Man working with nature

It was a pleasure and an honour to be invited to visit Nicholas Watts’ Vine House Farm in Deeping Fen, north of Peterborough, a couple of weeks ago as part of a British Sugar group. 

What an extraordinary example of a farm at its best and of how far farming has come in recent years.  The farm is a business, of course, and produces a mixture of arable crops including sugar beet, potatoes, millet and sunflowers.  But, working with nature, Nicholas and his team have transformed the farm over the past 20 years to include nesting territories for over 53 species of birds. 

He rises at 4am each day to spend time on the farm observing and noting bird and wildlife activity before starting his day’s work.  His dedication is unstinting and the time and analysis he puts into this side of his work sets a high bar for us all.  It can be illustrated by this note I found in the farm’s newsletter: “Corn Buntings are farmland bird that have disappeared from many parts of the UK.  The Fens are one of their few remaining strong holds.  Last year I noticed a small increase in Corn Buntings but I didn’t say anything to anyone in case it was a blip in my recording but this year I have recorded another increase which is very pleasing.  The only thing I can put it down to is that there have been no vining peas grown in the village for the past 4 years….”

The vision for Vine House Farm came to Nicholas in 1992 when recordings of bird activity on the farm showed a dramatic decline over the previous ten years.  The setaside scheme (http://bit.ly/OEm1P9)    was introduced and Nicholas took this opportunity to reverse the trend and started growing crops for the birds to harvest for themselves on his setaside land.  This grew into another revenue stream all of its own and the farm started its own bird seed product line.

I know that this is just one example of inspiring biodiversity work taking place on farms across the country and, it is clear to me that we need many more people like Nicholas Watts working across other industries, using the foresight and innovation he demonstrates to halt the decline and starts to repair the damage we have done to our environment.

A Panacea for Rio+20

History has taught us time and again that it is the actions of brave, visionary individuals that achieve real change and point the direction for future reform.  Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, the names are all so familiar and the common denominator is passion for a cause, for health, liberty, equality.   It is not surprising to me then that attempts by thousands of policy makers, business leaders and environmentalists from across the globe to come together and agree ambitious but badly needed measures to protect our planet have been reportedly so underwhelming.

In the Rio+20 aftermath, the president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Business has said that our best chance of saving the world lies with the corporate sector.  He talked about building ‘coalitions of the willing’ – hear, hear!  Coalitions of the willing, lead by passionate, visionary individuals, is exactly what history has taught us will make a difference.  Supported by the finance of big business, even in hard economic times, is surely our best chance of success.

I haven’t met Peter Bakker but I find his reported words refreshing and maybe he has the right level of passion and drive to start pushing through change, time will tell.  Of Rio+20 he said: “I will write a positive and tough message to my members saying now it is time to kick into action. We need to create coalitions of the people who want to be good, who have plans to progress and make it attractive for other people to follow. The 20% of really bad guys we need to regulate out of existence.”

At the weekend I heard Dr Martin Clark of Allia give a presentation on social enterprise at Emanuel College in Cambridge.  His explanation of the difference between charity, social enterprise and commercial business, with many shades in between, was fascinating and inspiring, as is his organisation’s belief that every business can achieve a greater social impact. 

I can’t help thinking that a combination of the insight and commitment of people like Dr Clark and Mr Bakker could be the panacea we need.

Investing in recycling

It seems our fascination with DIY food continues to gain momentum with the ‘allotment gardener’ winning Chelsea Flower Show, Matthew Biggs hosting Grow You Own sessions at Gardeners’ World Live this weekend, and the Incredible Edible movement taking parts of the country by storm.  With all this home grown goodness the worms in compost heaps across the country must be having a field-day as kitchens empty their decaying goodness for recycling as nature intended.

This is all wonderful on a micro-scale and we should feel proud that our weekly bins are now fortnightly and often even then half empty.

But what of the organic waste we can’t put onto our gardens and that which is produced on an industrial scale by businesses and public sector organisations?  Here a whole new growth sector has emerged to manage and dispose of this debris which is hauled away in its hundreds of tonnes each year.  A visit to an organic recycling business recently showed me how far we have come but also have far we still have to go. 

The business, a traditional family-run farm, has seized the opportunity to diversify and offers composting facilities for biodegradable waste.  Using its current facilities the business can process up to 60,000 tonnes of solid agricultural, horticultural and vegetable waste, paper, cardboard and green waste each year – fantastic.  But there is a much larger market still to be serviced, so the business has secured planning permission for a multi-million pound development on its land, to include anaerobic digestion and a biomass boiler, offering far greater recycling capabilities, which our environment desperately needs. 

