A penny for your sustainability thoughts: Kiwi business leaders share their stories

A new era of mainstream sustainability has been the selling point at today’s Sustainability is Mainstream conference, which was put on by the Sustainable Business Network. But from the impressive list of morning speakers (many of which it was joked were folically challenged), not everyone got on board. Well, not exactly anyway. Resene’s technical director Colin Gooch debated whether or not it is in fact mainstream. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. But what he does know is that practicing sustainability is commonsense. 

Jonathon Porritt, co-founder of Forum for the Future opened the days proceedings with a few case studies from big-wig global companies that have got it right, or in the very least are on the right path, when it comes to implementing effective sustainability initiatives. He pointed to Marks & Spencer’s Plan A and Unilever’s sustainable living plan as two very good examples of effective sustainability plans. 

But for effective change to happen he says it is critical that those at the top of the company food chain, like the chief executives and chief financial officers, to lead by example, difficult as that may be in large companies where there are so many stakeholders involved. 

Phillip Mills

Porritt’s emphasis on leading by example made a nice segway into the days proceedings. With Rod Oram leading the way as MC, it was Philip Mills, founder and chief executive of Les Mills International, who kicked off the keynote presentations with some witty tails of his many business ventures (did you know he was the band manager for Hello Sailor at one point?) It’s easy to look back now and laugh, as the audience did along with Mills himself, but most of Mills' initial business ventures fell flat on their face. After years of failed ventures, Mills says he finally struck it right when he dreamt up the weight training class we all know today as Body Pump. Lifting weights on the gym floor is often deemed boring, but no one had thought about turning it into a fun group activity coupled with motivating music. 

The idea he struck upon one day in his living room has since gone on to become one of the biggest gym success stories, with the Body Pump class franchised in thousands of gyms around the world. Mills says his idea took off by “virtue of timing and being on the right trend”. And that’s the lesson he offered to the room. He believes one of the biggest upcoming trends is green growth. There are experts, he said, who are predicting the clean tech revolution will be the biggest one yet. 

“We need to super compensate”, he said. “We need to become whiter than whiter and greener than green”. 

He says it is inevitable that in the future key commodities will be laden with tariffs and he says we will be the ones pinned by these tariffs “if we don’t get green and renewable”. 

But don’t wait for the Government to lead by example. It’s up to businesses and individuals to lead the way. 

It’s even more imperative because New Zealand markets itself so much on being green. For Mills, it's as much about doing the right thing as it is about protecting our brand. 

Geoff Ross

In a room full of Sustainable Business Network members, the founder of 42 Below vodka and the current executive chairman of Ecoya Ltd, felt like he was preaching to the converted. But no matter. Geoff Ross made his point clear. He doesn’t want New Zealand to miss the green boom, like we did the technology boom. 

A self-professed eco-capitalist, Ross says there is massive opportunity for New Zealand in terms of eco wealth, but we have to be careful with how we’re selling ourselves as to the world. 

He cited an example from the Guardian newspaper where author, environment journalist and Guardian columnist Fred Pearce, fed New Zealand to the dogs saying we are falsely trading on our positive environmental image. 

“My prize for the most shameless two fingers to the global community goes to New Zealand, a country that sells itself round the world as 'clean and green'," he wrote. 

We shouldn’t be boldly going out to the world and as a pure and green country while we forget what’s happening back home. Ross drew on the heavily polluted Manawatu river as an example, which according to research by the respected Cawthron Institute, tops the list of over 300 rivers and streams across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand as the most polluted. 

He asked the audience to think of New Zealand as its own company. And as a company, he said, “we should be striving to get a first mover advantage”. At this point Ross cited John Key’s announcement that New Zealand would be a “fast follower” when it comes to combating climate change, as an example of what not to do. That statement was a dangerous one said Ross, especially for a country that pins itself on its green credentials.

But at the same time Ross made clear the importance of acknowledging that you can’t get it right all the time. It’s a process and you need to be transparent about what you’re doing right and what you could be doing better. 

“Ecoya could do better. We’re not 100 percent squeaky clean,” he said.  

But he says customers don’t expect you to be  perfect either. 

“If you’re going to become an eco brand you need to be honest and fess up to what you’re doing and what you could be doing better.” 

And that is how you get customer respect. 

Colin Gooch

When Colin Gooch took to the podium, it was a nostalgic affair at first, with Gooch reminiscing to when he was young and his mum was the epitome of sustainability. Back then nothing was thrown out because the luxuries of a disposable society were not yet rife. Clothes were re-sown and rubbish bins didn’t exist. There were only dust bins because sweepings off the floor were about the only waste to be found. It was a reality of that time and existed without even having to be called “sustainable”.

And that is how Gooch says Resene operated when he first came on board—off the smell of a oily rag. It operated sustainably not out of choice but out of necessity. Now he joked, it’s sustainable by choice and wins awards for it. 

Discussing a number of sustainability initiatives, like PaintWise, whereby unused paint is recycled and often redistributed to community groups for use, and Eco.Decorator, which ensures paint is applied in an environmentally responsible way following sustainable principles, Gooch shared a number of impressive results achieved by Resene, which include: 

  • 50 percent reduction in water use on four years
  • An estimated 50 percent reduction in landfill waste form retail outlets in one year
  • 33,600l of production solvent recycled in 12 months
  • Trade waste reduced from 170 tons in 2006 to 112 tons in 2010—even though paint manufacturing increased within that period.
  • 250,000kg of post-consumer cans recycled 

Impressive results, some of which were spawned off the back of ideas generated by the company’s own staff. And that’s an important lesson Gooch wanted everyone to take home. 

“Never underestimate the number of ideas that can bubble up from staff,” he said. ”They are a fantastic store of ideas that need to be tapped.” 

As an example, Gooch pointed to the PaintWise programme which was the brainchild of Resene’s marketing manager Karen Warman. 


Just for a laugh, here’s the video (an oldie but a goodie) Geoff Ross shared from 42 Below, used to highlight how important it is we brand and market New Zealand to the world so there are no misconceptions about the kind of country we are. 

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