Coming off the sea at the end of Brighton Pier, and blasting its way through the air conditioning system of the Horatio Bar, a gale was blowing down the back of my neck.
Despite this, sitting wrapped in my coat as if about to leave, I listened with great interest to the 'ethical' businesses who bravely gave their websites up for scrutiny at the 'Striding Out – Ethical marketing and branding event' held in Brighton, UK , at the end of February. It was a great event, but I do have a general gripe about these kind of sessions.
As an entrepreneur, I am frustrated by the lack of goody bags at these kind of events. Yes, we get the information and inspiration, but what exactly am I supposed to DO now? What can I take away that allows me to put this newfound knowledge straight into action
I believe one thing is to create an ethical sustainability policy for my business, but what I really want is to walk away from these kind of events with a template for creating my own, with links to appropriate help if I need it (even if that means paying for that help).
I was inspired by Sam Wilson of EcoEvents who has done so much homework in creating ways for events to be more ethically run, but also (and just as importantly) defined systems and mechanisms for measuring the successes and failures, and making the organizers of the events accountable.
And if businesses want to not just be part of the 'Green Wash', they should be accountable, at least to themselves.
What is the point of me creating a sustainability policy if my vision is not balanced by my commitment to achieving deadlines? And buffeted by the realities of every day life, will I not need to make constant revisions for my ethical goals to still be attainable?
I spoke recently with Vania Phitidis, an elected member of the Green Party, who is working with Wealden District Council on awards for 'green' businesses. Vania is keen to give advice and encouragement. Businesses should not be shy to make use of their local green MPs to get feedback and advice.
I shall be asking for plenty of help to not only get my first ethical sustainability policy for my business into good shape, but I then want to encourage other businesses to do the same, hopefully providing a basic 'template' that they can use as a starting point. Maybe I need to begin a section on the blog part of the site called "Starter Packs" – self help guides for SMEs who want to make the first steps themselves into creating ethical policies for their businesses? Perhaps even have a 'an ethical PR starter pack' – or 'Create your own branding workshop' (which would incorporate your ethical values into how you present your business)?
Getting expert guidance would be even better, but that costs money, and sometimes I think it is good to make the first steps on your own, since it is your own passion and commitment that will lie at the heart of any 'policy', and that may need some uninhibited development first.
One of the companies at the Brighton event were Green Rocket (who also trade as Blue Rocket, but their principles do not change with the colour). Their genuine ethical agenda is refreshing to see in the marketing industry. They have created a succession of articles on how to be an ethical business, and try to set an example for the values they hold dear.
Kim Stoddart, Managing Director and Founder of Hove based ethical media relations consultancy and social enterprise, Green Rocket, was concerned about the environmental impact of her business from day one. As a community interest company with an authentic environmental purpose (75% of the company's profits are reinvested in green initiatives), Kim felt that the company really had to be green to the core and that meant the first place to start had to be the office .
Prior to launch, an environmental charter was put in place which was designed to reduce the environmental impact of the business' everyday operations. This looked at every area of the business and just some of the broad range of initiatives put in place included: recycling everything recyclable, including paper, cardboard and plastic waste as well as old computer equipment, mobile phones and furniture.
Choosing suppliers for their green and ethical credentials; such as Good Energy for electricity, Magpie for recycling, the Co-Op for banking and Green Your Office for office supplies and office cleaning. Offices were chosen in a central location, to make it easier for staff to walk, or get public transport to work and to travel to client meetings.
Being an 'ethical' business is about more than leaving a reduced carbon footprint. Green Rocket is a social enterprise, but what exactly IS a social enterprise, and how can my business take on some of the same values and practices?
I asked this question of Martin Murphy, who along with Tom Howat runs Network 2012, a website dedicated to promoting the values of social enterprises.
Martin's explanation was as follows:
"When thinking about this question I suppose the natural place to start is my own motivation. Late in 2006 Tom Howat, my now business partner came to me with an idea he wanted me to get involved with. That idea became Network 2012 an online business and social networking website and events company and we have been up and running now for just over 8 months with nearly 400 members signed up.
"Our aim is to charge a small monthly or annual membership fee, which will contribute towards providing bursaries for those individuals, or groups who wish to start their own social enterprise but would otherwise struggle for start up finance.
"In a small way we are working towards a more inclusive society and a fairer distribution of wealth and that is the driving force behind Network 2012. Working towards a social goal as well as a business goal is in my view what makes a social enterprise. In essence we want a fairer world and see business as the method of providing that fairer world. In our case an online networking business.
"Though in business people see things differently and there are many different methods of working. For example some want to maximize profits and use those profits for a good cause while others wish to provide supported employment for those who would struggle to gain employment through the normal channels, and are not necessarily profit focused. Break even focused, sustainability focused maybe but not necessarily profit focused.
"But then what does profit mean anyway? We live in a world today where I would argue for the most part profit is almost seen as another word for greed. We hear of" fat cat bonuses ", we see utility companies making what some might call obscene profit while the average person struggles to pay their bills and get by.
"The world I want to see would entail those same utility companies run as social enterprises and the profits reinvested in the community instead of going who knows where! What if the profit were used to ensure that no one dies of exposure in winter instead of high bills being a reason people wont turn their heating on and do die of exposure? One day this is how it will be and I'm convinced that when that day comes we will look back at the way we generally do business now and see it as almost barbaric!
"At the moment we have people who we describe as social entrepreneurs out there running social enterprises and working towards a better world. They are not people who take the attitude that we'll never make a fairer world it's too big a job they are people with a can do attitude who believe we have to start somewhere. They are heroes who work not just for their own benefit but also for the benefit of others. They do this often by working all the hour's god sends with very few resources and the usual struggle for start up funding and most would say they love it!
"I admire every single one of them. They are tired of living in an unfair and out of balance world where we see daily worldwide inequality, extreme poverty alongside fantastic wealth and children dying for lack of food, clean water or medicine and are doing something about it.
"It is the doing something about it through business that makes a social enterprise and if current trends are anything to go by in the future we will be much more of a force to be reckoned with. By all accounts the social economy is growing 10 times faster than the normal economy. Being aware of this fact could be the make or break of any business! "
I agreed wholeheartedly with Martin, but had to admit:
"Martin, I want to develop a more 'ethical' business, but do not know what I can do to 'make a difference' right now, whilst struggling to run my small business. I know that with making good 'profits' will come the opportunity to reinvest it and do good, but what can I do now while my business is still growing? "
"I take your point completely. I appreciate that starting and running a small business is difficult I think there are definitely things small businesses can do.
"Check out their suppliers for example. Can they use a business that is a social enterprise / fair trade? Hopefully one that is competitive. Can they employ someone with disabilities, a single parent or long term unemployed?
"The overall advantage and this is something that should not be lost is that in the long run this kind of thinking may give that company a competitive edge.
"I attended a round table discussion last week with some representatives from large corporations all talking about Corporate Social Responsibility and whereas before the job of leading CSR was one given to someone an employer did not really know what to do with now they all have experience in the marketing arms of their respective companies.
"A lot of it is about brand recognition and appealing to a consumer who is becoming more conscious about what products they buy. I also think that in future perhaps the rate of corporation tax may be lower for companies that do something for their communities.
"As I've said earlier though Suzy I do think it may be hard to convince someone struggling to get their business off the ground that they can do anything but I'm sure with a bit of thought that they can."