When, a couple of years ago, Unilever measured the environmental footprint of its products, it was shocked to find less than 5% related directly to its own operations. The other 95% of the pollution and waste Unilever caused came from its suppliers and customers.
Bugger. When you are the third-largest consumer goods company in the world, selling everything from shampoo to stock cubes, icecream to brylcreem in 190 different countries, making a difference to that 95% is a bit of a problem.
As the company’s sustainable business VP Karen Hamilton put it: “These were big challenges; challenges far too complex for one business or one government.”
Enter sustainability innovation forum #theBIGshift, which started (with Unilever as a founder member) in the UK a couple of years ago and launches here as Project NZ: #theBIGshift, at the Sustainable Business Network’s 2014 conference, in September.
The BIGshift network involves companies, governments and NGOs working together to transform key systems – transport, or food production, for example.
Sustainable Business Network CEO Rachel Brown says individual organisations can’t find environmental solutions on their own.
“It’s not about reducing your waste by 20%. It’s about bringing people together, looking at the blockages in the system that stop innovation occurring, and finding a solution.”
Take the issue of what to do with the four million or so waste tyres New Zealand produces each year. Until now they have been largely landfilled, with individual tyre companies struggling to find an alternative. But recently, the tyre industry, councils, transport engineers and others got together to find a more sustainable end product. The result was an idea to integrate shredded tyres into road surfaces.
Brown hopes the conference will be a chance for more companies to get together to make projects like this work.
“We already know about existing opportunities and solutions, but the challenge is making them a reality,” Brown says. “It’s about turning these pioneering practices into a tipping point and introducing speed and scale.”
She hopes #theBIGshift will bring together 10-20 companies and organisations in each of four areas seen as critical for system innovation in New Zealand: smart transport; food; social value; and the circular economy.
“It will be a chance for all the key players to hear what’s been happening here and overseas, share what has been learnt, look at where the opportunities are and set out to bust the problems.”