The British Government recently announced its plans to become entirely carbon neutral by the year 2050, as many of you will know. It seems clear that reaching this milestone will require systematic change on many levels.

On an individual basis we can (and should) recycle our household waste, use reusable cups and bottles and turn off the lights when leaving rooms. But in order to meet the milestone announced by the government, individual action will not be enough. Businesses must adapt and change their practices in order to become more sustainable; whether this be in procurement, waste disposal, energy production or energy use, there exists vast opportunity for businesses to become more environmentally friendly. But with so many routes to explore and different businesses prioritising different strategies, where should businesses such as SMEs even begin? Advice on a national level, for example that of the government in its 25-year Environment Plan, is all well and good, but regional level advice is crucial in order to more intimately guide this shift to carbon neutrality. Enter: Sustainability West Midlands(SWM).

Anna Bright, CEX, presenting on SWM’s networks

SWM is the sustainability champion for the West Midlands as designated by government. It is a not-for-profit company that works with members in the business, public and voluntary sectors. Its role is to act as a catalyst for change through advice to leaders, to develop practical solutions with members and share success through communications.

Anna Bright, Chief Executive of SWM, led a workshop at Venturefest on 4 July 2019, outlining what it is that SWM does, how businesses and SMEs could benefit from becoming members and how collaboration between businesses was vital in the quest to push the sustainability agenda. In particular, the countless benefits provided by SWM’s Sustainability Support Hub(in collaboration with the West Midlands Combined Authority) were brought to attention.

Participants were then asked to discuss amongst themselves whether there were any practises in their businesses that could be made more sustainable with guidance by SWM, or whether there was any support that SWM was not providing that could prove useful. Focusing on the surge in the use of battery powered cars, the discussion initially centred itself around recycling, with concern raised specifically on batteries and whether they were (or could be) sustainably disposed of. It was raised that although there existed companies that were willing to take these batteries, it was still unclear what was done with them and whether it was in fact any more sustainable to give old batteries to these companies, than it was to dispose of them in landfill. Anna suggested that one of SWM’s members, Cenex, would be able to provide more information on this, as well as offering to query the six Universities that are also members of SWM what research was being done into the disposal of batteries. It was pointed out that the Faraday Research Group is looking at the deconstruction of batteries and how their chemicals can be extracted for re-use.

SWM exhibiting in the main Venturefest Hall

Conversation shifted to the economic cost of becoming more sustainable. It was inspiring to see the audience united on the opinion that, while it was true that adapting business practises to become more sustainable required investment of not only money, but time, resources and staff, this investment was certainly worth it. Audience members raised the point that if this investment was discussed with companies and people experienced with adapting businesses to become more environmentally friendly, that this could cut cost and increase efficiency of such a transition.

The final topic that was discussed was the necessity of inter-business communication. As had been pointed out in the discussion of the works of Cenex and the Faraday Research groups, solutions to difficulties in becoming more sustainable often had been developed, or were in development, by other companies. Communication allows companies to take advantage of this, saving time and allowing the fight against climate change to become more coordinated and organised.

It is just this kind of collaboration and communication between businesses that Venturefest seeks to promote, and it was enjoyable to see business owners discuss the numerous advantages that this provides and insightful to see the vast tools and networks SWM has available to catalyse this process.

(Author: Valentin Theil, Sustainability West Midlands)