Big Interview: Following your moral compass

One of the most comprehensively sustainable businesses in our industry, Commercial Group is more than an independent OP dealer - it's an inspiration for anybody venturing down the social responsibility path.

The basic facts about UK-based business supplies reseller Commercial Group are these: the company is currently in its 26th year of trading and has revenues of about £61 million ($80 million) with a very strong growth trajectory. It employs 270 staff and as a result of the acquisition of London-based dealer Wiles Greenworld in July 2016 is now one of the largest independent dealers in the country. It’s closely associated with the two main OP wholesalers in the UK, Commercial through a long-standing relationship with EVO Group’s VOW – it’s by far and away VOW’s biggest customer – and Wiles Greenworld historically through Spicers.

In terms of product portfolio, Commercial is strongly grounded in IT and print, something that has evolved to it now being one of the frontrunners in the managed print services area. In total, it boasts a range of 24,000 SKUs. 

What sets Commercial apart and makes it far from basic is its extraordinary focus on social responsibility. Sustainability lies at the very heart of the organisation – Commercial is a zero waste operator and has been carbon neutral since 2006. But the term extends far beyond just a green agenda for brother and sister duo Simone Hindmarch-Bye and Arthur Hindmarch. 

OPI’s Heike Dieckmann speaks to co-founding Director Simone Hindmarch-Bye about her passion for sustainability in its broadest sense and her relentless drive to make Commercial a better place to do business with and to work for. 

OPI: Simone, let’s begin with a look at your sustainability vision and goals. 

Simone Hindmarch-Bye: Let me start by saying that for Commercial Group sustainability is absolutely not just about ‘green’, it’s about social responsibility – the whole package. 

And yes, we want to shift products and that, naturally, is absolutely vital for commercial success. But we also want to be constantly challenged to do the right thing. Just over a decade ago, we decided on a set of ten company commitments and everything we do always relates to those commitments. They are about carbon footprint – both ours and that of our customers and suppliers – and waste management, about helping those less fortunate and about staff development, to name but a few.

OPI: How far are you down the path of accomplishing these goals? 

SHB: Well, one thing to always bear in mind is that the goals – and the goalposts – are constantly shifting. It’s never a case of ‘yes, we’ve done it and this is it’, but a continuous trial and error scenario, especially with all the new technologies available. 

Just take low-emission vehicles, for example, and our hydrogen fleet. We started this project about five years ago and now we’ve got the largest hydrogen fleet delivering goods in the UK – and that’s across the board, not just in our industry [for more information on sustainable transportation, see ‘The Green Mile’, page 32].

But it’s a process: you’ve got to trial it, pilot it, address the challenges, work with different partners all the time, often completely start from scratch again. And as new technologies are being developed, you look at the whole concept again.

Another example is our zero waste policy at Commercial. Again, it’s a constant work in progress as new issues arise and you look at challenges such as waste contamination. 

Shortly after we came up with our ten commitments, we started having regular CSR days. We invite our suppliers and our customers to come to those, listen to inspirational speakers, such as The Big Issue founder Baron Bird MBE in 2016, and generally have an open forum about sustainability in its broadest sense. The idea is to inspire and energise our customers and suppliers to get involved too. 

One of the important aspects for me is the sharing of ideas and experiences, and not just within our industry. I sometimes get comments about the type of events I go to. But it’s at those off-industry gatherings that I often meet people who take you on a course of action. Our hydrogen fuel policy, for example, was a UK OP industry first and completely from outside our sector. 

OPI: Where does your current focus lie?

SHB: We’re spending a lot of time right now on building our social enterprise, particularly around the ethical side. We’re working closely with our Gold Suppliers, for example – which is about 80% of our spend – on the Ethical Trading Initiative. 

A lot of this has to do with auditing. That’s not to say we’re telling our suppliers “if you don’t do this, we won’t trade with you”. But we do want them to understand we’re on a journey. We would like to take them on this journey with us, educating them about what’s ethically important to us and supporting them to be the kind of partner that we choose to work with. All suppliers of non-Commercial branded products have to take part in our Supplier Engagement Programme to ensure they comply with the Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code. 

OPI: What’s the response you get to that type of audit? Is there a willingness to comply?

