In 2021 our UK small business made a commitment to Net Zero.
Part of that commitment is annual reporting on our progress. This blog post is written one year on from our formal commitment and aims to be transparent about what we have (and haven't) achieved.
I'm also writing this from the perspective of a small business owner who, like many others, struggles to understand the breadth and depth of the issues. I find that when we share our knowledge and experience we can encourage and help each other to meet the challenges.
I've written a blog (rather than published a report) because the work is quite personal to me. You will find this conversational and questioning rather than data driven and analytical. We are all learning, including me, so I'm not publishing a list of correct answers, you are invited to comment, suggest and question - I think our customers, fans, suppliers and peers should be able to contribute to our thinking and affect the direction of our activities.
We made our commitment to Net Zero during a government mandated lockdown that saw our bricks and mortar shop shut for the first quarter of the year. Though we were still operational as an e-commerce business it was clear peoples lives had changed and as such we saw a radical reduction in consumer demand. Partly it was the quietness during this period that afforded us the time to reflect on what is most important which led to our commitment.
Though I had done the necessary research and analysis it was important to me that this wasn't just my decision where I would instruct others to carry out my plan. I thought it integral that we talk about this as a team as everyone who works at Revival cares about what and why we do things. There's a lot of integrity in our decision making already and we needed to make sure that we could establish a shared vision, which would be engrained in both long term planning and daily activity.
Decarbonising is so wide ranging affecting every aspect of the business, even in ways some of us had never imagined. We benefitted from having multiple people bringing different ideas and experiences to the discussion. It didn't necessarily make it easier! In many ways it created more questions than it gave answers but critically it brought people together in an agreement on shared goals even while acknowledging it would make aspects of our work more difficult at least in the short term while we adapted.
I really appreciated that commitment from the team, especially at a time when change and uncertainty from COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, Brexit and global events had already created discomfort and required us question every action.
I have a lot to be thankful for that, in those early months of our commitment to Net Zero when everything else was already so disrupted, so hard to live with, so hard to know how to move forward, the people in my organisation still had the grace, the perseverence, and the creativity to take us on the first steps in our journey.
Making a commitment means not just talking it means action and results and it is very hard not to fall into the trap of feeling overwhelmed or failure that you aren't achieving significant change immediately.
Asking the big questions that impact your business can result in high stakes answers that make you feel like it is "all or nothing". You have to constantly remind yourself that you are working towards a goal (by 2030) and with limited resources and to avoid waste you will probably need to look at incremental small steps.
I certainly felt that overwhelm. I was meant to be guiding the team yet I felt I failed at the first hurdle; all the information and resources were telling me I had to audit my carbon footprint and I tried so many different avenues to calculating that number but it was just so hard. Infact, it seemed impossible.
I didn't give up though, I kept talking to people and eventually I had a breakthrough after talking to Adam Bastock from Small99. He helped me realise that a number that goes up or down annually, might be a simple to read indicator of progress (or not) on a company report but what matters more is the actions you take.
I could now help the team make lots of small immediate changes. We didn't wait to do something big and multi-faceted instead we went for opportunities as they arose. One example of this is our e-commerce packaging: We researched the perfect 'eco' packaging scenario for our brand but we would have had to buy bulk, it would have required a big investment, we weren't sure we even had the room to store all the bits and pieces on top of all the left over packaging we already have. Instead we resolved to continue to buy only what we needed when we needed it but we would only ever buy recyclable AND from recycled matter. Still, this isn't always available in the size and shape you need! It's a constant trade off in what we believe will be best given whats available to us. It's a mish mash and in using up old supplies whilst transitioning to new materials we've even had customer complaints "this packaging doesn't befit the £150 I paid for this dress" and we regret that a customer had that experience but it's a journey and each step in a learning opportunity.
Another example is in the fabrics we choose to produce our garments. Though we will by 2030 only be using fabrics that allow us to meet our carbon footprint and other sustainability goals we cannot implement that overnight. When the team first talked about it we felt that by making the decision we were taking charge of the situation and it would simply happen from therein. However, the industry, the sector, the cost and availability, the intransigent volume models, the suppliers in the market, the added complications caused by Brexit, your pricing and production costs all make this something that we must continue to work at over time. It's frustrating and slow but at least the whole team is cogniscant of the end goal and every decision we make is an incremental step towards it.
