Friday, November 21, 2014

Towards a new York

York Business Conference took place this week. That’s York in Yorkshire, the original one! 

What’s that got to do with sustainability? It’s about the city of the future and the way we’ll all live. Some groundwork to do first, of course.

First of all, there was a power cut which threatened to derail the whole event. Nothing to do with the scare stories in the press; apparently it was a substation fault, but it did black out some 26,000 properties across the city. It just shows how dependent we are on electricity.  Fortunately power was restored after less than an hour and we all filed in to the auditorium to talk about economic prospects for York. It's a vibrant place with a long history which everybody knows about and a lot of scientific and academic resources that very few people seem to know about. We have FERA, the Food and Environment Research Agency, a research lab with a global reputation. We have a tremendous amount of research going on in our York universities, but speakers complained that there was far too little contact between universities and business and indeed between schools and business. A number of speakers said that the the media constantly give business a bad press. In drama it’s always the businessman who is the villain, and Lord Rose said that Lord Sugar’s Apprentice was a total misrepresentation of what business was truly about. 

We had a presentation from York Core, an organisation which brings ultra high speed data connectivity to homes and businesses throughout the city. York Core is provided by City Fibre - see  - spreading high-speed data networks across the UK from key centres  in York,  Aberdeen, Peterborough and Coventry. The UK pays the penalty of leading the industrial revolution in that it has a legacy infrastructure. The copper telecommunications network which was revolutionary in its time is no longer fit for purpose, yet there is no UK fibre strategy. In terms of connectivity we are way behind Sweden, Lithuania and Latvia. 

We had a range of speakers telling us about the potential of York and the industrial expansion which could and should be achieved. They talked about devolution and decentralisation although nobody came to any conclusion as to what we should be doing about it. One point that was made most forcibly is that we should dual the outer ring road without delay. At the moment the delays on the ring road are unacceptable. I say unacceptable, but clearly many people do accept them because if they weren't sitting in traffic jams on the ring road there would not be any traffic jams on the ring road. If we are going to dual the ring road and increase its capacity - and this applies not just to York but to all the bypasses and road improvements around the country - we are assuming that as the future develops we are going to need to move more goods and more people. Is that true? One solution which could be implemented much more quickly than by building a new carriageway, would be to impose a toll on part of the ring road. I got a very negative reaction to this: “What? I'm going to have to pay to drive home?” If you had to pay in order to be able drive home at least you would find the road reasonably empty. And if the predicted growth of goods and people doesn't actually happen we won't have wasted the investment on a new carriageway.

The principal speaker at the conference was Lord Stuart Rose, formerly of Marks & Spencer. He was interviewed by Martin Vander Weyer of the Spectator magazine. I was particularly interested in Lord Rose’s views on sustainability and so submitted a question in advance. Unfortunately the interviewer decided to paraphrase it rather inelegantly and present it as one of his own. This is what I actually wrote: “You are the architect of Plan A, the M&S policy of environmental responsibility and carbon reduction. With former Environment Minister Owen Paterson saying we should suspend the Climate Change Act because the dangers of global warming are exaggerated, with George Osborne incentivising fracking to produce more fossil fuels and with David Cameron rejecting environmental concerns as green crap, isn't that now a lost cause?” I intended it to be controversial and Lord Rose rose to the bait. He said that companies had a huge responsibility and he was disappointed with the government’s attitude. Sustainable business is good business. Sustainability demands innovation and there will be serious problems if we don’t act now. The solutions are not always obvious or simple. For example, the carbon footprint of flying in vegetables from Africa could be lower than growing them in heated poly-tunnels in the UK. At the same time we need to remember our responsibilities. If we source supplies from Africa, in many cases we are building a community totally dependent on our business.

Later on Lord Rose went on to say that the high-speed rail projects HS2 and HS3, and a third runway at Heathrow were all essential if the UK wanted to compete in the 21st century. If we’d asked him he’d probably have said that we should dual the ring-road as well. Not sure how this fits in with sustainability. Are we really going to travel more and more and commute longer and longer distances? Apart from anything else, is travel what life’s all about? We’ve seen that York Core is bringing gigabit data speeds to York and to cities all over the country. Do we need to move ourselves and our goods as well? 