SHB: With most of our suppliers, yes there is. Sometimes you have to step in and explain as not everyone has the same priorities as we do. It would be really damaging to suddenly remove our business from suppliers because they’re not quite where we are or want them to be. 

The idea instead is to take them on this journey and set realistic goals for them to achieve. We generally do that through a traffic light system. If something is on red, we agree a time where that’s got to be put right. If it’s green it’s fine, good to go. Amber is in the middle – it’s quite simple.

OPI: Then you have your customers at the other end of the spectrum. What about them – are they in the driving seat at all on your journey?

SHB: Some are. We won Supplier of the Year with one of our customers, TV network ITV, for instance. They’ve got over 1,000 partners across their entire supply base. One of the reasons we won, they said, is because we challenge them to think outside the box. 

I believe this is fairly typical for much of our customer base. Most companies that procure from Commercial do so because of our sustainability credentials and because they have an appetite for it themselves and are somewhere on that curve as well.

OPI: Are millennials coming into the workforce a driving force at all?

SHB: Definitely. There’s a lot to be learned from the older generation, but you also need to have a really good flow across the board. Sustainability, certainly at Commercial, has allowed people to be more open-minded. Our Green Angels programme has definitely encouraged that as well.

OPI: Tell me a bit more about that programme.

SHB: We have had the Green Angels programme since 2010 and it’s evolved into something of a leadership programme at Commercial. The idea is that our employees are encouraged to instigate initiatives that promote positive change. 

The way it works is that small groups of staff chose one or two of our ten commitments that they want to focus on and apply around the organisation. They present their ideas to the board – including the budget, resources and any HR support they need – and then, if ‘approved’, they are given completely free rein to develop and implement their initiatives. We have about four or five of these every year and it works brilliantly. 

We now have a ‘living wall’ on the front of our building, for example, as well as a cycle hut and recycled benches around our facilities for people to sit on during breaks. 

There’s been an amazing response to the programme and so far about nine teams and 70 people have got involved. The premise is to encourage employees to come up with their own ideas and be motivated to make work – and the planet – a better place. 

OPI: Another initiative you have and that you personally spearhead I believe is the Commercial Foundation…

SHB: That’s right. We set up the Commercial Foundation in 2015. It’s a social enterprise that helps up to 50 young people a year through our No Limits programme to move into jobs. The idea behind it is to change the lives of disadvantaged people and help them to get a new start and purpose in life. We invest 20% of our net profits in the Commercial Foundation as well as contributing time, expertise and resources. 

Eight of the young people that went through the programme are now employed by us. They are very resilient individuals who have had their whole family and life falling apart around them. They haven’t had the upbringing that many of us have enjoyed, but with some help and support, they have turned around their lives. 

OPI: Let’s talk about Wiles Greenworld. What has that acquisition brought to the table?

SHB: Three years ago we set ourselves the target of adding a base in London, in addition to the one we have here in Cheltenham. We looked at a lot of potential acquisition targets and nobody was right for us for a long time. I should probably add that I’m really against taking on a company with a completely different culture. 

The minute I walked through the door of Wiles Greenworld, I knew this was the firm I wanted to buy. We did and it’s been an absolute joy. 

We needed to change very little, because it already had a very green outlook that was similar to ours. It was also a lean organisation, so there were no redundancies which was important to us as we wanted to make all staff feel very secure. In addition, we’ve been able to bring some real experts in the field together, both from an eco but also from a broader social responsibility perspective, and we could really add to our own existing credentials.

Wiles Greenworld already had an established recycling operation in place, for example, which we could learn from, so much so that we’re in the process of rolling out a recycling service here in Cheltenham to our customers now as well.

OPI: On that recycling note, what are your thoughts on closed loop? 

SHB: Wiles offers a free recycling service for our own brand toner cartridges, whereby new toner is delivered to the customer and they send the old cartridges back. We’re currently looking at clothing. H&M is a customer of ours and offers a clothing recycling service. As we’re selling workwear too, we’re investigating whether we should get involved in this.

Broadly speaking, I don’t think there’s as much demand for closed loop as there once was. I personally believe it’s a good thing when it works properly, but there are also instances where it doesn’t make sense. If you have to travel miles and miles to close the loop – if your paper is made in Brazil, for example, and if you’re trying to get it back there – it’s just not going to work. Closed loop has got its place, but you need to look at it carefully, otherwise it just ends up being a greenwashing exercise.

