How Sustainability and Diversity can help lead to greater company success
The first in our 3 part blog series with Bulb — Sustainability
Welcome to the first in our blog post series with our partners Bulb — the green energy company — where we’ll be bringing you interviews focused on areas like marketing and sustainability from experts at Bulb.
This is a 3 part series, which will cover the following topics -
Week 1: Sustainability
Week 2: Branding and Company Values
Week 3: Growth
The focus on this blog is Sustainability, and how both sustainability and diversity can help lead to greater company success.
In this blog post, Shaunagh Duncan (Sustainability Lead at Bulb) talks to Eileen Willett and Nancy Zeffman (co-founders of Cucumber Clothing), Claire Rampen (Co-founder of Reath) and Dr. Patricia Gestoso (Scientific Services Leader and a diversity, inclusion, and ethics tech evangelist), about their views on sustainability, inclusivity, and how using technology can play a role in creating a more sustainable future for all of us.
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A note from Shaunagh, Sustainability Lead at Bulb -
Hello! I’m Shaunagh. I lead Bulb’s sustainability and focus on helping the business address green energy, biodiversity and climate change. I’m dedicated to creating a more sustainable world through business transformation, and I’ve held roles in the sustainability and renewable energy sector throughout my career.
Bulb provides 100% renewable electricity and 100% carbon neutral gas to its 1.7 million members. Bulb was founded in the UK by two ex-energy industry employees, Hayden Wood and Amit Gudka in 2015. Bulb is a Living Wage Employer and a certified B Corp, working to demonstrate how business can be a force for good. Bulb’s been working with Ada’s List and recently sponsored their Annual Conference.
It’s great to speak to Eileen, Claire and Patricia today and talk about sustainability within businesses. Being sustainable doesn’t just mean doing good for the planet. At Bulb, as well as providing green energy, we’re focused on creating a great place to work for our team. As well as being the right thing to do, prioritising sustainability and diversity are key to a company’s success.
Shaunagh — Sustainability Lead at Bulb
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Before we start, Eileen, Claire and Patricia — do you want to introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about what you do?
Cucumber Clothing has Co-founders with long roots. Nancy and I met at the school gate almost twenty years ago. We launched Cucumber Clothing in 2017 with a mission to create clothing and sleepwear that gives women confidence and helps them feel good.
Our ethical, sustainable and locally made clothing empowers women using cutting-edge technical fabrics that feel gorgeous on but require the simplest care.
Eileen and Nancy — co-founders of Cucumber Clothing
My name is Claire Rampen and I’m co-founder of Reath, a software company building the digital infrastructure for circular systems. Essentially, we help businesses adopt safe, compliant, scalable reuse systems fit for the 21st century; reusing things that have typically been single use and sent to landfill.
Claire Rampen — Co-Founder of Reath
I’m a scientific services leader and a diversity, inclusion, and ethics tech evangelist. I believe that ethical and inclusive technology is an enabler for regenerative innovation and world-class customer experiences.
Through my career as global head of scientific support, training, and services at Dassault Systèmes, I’ve worked with Fortune 500 Life Sciences and Materials companies worldwide to build, deliver, and maintain science-based virtual solutions. I’ve spearheaded and guided numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives in tech and I’m a winner of the 2020 Women in Tech Changemakers Award.
Patricia Gestoso — Scientific Services Leader and a diversity, inclusion, and ethics tech evangelist.
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Shaunagh: 2020 has been a year of change. How did you cope with adapting to new ways of working and living?
Without question, Covid has dominated the 2020 retail landscape, nonetheless, we have adapted. Since March we have appeared on Dragons Den, done a brand strategy and full website revamp, gained new stockists in Amsterdam and Berlin, as well as on several sustainable online platforms as well as continuing to appear in press and on podcasts and taking part in a Cambridge University accelerator. As female, mid-life entrepreneurs we are also in increasing demand as speakers, and many of these events moved to Zoom during this year. None of this was easy!
In March 2020 our big plans for a traditional PR push as well as many other goals collapsed and it’s no exaggeration to say that like many other businesses across the country (the world!) we wondered where we would be a year on. Being a small, primarily e-commerce business really helped — there is always enormous room for flexibility and immediate implementation with just two Co-founders whose goals are aligned. We quickly put in place Covid health and safety regulations, moved as much as possible online and swivelled to concentrate on growing our online presence, supporting our bricks and mortar partners, engaging with our customers and spending time working on our brand and website in a comprehensive way.
My co-founder and I actually moved in together at the beginning of lockdown! We were so early in the business and the pandemic put a lot of the groundwork we had done in jeopardy, so we needed to focus and support each other as best we could.
