STRATEGY – 4 key UK sustainable business trends

18 July 2017

SBN’s CEO Rachel Brown was working with UK sustainable business organisations last month, based at the offices of the UK’s Forum for the Future. So what’s emerging there that will soon be here?

1.   The circular economy is taking over

A circular economy is where the lifecycle of materials is continually maximised, usage optimised and at the end of life all materials are reutilised. SBN’s James Griffin is working to accelerate the adoption of this approach in New Zealand. He was also working in the UK last month. You can see his report here.

From my point of view the Ellen McArthur Foundation and Summit was a fantastic source of inspiration. The Foundation seems extremely well resourced. The concept of the circular economy is garnering support from major companies.

I met with the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. They have a Great Recovery Project with the UK government. This looks at the challenges of waste and the opportunities of a circular economy through the lens of design.

I saw the circular economy working at street level with ‘makerspaces’ and repair cafes. There’s a repair and reuse culture re-emerging. It has already started to take root in New Zealand. It’s going to be big and will shape a new economy.

2.  The power is shifting

There are a host of pressures on the world’s current energy production and distribution system. They are causing very rapid change in that system, particularly as distributed renewable energy sources are added to the mix. There are the resource constraints from the dwindling of inexpensive fossil fuels. There is the urgent need to move away from climate changing options. And there are the technological advances that are reducing the power of the big producers and the grid and putting it into ordinary people’s hands.

In the UK the Forum for the Future is trying to establish the Living Grid concept as a collaboration project. This is creating an interactive, self-balancing and adaptive energy ecosystem that’s inspired by nature. This sort of system needs to emerge here too.

3.  Communities are innovating

While in the UK I spent some time exploring the idea of ‘Citizen-Led Innovation’. Across all the spheres of our lives (economic, social, political, technological) there are dynamic patterns that govern the status quo – seemingly preventing change. There is a sense, for many, that these are fairly impenetrable. But in reality change happens all the time and some of those changes become the next entrenched system. So can we deliberately influence the future by catalysing community innovation?

New Zealand is a small connected nation. We have a plethora of community and non-governmental organisations. They are trying to plug the gaps in a range of social and environmental issues. We are small enough to be able to connect across the sectors, involving businesses or business thinking, and make change happen faster, IF we want to.

4.  We must restore our food chain

We have to change farming practice to be more attuned to the land and water – intensive farming is too hard on soil health. I found this reflected in the UK in the work of Patrick Holden, an organic farmer and founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust. Wherever we look it is clear we need to align our future diets with sustainable food systems. We must restructure processing and distribution systems so that they are focused locally and regionally. And we must be honest about the economic externalities of pollution and the climate change impacts of what we do. I met with Emily Ma. She is Head of Special Projects with Google’s X innovation lab. X is taking an active interest in food waste and distribution. This is a global issue, and there is a lot happening on it in UK and US community organisations. Solutions here might generate new healthy business models of the future.

At the other end of the scale  to the organics work of Patrick Holden. Forum for the Future is working on a global coalition called The Protein Challenge 2040. This is exploring feeding nine billion people enough protein that is affordable, healthy and good for the environment. It means increasing the proportion of plant based protein consumed. It requires scaling up sustainable feed innovation to meet the demand for animal protein. It will prompt us to close the nutrient rich waste streams in food production systems and restoring soil health.