Data connectivity is a recurring theme in a number of events I’ve attended in the last couple of weeks. We’ve been talking about smart cities, the cities of the future. I’ll tell you what I’ve learnt about smart cities in a future episode.

Monday, November 17, 2014

With Legal Force!

With legal force! That’s the phrase of the week.

This week, China and the United States have come to an agreement on climate change - Chancellor George Osborne has said he will set up a sovereign wealth fund for all the riches which will be generated from fracking in the north-east - and at the NextGen 14 conference in Derby I had the pleasure of hearing Rohit Talwar give us his take on some pretty amazing futures.

This week President Obama visited China and issued a joint statement with the Chinese Premier stating that the two countries would work together on a climate accord. 
There's been some scepticism in the press but I've read the press release from the White House and to my eyes at least this looks like something different. The most important bit is where it says that the two Presidents will work together to adopt a protocol with legal force at the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris in 2015. With legal force. If they truly achieve that it will be groundbreaking. Every conference since Kyoto in 1997 has come out with advisory protocols, apart from those which came out with no conclusions at all. Obama and Xi Jinping talk about climate change as one of the greatest threats facing humanity. They talk about specific reduction targets. They talk about paying specific attention to vehicles, smart grids, carbon capture, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas data management, forests and industrial boilers. They even talk about promoting trade in green goods. 
We have to hope that this is not mere rhetoric. With both the US Senate and the House now in the hands of the Republicans there has to be some question over what President Obama can actually deliver. What is clear though, is that if the Americans do not go through with this they will be out of line with the global community and out of line with China, now the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. You may remember from an earlier episode that Professor Piers Forster, one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, believes that China and Europe will push the United States into supporting the consensus for a binding decision. 

Of course some people are very sceptical about China and we constantly hear the question, “Why should we do anything if the Chinese are opening a new coal power station every two weeks?” The truth is that the Chinese government has realised that this cannot go on, but a radical change can never happen overnight. China has already introduced regulations to control the quality of coal which it imports. It restricts the sulphur content so although it will continue to burn coal, it will be slightly cleaner coal and the smog should be reduced to some extent. China has said that all coal-fired power stations within the Beijing area must close by 2020 because of the chronic smog conditions. China is rapidly becoming a world leader in renewables technology. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that some, if not all, of the Chinese government ministers have engineering degrees. And we shouldn't forget that one reason why China has become the world biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is that many of us in the west have outsourced our manufacturing to China. Their factories are pouring out pollution to manufacture goods for our western consumers. We pat ourselves on the back for reducing our emissions, but a lot of this is achieved by outsourcing our manufacturing. China’s plan is to bring its greenhouse gas emissions to a peak in 2030 at the latest, by that stage to create 20% of its primary energy from non-fossil fuels and to continue to phase fossil fuels out.

Chancellor George Osborne seems obsessed with another type of fossil fuel

 – the oil and gas recovered through fracking. We've already seen tax breaks for the drilling companies and promised bonuses to the local authorities that permit fracking to take place. Now he's talking about setting up a sovereign wealth fund based on the riches which will be developed in the north-east of England from these fossil fuels. Fracking is attractive because it will release resources within our own country. It can't be interfered with by the Russians or by Somali pirates and theoretically it will be available whether or not the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. There is, however, increasingly vocal opposition to the idea of fracking from many people who don't like the idea of drilling beneath their homes. There are also concerns about the vast amounts of water required, about what will happen to the waste water and whether there is a risk of pollution to groundwater and drinking water supplies. 
We can't say too often that the oil and gas recovered from fracking are fossil fuels and continued use of fossil fuels can only make it more and more difficult, even impossible, for us to achieve our national carbon reduction targets. The British Geological Survey has expressed doubts about the size of the recoverable reserves and until exploratory drilling is carried out they cannot be verified. This week the UK Energy Research Centre was equally sceptical of the Chancellor’s claims. Even exploratory drilling is targeted by the protest groups. 