In the summer, we returned to our own flats, and we also hired a new team member (remotely). I am an extrovert, so I was very nervous about switching to remote working, but I found that I actually love it! I have plenty of interaction with the team online, which satisfies my need to be around people. It helps that we have strong relationships — if it were just endless meetings with people/colleagues I didn’t know, I would suffer more from Zoom fatigue. However, working from home gives me the freedom to do a workout in the middle of the day, or meditate without having to book a meeting room.
I think post-pandemic, we will adopt a blend of remote and in-person spaces. I don’t think we will return to the 9–5 office model.
I’ve been working and managing remotely for more than 10 years. Nevertheless, still the pandemic had a substantial effect on my professional and personal life.
First, it’s been very helpful to pause and savour the wins, even if small; go the extra-mile to assume positive intent (e.g. reaching out to speak to somebody that just sent an incendiary email rather than doing a “reply all”), and asking for — and accepting — help more often.
I aim to take a walk every day, even if only to go to the nearby supermarket. I’ve found that even the shortest walk can have a restoring effect and give me a more optimistic outlook. I’ve also tried to limit social media and news.
Finally, activities such as volunteering, reading books that broaden my perspectives, writing, and connecting virtually with people that are making a positive contribution towards creating a more diverse and inclusive world have energised me and helped build resilience.
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Shaunagh: At Bulb, sustainability is a big priority for us — and we’re also a certified B Corp which stands for something that we believe in really passionately: that companies have a social and environmental responsibility over and above making a profit. What do you wish you could see more of within sustainability in businesses as we head into a new year? How would you explain the importance of sustainability within business?
Taking part in the Institute for Sustainable Leadership’s Accelerator really helped us to understand some of the fundamental issues around sustainability in fashion. The absolute key takeaway is that humanity and nature are all inextricably interconnected and it must be the responsibility of businesses to not only recognise, but to help ameliorate their effect on our whole world. We are proud of Cucumber where we feel we have woven sustainability into every strand of our business. We also know that every business has a carbon footprint, so cannot ever claim true sustainability, especially since there are so many different ways to measure sustainability.
With Cucumber, we aim to improve our sustainability with each collection. We have our 5 mile radius — once our fabrics are in the UK, everything we sample, grade, manufacture, store and send out is done within a five mile radius of our London base. This means less waste and lower transport emissions — we believe in the power of locals!
We use minimal packaging, and have taken plastics out of our chain. Our packaging is 100% compostable and biodegradable film using vegetable starch and is made in Lancashire, as are our recyclable packing tape and recycled and recyclable postal sacks. Our trims, extras and packaging are sourced within England, which also means fewer transport miles.
We know our supply chain inside out and that includes looking after our workers — we will only ever pay fair wages. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start and one we aim to continue improving on.
Urgency. Depending on who you listen to, we have varying amounts of time left to make a swift u-turn and begin tackling our CO2 emissions and pollution crisis. If anything, the pandemic taught us that “business as usual” can, and will, be disrupted in a moment’s notice. We need every business to be proactively thinking about what their role is in mitigating the climate crisis, and also thinking ahead to adaptation.
It should be present in all of your decision making. As businesses, we have power over how we spend our money, how we influence our customers, how we make statements about our values. I have been impressed to see companies like giffgaff (where I’ve worked in the past), pivoting their focus from new phones to refurbished phones, for example. It sends an important message to customers, that new isn’t always best. You have more power than you think; use it!
I wish we could embrace sustainability beyond environmental impact. There are 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SDG) and to effect systemic change leaders need to think beyond recycling plastic or buying low consumption lightbulbs. Whilst not all organisations have the means to make an impact on every goal, they should critically look at each one to assess which ones have more impact on their business and which ones they can influence more. Then, set short, medium, and long-term objectives with implementation plans, KPIs, and ownership. For example, there are free online tools like the SDG Action Manager that facilitate meaningful business action through the self-assessment, benchmarking, and tracking of improvement towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
I’m an admirer of how Unilever has integrated sustainability into their mission as well as how they communicate on their progress. I wish I see more accountability, that is, how organisations go beyond intent (greenwashing) and show impact. I’m also very interested in seeing more businesses reporting on the financial return on sustainability activities.
I also believe that alliances across business are an untapped resource and can have a multiplier effect. For example, jointly with a team of D&I thought leaders from large UK employers in the digital space — Dassault Systèmes, Accenture, IBM, Microsoft, and Siemens — last year we launched the Tech Inclusion Partnership to share our challenges and best practices and explore how collaboration between our organisations can accelerate progress within Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
I would also like to see more transparency and action towards eradicating pay gaps for protected categories such as gender, ethnicity, LGBTQ+, and disability.
