We were joined by sustainable innovator Mark Shayler and Agnes Gendry-Hearn, Head of Ethical Buying at Lush to explore greener, cleaner and more ethical ways of doing business.
In simple terms, a business that can call itself ‘sustainable’ is an organisation that takes steps to ensure that it has a minimal negative impact on the environment, community, society and economy – balancing the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. On Tuesday 18th August, we welcomed to the YCN Library two experts well-versed on the subject of sustainability.
Mark Shayler is a founding partner of the Do Lectures, and director of sustainable innovation company Ape, with 26 years of experience helping brands disrupt and innovate in their approach to sustainability. Meanwhile, providing an organisational perspective was Agnes Gendry-Hearn, Head of Ethical Buying at Lush Cosmetics, where she has worked for 16 years – she started back when Lush had just 15 stores in the UK; it now has more than 400 in over 50 countries – to help embed sustainable practices into the way the company sources and creates its much-loved products.
Together, Mark and Agnes shared stories and experiences of how they've each strived to make a difference, as well as advice and learnings on how brands big and small can alter the way they do business – leaving the audience inspired to instigate positive change in their own companies.
Things we learned:
1. It’s not sufficient to do bad things better, we need to do better things.
Mark opened by asserting that there needs to be an extreme overhaul of the way we consume, spend and do business. In our current culture, we are defined by commodities – our clothes, our gadgets and our lifestyles. But this level of consumerism is neither practically or economically sustainable. Here in the UK, with our minimal export industry, we are at a tipping point and there needs to be a shift towards buying quality, ethical products that last. Right now, says Mark, we’re designing for obsolescence, with huge amounts of talent, resource and money being spent on throwaway products with pitifully short life cycles. He argued that, instead of selling new products, we should be leasing them and building a peer-to-peer sharing economy. And as consumers, instead of endlessly buying and replacing, we should be fixing, mending and borrowing. Mark admitted that this revised attitude will require a complete reinvention of business; a scary but ultimately necessary change.
2. You can’t make money on a sick planet.
Both Mark and Agnes pointed out that disassociation and an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude is one of the major factors that contributes to our society neglecting to consider the products we buy, what goes in them and how they’re made. As our population grows, raw materials and fuel are becoming scarce and other countries – namely China – are laying claim to material-rich lands like Africa. Unstable and unregulated industry means that child labour and exploitation still exists and – although we’d rather not admit it – contributes to components in our phones, our clothing, our food, and many other items we take for granted. Mark pointed out “We need to make more money by selling less stuff”.
3. Not sustainability, but regeneration.
Interestingly, Agnes’ focus has moved on from sustainability. Maintaining the current systems within business is not a viable option, she said. Instead, we should be talking about regeneration – ensuring everything produced, grown or harvested is done so in a way that leaves a positive impact. Since Lush began as a family business in 1995, the company has maintained and developed its ethical approach to environmental and social issues, which is carried through all packaging, supply chain and ingredients sourcing. Agnes’s primary goal right now is to spread the word of permaculture – regenerative, restorative agriculture – which revolves three key aims: the care of people, care of the earth, and fair share.
4. Collaboration not colonialism.
A large part of what the SLUSH Fund (Sustainable Lush Fund) does is to find solutions to economical and environmental problems by working with those on the ground at a grassroots level. In addition, SLUSH Fund partner companies are encouraged to share skills and findings with each other, to strengthen the wider cause. Bringing this same collaborative approach to Lush HQ, Agnes’s team is introducing Sociocracy as a form of governance – making sure everyone and their ideas are heard. Shifting the paradigm, as she put it, “from looking to an inspiring leader, to seeing who’s got what, and how we are supporting projects with as many resources, brains, hearts and souls as we can.”
5. We are all responsible.
As consumers, we’re lazy when it comes to finding out brand truths, said Mark. We seek brands that reflect who we are and what we want to be – and marketing teams are great at finding the celebrities to create the brand associations that draw us in. But when we’re directly faced with ethical issues, and the impact our purchase decisions have on people, communities and the planet, we’re willing to change our behaviours. Mark cited the $2 t-shirt vending machine as a great example of this.
How far companies should be marketing their sustainability stories was debated by both the speakers and the audience. Often, as Agnes pointed out, positive practices such as permaculture aren’t easy to communicate to customers, because they’re just not sexy. But more than that, sustainability and regeneration efforts at Lush aren’t seen as a marketing tools or CSR – they’re just the Lush way of doing things. What’s more important than talking about sustainability, Agnes feels, is actually being sustainable – “As businesses, let’s just do this stuff. Make your products sustainable and ethical, and just keep putting them out there. ”, she said. Let people come because they love it, and make information easily available for those who want to know about it. On the other hand, she recognises that Lush is in a position of being able to influence other customers, other companies and – perhaps most importantly – industries to make better decisions.
Mark feels very strongly that brands should, to an extent, be educators – “make people think”, he asserted, “drag them into consciousness.” Everything you buy – every penny you spend – has power and influence. An interesting anecdote was shared from a recent Lush conference, where one of the Ethical Buying team asked those in the audience to raise their hand if they were a Lush Buyer. Five or so hands were raised, those of the small buying team. When the question was rephrased to “Who buys things with Lush budget?” almost every hand was in the air and the entire team was reminded that each and every purchase should be a considered and ethical choice.
We’re not just consumers, we’re citizens, and we have a responsibility too.
6. Never be satisfied.
What can companies do to be more sustainable, ethical and conscious?
Know your core values and what you want to effect, said Agnes, “decide what your philosophy is, and then how you will service that every day”. Rather than agitating, try infiltrating, she suggests. Make small changes that chip away and will ultimately make a big difference – small-scale solutions in a large-frame network. Employ spiky people who are a pain in the arse, who are never satisfied with the way things are, who demand more, who keep pushing, and who make you uncomfortable about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. This kind of work requires a dogged attitude and will never be finished.
We need to be constantly looking at our work, our products and our companies and asking ourselves “Am I proud of this?”, said Mark. There’s only a small gap between what you want to be, and what you are. And it’s not too late to put things right.
A big thank you to our speakers, to our photographer Sam Bush and to Propercorn for supplying our snacks.
Location:72 Rivington St,
London, EC2A 3AY,
Start:18th August, 2015 at 6:30pm
End:18th August, 2015 at 8:00pm