Why not put the subsidies into renewables? 

It’s secure because nobody can interfere with our wind, waves or solar power. And while renewables are not a constant source of power there are methods of storing energy and as part of the mix, renewables can keep our power generation carbon footprint down. We need a carefully thought-out energy policy. We need to base it on the best expert advice. We need to recognise that we are talking about 30 to 50 year timescales and despite all the political pressures, we must have a constant and consistent policy that stands firm for decades at a time. As I noted in an earlier episode, if we don't have a proper energy policy then the chances of us sitting in the dark in the winter become more and more real.

This week I attended the NextGen 14 conference in Derby 

- and I had the pleasure of listening to Rohit Talwar, the futurist and strategic advisor. Find him at Fast is certainly the word. He gave as a whole array of facts and ideas packed into a 30 minute presentation. I certainly won't attempt to repeat them all; just a few of the examples. The fundamental message is that the world is changing and is changing radically. And this has fundamental implications for how we make our future a sustainable future. Apparently if you are under 50 you may well live to 100 and your children will probably live to 120. I'm sure this will have implications for population statistics and it's something I will investigate for future episode. If organisations are to be future proof, they need to plan on three horizons. Very short, 1 to 2 months, the medium-term 1 to 3 years, and the long-term: anything from 4 to 10 years plus. I'm with you there Rohit! I run a workshop called “Planning to survive – sustained success in challenging times.” It's about making broad predictions about the future and then assessing whether your present business model will be viable in that scenario. If it will, which is highly unlikely, then you need do nothing. If it won’t, which is more likely, you need to take action now so your organisation morphs gently into something which is always relevant in a changing world.

Innovators are by-passing the system. 

Think of BitCoin, which is a currency controlled by no governments and no central banks. Think of Uber, the app which has upset taxi drivers from London to Berlin and delighted passengers. Think of 3D printing which has moved some manufacturing from distant factories to the point of use. But also think of HS2, the high-speed rail line based on the assumption that Britain’s industrial landscape will still be the same as today’s, when it opens in 2035. Oh, and apparently we’re not far off from uploading a human brain into a computer. Does that mean I could be around forever? (All those in favour!) Of course he said much, much more than all this. Have a look at fast and hear him speak if you get the chance. He closed with 

“Step into your fears. Standing back achieves nothing.” 

This article is also available as the Sustainable Futures Podcast.

I’m Anthony Day, and if you’ve enjoyed this, please write a comment. And if you don’t like it, please let me know why - Use that address too if there’s a particular topic you’d like me to cover. Next week I’m attending a conference to be addressed by Sir Stuart Rose, the CEO who brought Plan A to Marks & Spencer. I’m also presenting my Sustainable Futures Keynote to postgrads at the University of Huddersfield. After that I’ll set about the next episode of the Sustainable Futures blog.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Can we trust the IPCC?

Let's be clear first of all, I'm talking about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and not the Independent Police Complaints Commission. And yes, after all the work that goes into reviewing their reports, I do think we can trust IPCC.

Last month the IPCC issued the fourth part of its Assessment Report No. 5 together with a synthesis report and guide for policy-makers. Piers Forster is Professor of Physical Climate Change at Leeds University and one of the lead authors of the report. He spoke at York University last Friday and explained how the final version of these documents was created.

Apparently Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did not want the United Nations to have unrestricted control over the IPCC, so they specified that all reports should be signed off by representatives of all the 120 countries that were involved. Rather than stifling the work of the IPCC this has given it greater prominence, as countries have taken a close interest in all the documents. Before this latest document was released in Copenhagen there were detailed negotiations on exactly what the content of the report should be. There were some 30,000 review comments and the final text was negotiated line by line and word by word. Some sentences were rejected altogether and the favourite justification for this appears to have been that the language was too complex for policymakers to understand. But surely if policymakers are confused by terms such as “CH4” - the chemical formula for methane - and by “black carbon”, which were deleted, they’ll have even more trouble with “forcing agents” and “mitigation strategies”, which were retained. In my view, if they have difficulty with any of these terms they must be in the wrong job.