OPI: How do you rate the products you sell from an environmental perspective?

SHB: We have a cap system for our entire product range that has environmental criteria built into it, such as containing recycled content, being recyclable, being sourced responsibly, and so on.

So one green cap is the minimum and three green caps is the maximum. When our customers go online – 95% of our products are ordered online now – or look at our catalogue, they can clearly see if a product is one, two or three caps. Customers can also see from their monthly reporting package that we put together what type of products they have bought. 

I can’t tell a customer what they should or shouldn’t buy. But we can discuss options and help to educate them about what’s available.

OPI: What about your own brand products – how do they factor in your overall range? 

SHB: All our own brand products – paper, notebooks and toners, for example – have to meet the most demanding sustainability criteria.

Our own brand is hugely important for us and it also fulfils a dual purpose. Our business development managers are really excited about it because they can approach customers and attack a sale from a number of angles. So, for example, they ask: do you really want to buy this branded hardback notebook? This is our own brand. It’s considerably cheaper and here are all of its environmental credentials. And, by the way, this is also a product with purpose. 

We often negotiate with the manufacturers that make our own brand products to include a certain branding and a real story from our No Limits programme. We also highlight the fact that a percentage of the proceeds of the sale are given back to the Commercial Foundation which helps change young people’s lives. 

For our customers, it’s a complete winner because they get a cheaper product with an excellent environmental rating and they’re helping to transform a young person’s life at the same time. It’s a powerful combination.

I feel very strongly about the fact that anything around the sustainable arena should be an easy decision. You have to make it easy for people to do the right thing and you also have to make it value for money. 

OPI: Are there any other challenges in terms of getting companies – up and down the supply stream – to sign up for what you believe in?

SHB: It’s always engagement. At the beginning there are a lot of low hanging fruit that companies would go for, but when that’s done it becomes a bit more demanding. 

What’s technologically out there that allows you to make big changes, for instance? It’s often a balance of technology and innovation: what can you do with waste or how do you approach the plastic containers that people are eating out of? 

The challenge is to firstly be aware of the issues and secondly to give your experts the space, the freedom and the resources to be able to go out there, find those technologies and solutions and then, as a team, start to implement them. We have three people at Commercial who concentrate specifically on environmental aspects while four people run our social enterprise. 

The question in my mind is always: are you going to take this seriously or are you going to be a greenwashing company? There are plenty of challenges out there – the partners you’re working with, for example. Sometimes you get lazy ones and everything takes a lot longer than you want it to. 

But there’s also help and in fact government funding for new technologies. Our hydrogen fleet started out as a government-funded initiative. But you have to go out there, find out about and look for the opportunities.

OPI: You mention the word greenwashing just now. Is there too much of that around? 

SHB: It’s easy to make claims, let’s put it that way. We always encourage people to come and look at our organisation, speak to employees and see what we’re doing. And they soon get it. 

OPI: Where does legislation fit in?

SHB: Legislation can make a difference and I think it’s got a place. As a company, Commercial is not going to do something just because legislation says so – we’re always trying to go beyond that and be ahead of legislation in any given area in the sustainability and social responsibility field. But it’s a start.

 After I saw Al Gore’s Seven Point Pledge in 2007, I said we’re going to lower our carbon emissions by 75% in three years. It actually took us four, but the point is that the commitment was there and that it was a starting point, not just for us, but for many organisations.

OPI: Brexit – are you worried about it?

SHB: As far as climate change and sustainability goes, yes, without a shadow of a doubt I’m worried about Brexit and what it might do to UK legislation. Are we worried about it for Commercial? No, for the same reasons as I mentioned before. 

OPI: Your passion for social responsibility is remarkable. Where does it come from?

SHB: My late Dad – he was an amazing person and businessman. It sounds clichéd but the moral compass he instilled in my brother Arthur and me is the cornerstone of what Commercial is today. 

We wanted to change the business and felt absolutely compelled to do it. We also felt a real responsibility to do it. So we did, and it’s breathed new life into it. Commercial would not be what it is today and would not have the amazing people working here in such an energised, proactive and positive manner if we hadn’t done it. 

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