I am, however, proud of a number of operational changes we made and new schemes that we launched on the back of our commitment and in reaction to the new trading environment, namely Pre-Order and Pre-Loved. The former was a means to reduce waste, be more sustainable and respond to demand rather than out of date industry standards. The latter is our attempt to bring more circularity to our products, to extend their lifetime and encourage repair and re-use. To date Pre-loved has had more success than pre-order but I think this is more about education and understanding in the general population. People are becoming more aware of more sustainable practices but, at this point, it's still difficult to instill new habits like forward ordering winter woollens at the height of summer and vice versa.
There is one area where we have managed to make lot's of headway but in truth it's a lot to do with external factors that apparent progress has been made. It will also be very difficult to continue a linear growth and I believe an instance like this is where a carbon audit reduced to a bottom line number would not have revealed the truth: We have not only switched to a green energy supplier as planned but we have radically altered our carbon usage with respect to the 'workplace'.
The reason we have managed to make these savings is because we had to shut our bricks and mortar shop and we are all now working from home and in some cases working remotely. Had we stayed in our shop premises we would have faced a huge 'retrofit' project. The character of the building and the nature of the trading also had huge implications for energy usage. The increased number of stakeholders from landlords to local councils and neighbours, not to mention our customers visiting the store presented multiple and sometimes conflicting needs.
Currently we don't need to look at those issues or at least not in the same way. One thing is for sure though, our list of priorities will be very different when we begin the search for our next business premises. I wonder how much the commercial property market will change and how hast it will react, to meet the demands of a changing world.
There are certain activities which I believe you don't score any points for in this climate. If you haven't been walking and cycling more whilst flying less during a global pandemic then I'm not sure what to say to you. I do try to lead by example and encourage staff to do the same. During the lockdowns i was walking an 8km round trip to the shop and back to despatch web orders but there's a limit to what i can reasonably ask my staff to do!
I put recycling and turning off the lights in the same bracket, these are the minimums I expect everybody is doing. The difference is how you look at this throughout your entire business operations... the multiplier effect.
I may not be making the journey personally but as a business I am sending and receiving parcels all the time. I question the amount of electric cars and the energy supply of fleet for the couriers I use. I'm interested in local couriers who make deliveries across London by bicycle rather than by vehicle, hopefully without as many journeys between depots to reach a final destination. I question what are the Net Zero commitments of Royal Mail and DHL who I have accounts with. Is there anyone better? What about my email provider, where my servers are located, what is my selling platform doing? On this I say our thinking is going in the right direction but I don't think I am yet equipped to understand what an acceptable answer is from Google, Shopify, Facebook, Dropbox, Adobe and the other corporate giants who we buy services from.
Supply chains is where I feel like we have made the least progress. There is good reason for this. The pandemic and Brexit have brought about tumultuous change and almost all of our supply chains have changed or ceased to exist. The relationships we had built over time that might have afforded us some leverage has dissipated, yes our choice of new partners is guided by our priorities and commitments but this takes research and unfortunately the necessary look at what is simply 'greenwashing', we've lost time and resources this year which makes all of this harder and take longer to achieve. In 2022 we will be more focussed on who our suppliers will be going forward and reassess our goals and activity.
I've wrote a lot so far but in some ways I really haven't said very much. It certainly is true that the numbers in a carbon audit seem a far simpler and easier way of reporting outcomes. Yet, I still feel that in a small business these will never give a full and representative view of how much people are doing to achieve change.
Small business is all about people. People bring about change, policy can only direct it. I am proud of how engaged the people are at Revival Retro and in a turbulent first year I think the focus, dedication and desire to educate ourselves and others is one of the major successes in the first year since making our SME Net Zero commitment. Thinking about how we can practically address the challenges led to immediate incremental actions that are the first steps towards achieving our goals. I think those first steps are vitally important to anyone concerned about the bigger picture.
I've spoken to many small biz about Net Zero, sustainability, and the 2030 or 2050 targets. It's such a daunting prospect. Many business owners find the idea totally overwhelming, others have concerns the targets will be too difficult to achieve or changing operations will be too expensive to be viable. I had all these concerns and more but I hope I have shown you how one small business is working on that commitment and to believe in the possibility of achieving this necessitates focussing on the journey, not arrival at a destination, if we small businesses are to keep motoring forward.