As one of the lead authors, Professor Forster was in Copenhagen with 20 or 30 colleagues whose role was to provide the international delegates with scientific advice. The country representatives were to negotiate an acceptable text and in theory the lead authors would not take part in the negotiation, but would advise whether the changes to the text were consistent with the science. In practice, the lead authors were sought out by the delegates who in some cases were aggressive and demanding. Much of Forster's time was spent on negotiating a narrow range of points. Delegates put the authors under extreme pressure. Some of the delegations had as many as 25 members so they could work in shifts. On the other hand, the authors had to be available at all times, working till 3, 4 or 5 in the morning or even all night. Any agreed amendments to the synthesis report had then to be reflected in the main report which itself had already gone through four revisions. 

The Saudi Arabians were most determined to amend the report and negotiations became close to deadlock. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, achieved consensus and a final agreed text through subtle diplomatic manipulation.The Chinese were also robust negotiators although they respected the science even if they didn't like the conclusion that it led to. After this much negotiation I believe we certainly can trust the IPCC.

Only a few days after the issue of the report the US mid-term elections took place. As a result it is expected that Senator James Inhofe will take over the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe is a notorious climate change denier. He has held this post before and has made Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear required reading for committee members. He thus prefers to base US environment policy on a work of fiction rather than on peer-reviewed science. Despite this, Professor Forster believes that there will be a positive outcome from next year's Paris meeting. He believes that the Chinese and the Europeans will work together to deliver a constructive result regardless of pressure from the United States. Let's hope he's right! For too long meetings in this series have closed without commitments, except a commitment to look at the issues in greater detail next time. 

It’s worth repeating Ban Ki- moon’s remarks at the press conference launching the latest report:

“Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.” 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Will we all freeze in the dark this winter?

We’ve had a number of people warning us about blackouts this winter. Strange. I read a report 10 years ago called “Mind the Gap” which predicted that the lights would go out in 2015. Now we’ve heard from the heads of npower and edf, and the National Grid has just published its annual Winter Outlook Report. Ed Davey, Environment Secretary, has told us that there’s absolutely no cause for alarm, so now we know it’s really serious! Or do we?

Our problem is that electricity demand grows year by year and our power stations get older and older. As they get older they get less reliable, and this year we’ve had two major fires and four stations taken off-line for urgent boiler repairs. If there’s another breakdown, will we be plunged into darkness? And is darkness all we have to worry about?

National Grid is responsible for the distribution of gas and electricity across the United Kingdom. It doesn’t generate power and it doesn’t sell gas or electricity to consumers. It just provides the energy super-highway, and the generators and the energy companies pay to use it. National Grid must balance supply with demand and ensure that power is available wherever and whenever it’s needed. December and January are the months of greatest demand; hence the Grid publishes a Winter Outlook Report. The press have made much of the suggestion that the safety margin, the amount by which supply exceeds maximum demand, has fallen from 17% three years ago to only 4.1% now. 

These statistics, as always, have to be looked at in context. The 4.1% margin is against Average Cold Spell (ACS) demand, the coldest part of winter. Winter weather is unpredictable, so we could have a cold spell which lasts longer and is even colder than predicted. National Grid admits that it cannot predict the weather, but then, even the Met Office struggles at times. Apart from bad weather, the other risk factor is power station breakdowns. Although some are much bigger, the average power station accounts for around 1% of supply. So theoretically we could lose four of them, in the coldest weather, and still struggle by. Of course, this is a very unlikely scenario, and National Grid has in any case taken steps to increase the safety margin. Three power stations that were mothballed have been recommissioned and placed on standby. Two of them are gas turbine plants and can come up to full power very rapidly. 

On the demand side, National Grid has agreements with major industrial users to accept power cuts if usage exceeds available supply. Taken together, these measures bring the safety margin, in the worst weather, up to 6.1%.