Finally, I’d like to see more companies deploying diversity supply programs that empower women- and minority-owned businesses through networking, training, mentoring, and preferential terms and conditions.
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Shaunagh: Inclusivity has always been central to our mission at Bulb. Apart from environmental sustainability, what else do you think is important for entrepreneurs to consider when starting out a business?
Speaking as two ‘midlife’ female founders (one from an ethnic minority), it is still astonishing to see how often we confound those whose image of a founder tends towards a twenty-year old male, with beard, beanie and single speed bike. We have found that one of the key ingredients to our success thus far has been the kindness extended to us from a multitude of individuals of all genders and many diverse backgrounds. We in turn have tried to pass on this kindness in the same open-handed way. It is so much simpler for a small brand to make sure they are creating something that they feel proud of. A large brand having to swivel is awkward and challenging. With an eye on being a large brand in the future, our advice would be to literally draw up a list of what your values are and make sure they are securely embedded in your foundation as touchstones. Then go back and touch them regularly — you won’t go wrong.
I have really benefited from co-founding the business with someone who is very different from me, both in life-experience, temperament and perspective. It is critical to create trust between everyone you bring into the business, so that you can have honest conversations and talk it out when your differences cause friction. If you’re able to do that, the experience will help you grow exponentially as a person. It’s one thing to say; ‘we want to be a diverse company’. It’s another thing to actively encourage your colleagues to challenge you on your perspective, assumptions and behaviours.
Our Western philosophical traditions have built a belief system based on the supremacy of reason. The humans are considered intelligent and the nature mindless, legitimating the oppression of other species and the abuse our natural resources. Sustainability aims to level the playing field with the planet.
I see sustainability as the business legacy. When I was a teenager, I remember learning in the news that a company had destroyed the source of a river when building a road to their factory in the Venezuelan savannah. I don’t remember what they manufactured (their mission), but I doubt it offset the permanent damage they caused to their environment (their legacy).
Sustainability provides a framework to articulate the overall value of businesses within their ecosystem. It’s a balance sheet with our planet and its inhabitants. For example, whist double-digit growth can be very attractive for shareholders, if that growth is achieved through polluting the atmosphere, increasing the financial vulnerability of customers, and damaging the health of workers, is that truly a successful business?
There are also more tangible links between sustainability and business; specifically, risks, reputation, and returns. For example, when Volkswagen was found to have manipulated their emissions test, it suffered their first quarterly loss, criminal charges, and substantial fines. On the other hand, there is evidence that consumers are seeking — and willing to pay additional fees — for sustainable goods. This is especially true for millennials, who would pay between 10 and 25% more for sustainable products or services.
In summary, customers and employees are becoming real stakeholders in companies, not only interested in what they do, but on how they do it. For example, the handling of employees’ safety during COVID-19 has strengthened the brand of some business whilst it has tarnished the reputation of others.
If diversity and inclusion is a core value of your business — and there is plenty of evidence of its financial rewards — then you need to embed it from the start, as it will become harder to retrofit it as the business grows.
Where to start? The obvious place is the diversity of your executive team and board. You also want to explore the opportunities of diversifying your potential target user to uncover untapped market needs or an unfair advantage of your offering. For example, services such as internet and close captions were designed with Deaf people in mind.
Then, your workforce. Work culture is a key pillar of any business, as it determines the behaviours of your employees, who in turn dictate your product, customer service, and user experience. As business leader, you’re setting the work culture from the top, and your actions and behaviours — more than your words — signal what are the priorities. From the diversity and inclusion perspective, those should include adopting processes that mitigate bias in hiring and promotion, enforcing inclusive behaviours, monitoring the distribution of stretch projects among staff, a robust harassment and misbehaviour policy, and tracking and reducing pay gaps across different demographics.
Once you start designing your product or service, you should aim to review its degree of inclusion at four stages: prototyping, user research, UX design, and marketing. It’s especially important to assess who is being excluded and the potential risk, e.g. Is your product making your user more financially vulnerable? Is your non-accessible website excluding potential customers?
Finally, as you begin to build partnerships, consider checking the make-up of the workforce of your supplier and if they would subscribe to a sustainability charter, which typically contain clauses against discrimination.
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Shaunagh: At Bulb, we use technology to provide better, more efficient service to our members as we bring renewable energy to homes around the world. What’s your view on technology and how do you see that playing a role in a more sustainable future?