But there-in lies the rub, the family cannot fund the development without external investment (unsurprisingly), yet because of the market’s unpredictable nature, demand forecasts cannot be easily quantified and, therefore, investment is not forthcoming.  So, the land and the plans lie waiting, while the waste they could be recycling is going who knows where? 

I believe the reports I read of banks investing in agriculture in East Anglia and know from work I’ve done with Clydesdale, for example, that this is the case.  But it seems the large investments, in long-term projects, are still stalling and somehow we need to unblock the chain to enable entrepreneurial, forward thinking, ethical businesses, like Organic Recycling Ltd, to flourish for everyone’s benefit.

Taking a long-term view

Initially it seemed a strange and uncomfortable partnership to me – business and religion. A while back I spent several years living in mid-West America and witnessed the workings of the different churches which, to a very British mind, seemed overtly commercial.

Many people in Indiana still tithe up to 10% of their monthly earning to their church; the buildings are often enormous and house cinemas, cafes and even gymnasiums in their basements; and business is routinely conducted after the Sunday morning service over coffee and cakes. I even had the misfortune to be invited to a service where the church’s annual report and accounts were presented on PowerPoint to the congregation. A truly alien experience and one that drove us swiftly out of that church never to return.

So, I approach any partnership between business and the church with an amount of scepticism and trepidation. However, the Ely Cathedral Business Group exhibition and networking event last week was, I believe, a huge success for those involved. I do wonder what visitors to the Cathedral during the week of the unmanned exhibition thought and whether our displays spoilt their experience but, that aside, the Cathedral was an extraordinarily wonderful setting for the event.

Most of all, for Conscious Communications, with our ethos firmly rooted in ethical business practices, it was exciting to hear Tom Green, Chairman of ECBG and CEO of Spearhead International, talking of the “strong correlation between the health of the business sector and the wellbeing of the communities in which those businesses operate”. He said there is “one word to describe good business, sustainability. Good business must be sustainable. The word is applied rightly to our environment and to the social fabric of our community.”

So much of what was said during the week of ECBG and by Tom Green and Charlie Mayfield at the Celebration of Business Reception mirrors what Conscious Communications has set out to achieve and while we are convinced of the relevance of our proposition, it is reassuring to hear their words and to know that we are at the forefront of an exciting new business movement that looks to the long-term and is not focussed on short-term commercial gain alone.

Starting our journey

This first posting marks the launch of Conscious Communications and the start of an interesting and no doubt challenging journey ahead. We have taken our inspiration for the company from many sources and I continue to be inspired daily by the efforts of people and the ethos of companies I come into contact with.

The Responsible Business Summit a couple of weeks back showcased some shining examples of this and I was particularly taken by the story of the first two years of Warburtons’ CSR journey…

There are many lessons we can all learn from their experiences and I suspect that this blog will, in time, become a barometer of our own journey and experiences as a growing company and one that supports and promotes our clients’ achievements. 

SMEs are responsible for 99% of all enterprise in the UK and around 50% of all private sector turnover (Federation of Small Businesses) and, as such, have a huge part of play in the nation’s efforts to combat climate change and build a sustainable future. It would be good to think that many more of them will find their way onto big conference podiums in coming years to share their learnings in the search for best business practice.

Collaboration is clearly a powerful strategy for small and large businesses alike. There are some fantastic examples of large corporates collaborating with NGOs across the world for the good of the environment and communities. Research supports their thinking that a strong CR strategy can have a positive impact on the bottom-line. According to Accenture research reported today in The Guardian more than three out of four (78%) senior global executives believe sustainability plays a ‘vital’ role in the future growth of their businesses. This is true also on a much smaller scale for SMEs where Aristotle’s theory of ‘the whole being greater than the sum of its parts’ has merit. The pooling of resources and combining of effort can have a far greater impact on the end result but it often takes courage, foresight and the ability to put competitive shyness to one side for a greater good.

I’ve had the pleasure and fortune to work with some bold and forward thinking people over the years and their tenacity can take them to places that their competitors only dream of. I hope to work with many more in the coming years – they are the people that drive entrepreneurial thinking and have the ability to carve a brighter business future for the next generation.

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