So is everything all right then? Probably a lot better than the tabloid press might make you think, but there are surely underlying problems. As economic growth continues, energy demand increases. Many of our power stations are due for replacement, but energy policy from all governments has been fragmented and vague. It’s difficult to plan a power station with a 30 or 40 year life if the politicians’ horizon goes no further than the next election. My prediction is that things can only get worse, because there is no quick fix to a shortage of generating capacity. Even with a 6.1% safety margin National Grid can’t rule out localised blackouts, although they do expect to hold them to no more than 36 minutes. 

The popular reaction to blackouts is to rush out and buy candles, and that is certainly what we did when we had regular power cuts in the 1970s. The world has changed dramatically since then. We didn’t have mobile phones and we didn't have cash machines. We certainly didn’t have computers. Many families still kept warm in front of open fires. Remember, you may have gas central heating, but it goes off when the electricity goes off because all the controls are electric. Quite a lot of infrastructure has back-up generation. For example, you’ll usually find a diesel generator tucked away at the back of your supermarket. Generators support mobile phone masts - the remoter ones, anyway, - but a blackout is likely to close ATMs. If the weather turns really cold, make sure you stock up on cash. And it might be worth buying a camping gas stove so you can have a hot drink. And a wind-up lantern is so much safer than candles! In business, data is your most precious resource. You do always back up, don't you? Keep your laptop and your phone charged up. And a UPS - uninterruptible power supply - should be in place to let your larger computers power down smoothly if the power goes off.

All this is about electricity, but National Grid is responsible for gas as well and we use a lot of that in a cold winter; for industry, for central heating and for generating electricity. We still get gas from the North Sea, but it’s declining and we now import a significant proportion of our gas. The predictions of the Grid’s Winter Outlook are that we have a substantial margin of reserves and production over maximum demand - around 24%. The key risk factor here is political. Russia is a major supplier of gas to Europe and much of it is routed via Ukraine. If Russia restricts supplies to Ukraine, as it has done in the past, then the rest of Europe suffers. The UK does not import gas directly from Russia, but if supplies to Europe were cut any imports to the UK from the Netherlands or Belgium would probably be cut as well. 

The Winter Outlook takes this into account and assumes that any shortages would be made up by increased imports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Last year just under 20% of our imported gas was LNG and most of that came from Qatar in the Persian Gulf - not the most stable region politically. National Grid makes the point that we could maintain supplies by increasing these imports, but only by paying world prices which are highly likely to escalate if there is a shortage. As far as gas supply is concerned, we’re in a secure position. Cost is something else, so turn down the thermostat a degree or two, fit that double glazing and roof insulation, upgrade the boiler and enjoy as much heat as you can from as little gas as possible.

The supply and distribution of energy to the UK is clearly a highly sophisticated operation. Now there’s another factor to add to the risks from breakdowns, bad weather and politics. This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its fifth assessment report (AR5), warning that we must cut co2 emissions by drastically reducing fossil fuel use. Launching the report, Ban Ki-moon, UN General Secretary, said, “Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.” At the moment, well over half the electricity in the UK is generated from fossil fuels - coal and gas. The UN urges nations to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewables to prevent global warming from exceeding a 2℃ rise. The report shows how this path can improve economic performance. 

This is a big issue for the UK, where the government is offering substantial tax incentives and subsidies for the development of fracking. Fracking produces oil and gas securely, free from interference by foreign governments, but oil and gas are fossil fuels. Should we be going this way, when even the Rockefeller Foundation, based on the fortunes made from Standard Oil, is selling off its fossil fuel investments and investing in renewables? Surely the tax breaks and subsidies should be going into continued development of renewables. 

Whatever happens, we need some hard and urgent decisions made by government. Unfortunately the present government seems inclined to ignore the evidence, pushing on with fracking, talking about “green crap” and the “green blob” and with a former environment minister calling for our Climate Change Act to be suspended. Despite all this we need decisions. 

Decisions which will determine whether or not we spend our future winters freezing in the dark!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Preparing for the Perfect Storm

The UK faces a crisis because UK business lacks the skills to deal with the challenge of sustainability. This is the message of a report issued today by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (iema). At the same time, a poll of members of the Institute of Directors reveals that for 70% of respondents their sustainability priorities are affected by the economic climate. 

