What is our role in that?’ as well as ‘How do you get to zero waste when infrastructure isn’t supporting that?’ They are interested in unusual collaboration because they recognise the way we have done business in the past is not how we solve these future problems.
SBN has traditionally been a membership of homegrown, small and medium sized enterprises. The most novel new products or services seem to come from small business – these guys are truly inspiring and we want to encourage more SMEs to join. Our membership fees are based on turnover.
For example, if a small plumbing business wanted to join, annual fees would amount to $300, and the payback could easily be recouped within the first six months if they were actively involved. Through the network the plumber might be introduced to many more efficient methods for capturing rainwater, reducing water usage in homes, and perhaps even meeting new customers interested in having sustainable homes.
The networking aspect is very important. Once known as a ‘green-leaning’ plumber, that might appeal to a larger business member who could employ them to work on a new ‘green’ building project.”
How is a business’ environmental impact different to households?
“It depends on the business type and its size. Business impact tends to be much greater than households. For many it’s energy and transport, for others it maybe the raw materials they use.
For example, as fuel prices rise, an efficient taxi company would focus on its vehicles using CARCULATE to redesign their fleet into a safe and efficient one. We could encourage them to consider sustainable driving courses so the drivers can learn how to use less fuel. They may look at biofuels or join the Carbon4Good programme to offset their carbon emissions and support local communities with tree planting.”
What do you think is the greatest environmental challenge facing New Zealand right now?
“Right now I think it is probably rebuilding Christchurch. Hopefully this rebuild can be used as a model for addressing New Zealand’s urban design, energy and water problems.
Our homes and commercial buildings are very inefficient and our car-focused urban planning means inefficient transport systems burning up more oil and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. The rebuild is an opportunity to make Christchurch the most sustainable ‘green’ city in the country and potentially the world.
We could even go as far as having new buildings which generate power, be located in the right places to encourage active modes of travel, the streets could be designed for people – not for cars. This is a great opportunity to realise urban planning for a future beyond oil.”
And the greatest environmental challenge facing the world?
“Definitely climate change. It is the result of how we live, work and commute and it affects everything. Climate change hits us – socially and economically- it also impacts biodiversity and ecological systems.
Whether humans can adapt to the changes coming our way and recreate how we live, work and play to have a positive impact on natural systems is the greatest test of our time.”
For more information, visit www.sustainable.org.nz