It would be very easy to just write about Commercial Group’s environmental and social achievements. Like the carbon emissions we’ve eradicated through investing in a green delivery fleet or the disadvantaged people whose lives have been changed through our social enterprise.
I could also tell you about the many challenges we’ve faced. The time the living wall died or when our recycling bins were contaminated and a whole batch was unrecyclable.
The reality is that the most responsible path is not necessarily the easiest. But I believe that it is ultimately the best path, and one which can add immense value to a business.
Make your own path
If you were following the #RBWeek online conversation during Responsible Business Week in April, you might have felt inspired by the many examples of good business practice out there. On the other hand, you might have felt it’s all a million miles away from anything your business could ever hope to achieve.
It’s always good to look at what others are doing. But what’s realistic and appropriate for one business won’t necessarily be right for another. Responsible business is a journey, not a destination. And like all journeys, it needs to start with a single step and the direction taken will be determined by the culture, values and attitude of your business and the people in it.
When my brother Arthur and I set up Commercial Group 25 years ago, our shared values shaped many of the decisions we made. As we’ve grown, our moral compass has stayed the same, but we’ve had to deploy it differently. The processes, challenges and decisions facing a £60 million ($78 million) company are far more complex than those of a start-up. A major challenge for us was finding ways to nurture and maintain our core ethos as the business grew.
We’ve learnt that a two-tier approach where ideas are harvested from the whole business, then actioned within a strategic framework can ensure responsibility is inherently progressive. And it is just as relevant to businesses starting out as those looking to take it to the next level.
It’s important to create a culture that both instils and elicits a responsible outlook from employees. Most people want to feel that they are doing good, so find ways to embrace the values and attitudes of individuals across the business.
For activity to become self-sustaining, decisions shouldn’t all be made at a board level and filtered down. Instead, let initiatives come from the ground up. They are far more likely to be in tune with the daily operations of the team. This will result in greater resonance, and when obstacles are encountered, people will be more motivated to overcome them.
Empowering individuals to become champions of environmental or social change can be very effective. Our Green Angels programme has generated some amazing ideas that have energised the business as well as engaging and inspiring our clients and other third parties. One example is the living wall (which, incidentally, is now thriving again).
Provide a framework
A major barrier to responsible business operations can be the misconception that they will involve disproportionate costs or reduce competitive edge. It’s true that some outlay could be required or that procurement decisions may need to step away from being purely cost-driven. But if business directors create a robust framework for social and environmental initiatives, they should ultimately deliver a healthy return on investment.
Responsible business activity needs to be aligned with corporate goals and have its own clearly-defined targets and deliverables. There must be a compelling rationale behind the decisions made to ensure the overall process is sustainable and has longevity. Goals need to be ambitious, but achievable.
Some of our best initiatives are those that have evolved and developed from a simple idea over time. The solar-panelled, purpose-built bike shed and park and stride ideas were improvements upon earlier efforts. And our zero-waste achievement was the result of six years of hard work.
It’s exciting, because you never know where an idea might take you. At other times, you need to follow your gut instinct and recognise when to seek new challenges or alter the course. When we set up our social enterprise initiative, Commercial Foundations, it involved a significant transition from solely focusing on environmental responsibility to actively generating tangible social value.
As well as measuring the direct impact of initiatives, wider factors can be used as a benchmark of success.
People who work in businesses with strong environmental and social credentials are typically more emotionally engaged with their organisation. These businesses tend to attract new recruits with similar values as well. This can deliver multiple benefits, as people who care about the place they work are more likely to have a positive attitude which infiltrates everything they do.
Measure factors such as staff churn, the calibre of new recruits, customer loyalty and customer satisfaction and see if these improve over time. Also consider how your activity might be used to achieve differentiation from competitors.
Responsibility breeds success
Profitability and purpose should be two sides of the same coin. There’s nothing new about this idea. More than 100 years ago brands such as Cadbury’s and Johnson & Johnson were focusing on the well-being of their employees and wider communities. In today’s connected world we can act globally and locally. Every single action creates a ripple effect that has the potential to contribute to the greater good.
So, go on, raise the bar on responsibility in your business. You’ll probably make mistakes, and it won’t always be easy. But once you’ve taken the first step, you can empower the people around you to make a positive difference to the world.
Simone Hindmarch-Bye is co-founder of UK business services specialist Commercial Group. With sustainability at the heart of its business, the company has two full-time environmental specialists and was the first in the UK OP sector to introduce biofuel deliveries.