The conclusion from this poll is that for many companies sustainability is just a “nice-to-have”, not a necessity. Maybe it’s because “sustainability” as an idea is still widely misunderstood. All too many people’s thoughts go - sustainability - environment - green - beards and sandals - protest - fluffy polar bears: leave me alone I’ve a business to run!

But the iema report makes it clear that sustainability is at the heart of any business. The headline message is that the UK has a sustainability skills shortage, and the underlying truth is that we need these skills to meet sustainability challenges and opportunities. Drawing on research by the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, the IPCC, the OECD and many others, the report shows how critical pressures are building up from population growth, climate change, water shortages, resource scarcity, unsustainable levels of waste and ballooning demand for energy. It shows too, that of some 1,000 companies polled by iema only 13% were very confident that they could compete in a sustainable economy. And of course that’s not a choice. The sustainable economy is rapidly becoming the only game in town: in the world!

In crudest terms a sustainable business is one that stays in business. In reality a sustainable business is an organisation that can adapt to these rapid and radical changes, can meet customers’ evolving expectations while relying on suppliers which may themselves be way behind the curve. Procurement is a sustainability issue, finance is a sustainability issue, product development is a sustainability issue, and so are training, sales and marketing. Many organisations do not realise there is an issue, and therefore have not taken any steps to react. It’s the business-as-usual syndrome. 

It’s not all bad news. Major household names have taken sustainability on board. They include Jaguar Land Rover, Kepak Convenience Foods, (you may not know the name, but you’ll have eaten their products!), Network Rail, Rexam, Ricoh and Rolls-Royce. They recognise that there’s a sustainable business case. They save energy, they save materials, they cut waste. And it all saves them money. Not just manufacturing and construction companies are involved. The Innovation Group is in insurance claims management and software; HW Fisher is an accountancy firm; PHS provides hygiene services and we’ve all heard of the NHS. All these organisations have taken an active sustainability policy on board.

The challenge now is to spread the word to the vast number of organisations that are not yet on side or even aware that there’s an issue. We need to do it before the perfect storm engulfs us in a perfect disaster.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Is this the end of fossil fuels?

No, of course not, at least not yet, but there are some interesting straws in the wind. Glasgow University has become the first in Europe to sell off its investments in fossil fuels. At £18 million that's not even a drop in the bucket. Insignificant in financial terms but much more important from a PR point of view is the deal between Lego and Shell. Lego carried the brand on many of its sets but following a campaign from Greenpeace with a video which went viral Lego has agreed to end its relationship with the oil company. The focus of the Greenpeace campaign was Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. It was both about putting the Arctic wilderness at risk and about producing more fossil fuels which lead to worsening climate change.

The most significant news is that the Rockefeller Foundation announced last month that it was going to sell off all its investments in fossil fuels. That's the Rockefeller that was founded on Standard Oil, ESSO in the UK. If they are now selling out of the fossil fuels which made their fortune maybe we should start to take notice. As professional investors they are likely to be selling out because they foresee a market decline.

So, is this the end of fossil fuels,? It could well be the beginning of the end. People, important people, are finally realising that we cannot exploit all the remaining fossil fuel reserves without setting off climate change which will make the world uninhabitable in a few short decades. However, we still need energy and it must be clean energy. The race is on to develop carbon-free alternatives. And no doubt that’s where the smart money will be going!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sustainable Furniture Case Study

Efficiency and best practice have always been fundamental to J T Ellis & Co., furniture manufacturers of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire.

We never set out specifically to be a sustainable company. The fact is that the way we run the company lets us tick most of the sustainability boxes.

Ellis Furniture supplies kitchens and bathrooms to the retail sector and kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and a whole range of specialised furniture to contract clients. These include care homes and hotels, and schools, universities and other buildings in the public sector.

 PFI has not been universally popular, but its been good news for us.