An exciting element of the Accelerator was an introduction to new technologies in sustainable fashion. The bulk of these were created by scientists (aerospace engineers, chemists, physicists) who were coming to the sector with a brand new perspective. The future looks much more hopeful through their lens where many of the polluting elements we take for granted (tanning leather for instance) can be solved with technology.
Technology is built into Cucumber — our technical fabrics (including one that incorporates volcanic minerals), means they always feel amazing next to the skin while breathing, cooling and thermoregulating. They are perfect for ‘sustainable washing’ (pin-up: Stella McCartney) meaning they hardly need to be washed and when you do have to, it’s a cold wash, hang dry, no iron, meaning less energy and water waste.
It’s really important to be sceptical and always ask why; just because something is new and shiny, doesn’t mean it’s good! We have had to tackle this question head-on, as our business is a technology solution to enable a more sustainable model of consumption (e.g. reuse rather than single-use). Our challenge to ourselves from day one has been; “do businesses really need our solution, or are we adding to emissions?”. To answer that question, we have built a carbon calculator model to assess the impact, and our “worst case scenario” model suggested using our system we would emit 0.19% of the emissions vs continuing with single-use models. As we unlock some critical blockers to adopting reuse, we were comfortable with this answer.
Technology can be both a catalyst and a barrier to a more sustainable future.
Among the positives, technology is already helping tracking the progress– or lack of thereof — towards the SDG targets. Social media and internet have amplified the influence and networks of very diverse groups across the globe lobbying for a more sustainable future. Edtech is contributing to make more accessible higher education. Artificial intelligence is speeding up the research of new drugs and vaccines and helping detecting deforestation from satellite imagery, to mention a couple of examples. Blockchain has the potential to positively transform food security, digital identity, access to financial services, and the supply chain in general.
On the flip side, social media has fostered polarisation and unrest, artificial intelligence has consistently shown to reinforce stereotypes — leading to biases and inequality — and it can be very energy greedy, as some cryptocurrencies.
In summary, technology can have both a regenerative and a devastating effect. It’s up to humans to make conscious decisions to harness its power for good.
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Shaunagh: Whilst it’s been a difficult year, the changes we’ve seen have also opened up new opportunities. At Bulb, for example, we’ve onboarded 300 new people since the first lockdown in March. And by doing so remotely, we’ve learned new ways of hiring and interviewing which will stay with us moving forward. What are some of the learnings you’ll take with you into the future?
That even in a crisis, cool heads, planning and positivity can make things better. It felt like a time to panic, but flip that on its head and it was also an opportunity to refresh. We feel ready for 2021 after a year where we were unexpectedly able to have a thorough look at our business and consolidate and improve. We have huge plans for the year ahead and we will be taking all of those learnings with us.
I am a list-maker, so I went to a goal-setting day with friends at the beginning of 2020 and wrote out a comprehensive list of what I wanted to achieve. Looking back on that list, not only did everyone’s entire world change, rendering many of those goals impossible, but I also wasn’t bold enough. I realised that goals are often a reflection of your limiting beliefs. They can be powerful when you want to achieve a concrete thing (e.g. run a marathon), but if you are on a learning path that could take you further than you can imagine, the best goals are to focus on feeling your best every day.
I also had the realisation that many of my goals were written from a place of high-performance anxiety; wanting to prove something to myself. When I looked back and saw, for the first time ever, that I hadn’t achieved any of them (but had actually achieved so much more!) I realised that trusting myself was a lot more powerful than trying to manage myself.
I’ve been amazed by people’s generosity. In spite of the challenges, I’ve had innumerable opportunities to network online, introductions to sponsors, feedback on personal projects, ad hoc mentoring, and very fruitful collaborations across disciplines.
It has also made me rediscover volunteering. With lockdowns and the restrictions to travel, I dedicated most of my free time to produce research to visualise the impact of COVID-19 on the unpaid care-work of professional women. I also joined We and AI in 2020, a charity aiming to increase awareness of artificial intelligence among the public. Both activities have increased my sense of purpose and connected me with great people beyond my traditional networks.
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Shaunagh: And with those learnings in mind, what advice would you give to people launching their own company?
We are often asked this question and our usual mantra is, ‘research deeply, test thoroughly, then just do it’! After 2020 we would add, don’t be scared of change — a synonym for which could be opportunity. Good luck to all of you entrepreneurs out there!
If you want to have a big impact, play close attention to where attitudes are changing quickly, or interest is growing fast. Building a business is hard, but if you find a way to go with the current, you will unlock a lot more interesting opportunities.
Be authentic; communicate clearly the why, how, and what of your business; build your network; ask for help; and pay it forward.
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