A global emergency – why businesses need to think about the bigger questions

“If human life is going to be sustainable on this planet, we have to get away from things like GDP per capita and rethink how we measure success,” says Darren Axe. “I’m delighted to contribute to the Low Carbon Innovation Forum because it challenges ‘business as normal’ – that’s what we’re all about.”

Darren has been working within Lancaster University’s environmental sustainability agenda for ten years. As Development Manager at the Students’ Union, he oversees Green Lancaster, a collaborative initiative that engages the entire University community in embedding sustainable behaviours and linking teaching, research and practice.

“The solutions to the climate and ecological emergency are all about decarbonisation, and the current ‘Generation Z’ who are coming into higher education are critically aware of this agenda,” he says. “So the businesses they are going to be engaging with, as customers and future recruits, are the ones that are taking serious steps to decarbonise.”

Darren delivers a workshop as part of the opening two-day session of the Low Carbon Innovation Forum. Its objective, he says, is to get SMEs on the programme to start thinking about the bigger questions they should be asking themselves. “Whether it’s through procurement, logistics, transport or production, whether it’s to do with product usage by the consumer or post-consumer life – dismantling, recycling, and so on –businesses really need to be thinking about carbon impact throughout the supply chain.”

‘We set the scene with a 45-minute energiser to get people talking to each other. We play a carbon footprint game to compare the impact of things like eggs, bananas, a flight to New York or five years of laptop use… The idea is to get you thinking about your own business and what are the big, bad impacts. Then we examine the hierarchy of impact, so you can begin to prioritise what you can do.”

Clearly the challenge for SMEs is the cost, as Darren acknowledges. “It’s hard to make the first move, but there are huge positives for businesses that can be seen to really grasp the agenda.” In fact, he says, the Forum helps to show that there are opportunities everywhere: for innovation, for funding and, crucially, for collaboration. “Nobody is out there on their own. All it takes is a cup of tea with someone who happens to be doing something that can help you – unexpected partners, if you like.”

Recently, Darren helped to host the Forum’s Open Innovation Challenge at the Lancaster campus, showing the cohort around the flagship EcoHub, wind turbine and Forest of the Future project. “We used this ‘company visit’ to demonstrate how a major institution faces up to sustainability challenges – and actually the exercise was two-way because as well as seeing concrete examples of what they could be doing, the group also fired back ideas for our projects.”

“As an example of a really positive, tangible outcome, one of the businesses is now keen to collaborate with us on planting trees for the Forest of the Future. The idea is for them to use this as a mechanism for staff engagement, team building and wellbeing, as well as being a means of negative emissions offsetting for their carbon impact.”

Darren sees collaborations between businesses and universities as not only beneficial but essential. “In the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, which we use in the workshop, I think of Goal 17, Partnerships, as underlying the delivery of the other 16. We must break down barriers between the different sectors in the traditional post-industrial revolution economy, because the new revolution that’s coming, whether we prepare for it or are forced into it, is going to be the sustainability revolution – and that will reframe everything. So we need educational institutions and businesses interacting with each other, talking to each other, sharing ideas and making the solutions more accessible.”