PFI operators frequently have an obligation to maintain a building and its facilities for decades. Ellis uses traditional glue and dowel construction with high quality timber, which means they offer a quality product that lasts for years - and at a competitive price. Every product from Ellis Furniture has a 10-year guarantee, but in practice it will last much longer than that. Indeed, in a corner of the companys showroom theres a suite of student furniture that was originally installed in Durham University in 1985. Its clearly seen a lot of use but its still functional. In principle it could be refurbished and re-used.

What makes a sustainable business?

First of all, the fact that Ellis makes durable and long-lasting products clearly demonstrates sustainable use of resources. Unfortunately, at present no-one gets recognition for making durable products. In the UK, where we generate 117 million tonnes of waste each year, the longer a product lasts the greater effect it has on reducing that figure - a contribution to sustainability that really shouldnt be ignored. Secondly, the company carefully controls its raw materials. Wherever possible, timber comes from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified sources, which means that every tree harvested comes from managed forests, and every tree is recorded and replaced. Walnut and cherry from the US are managed in a similar way but certified by a different body. Other countries have their own schemes. What is noticeable on the Ellis factory floor is that every stack of timber is tagged with details of origin. For every product shipped, the company knows exactly where the raw materials came from.   

I raised the question of energy security. How sustainable is a manufacturing business when there are predictions of national electricity blackouts within the next two years? Like most businesses, their energy supply is in the hands of the government, the generators and the weather. Its just not practical to have a complete back-up generation system, and its not as though the factory is producing anything perishable that needs refrigeration or chemical reactions that must be held at a critical temperature. Of course there are essential services that must be protected so theres a UPS in the computer room which will permit a managed shutdown of IT without loss of data. Theres also one diesel back-up unit on site. It sits next to a massive water tank which feeds the sprinkler system. Every Monday its fired up to prove its ready and waiting should an emergency occur.

And renewable energy?

What about renewables? A 200,000 square foot factory has a lot of roof area and its no surprise that solar panels are under serious consideration. They will never supply all the factorys needs, but the current subsidy regime means they will make a significant saving and certainly more than pay for themselves.
Another aspect of energy is more problematical. Ellis Furniture has to dispose of waste, and offcuts of timber and strip are collected by a company which remanufactures them into particle board. All very green, although Ellis still has to pay for the waste to be taken away. Enter the government with its subsidies for biomass boilers. The policy was set up to support electricity generators such as Drax Power - operators of the UKs largest power station - to convert to more environmentally-friendly biomass. (Whether it is truly environmentally friendly is a debate for another day!) In view of the massive investment involved, some £700m, the government has confirmed that the scheme will stay in place at least until 2037. Back in Huddersfield the regulations mean theres a choice between recycling the timber waste at a cost and saving money on energy by burning it in a biomass boiler. It's a simple choice. Burning it in a boiler is not as green as recycling it, but this is business.

Why ISO 14001?

Putting in an environmental management system (EMS) to ISO 14001 was in response to public sector clients. A lot of the implementation involved documenting practices and procedures which the company already had in place. The fact that the EMS has been installed means that clients immediately know that Ellis Furniture meets recognised standards. Indeed, having the standard is frequently a condition of tendering. Clients know that the EMS is revalidated each year, in this case by BSI, which is an added incentive to the company towards continuous improvement. With this in mind Ellis undertook a lean manufacturing project, which led them to a fundamental re-arrangement of the factory layout. They freed up enough space to allow them to give up off-site storage facilities and save the cost. The revised layout improves productivity as the work now comes to the operatives, following a logical flow, and they no longer have to follow the work.

What about packaging?

Most Ellis products are sent out without packaging. The majority of the business is with the public sector and contract customers. The company delivers these orders on its own transport, securing units to the sides of the van and separating them with blankets, which of course are used again and again. Units for the retail market are packaged in cardboard as the company does not handle delivery to the final consumer and needs to make sure they arrive safely. At least the cardboard can be recycled.

And finally

Ive often said that sustainable business is good business. It makes sense to get the standard and get the credit for it.  Ellis Furniture proves the point that good businesses are generally sustainable.

Thanks to Tom Ellis, Joint MD, JT Ellis & Co