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Building back better

Leadership in and after lockdown - the changes, challenges and choices for chief executives.

Iain Gulland | 27 May 20

How we’re all discovering we can do more differently to build back better together - and why making things last by switching to the circular economy is key to recovering from coronavirus and ending the climate crisis.

As a keen cyclist I thought pedalling on through lockdown would give me a degree of reassuring constancy in a time of unpredictable and unprecedented change. 

Instead it’s given me another new, unexpected perspective on life and leadership.

Unable to do my usual daily journey to and from our headquarters in Stirling as Scotland joined the global shutdown, I’ve found my whole approach to cycling altered.

I realised that biking to and from work had been just a commute, and my weekend rides with mates, while enjoyable and sometimes competitive, were purely social – another benefit I took for granted until, like everyone else, I suddenly lost that freedom as we rightly follow strict distancing rules imposed to overcome the coronavirus crisis, and I must cycle alone.

As weeks turn to months and each of us faces our own - sometimes devastating - difficulties, I’ve gained more from stopping, looking and listening than I ever did from just cycling. Like so many people worldwide I’ve discovered a new appreciation for our precious planet. 

I’ve seen fields fill up with lambs as verges change from daffodil yellow to the near-violet hue of bluebells.  I’ve heard and watched all sorts of wildlife from cuckoos to boxing hares, followed deer down country lanes as they seek their escape. I’ve taken pictures, recorded birdsong. And just stood still, breathing deeply and enjoying the moment. I’ve written before about the need to live and work as part of nature, not apart from it, to end the climate crisis but I’ve never felt it so keenly.

Lockdown has given us a glimpse of a better, brighter future with clearer skies and cleaner waters as the natural world takes advantage of the respite these strange times are providing. Many people are making understandable links between all these changes and the climate emergency, which indisputably remains the greatest threat we face long-term. 

We need to overcome that crisis too as we recover from the pandemic. This means accelerating efforts to create more greener jobs and companies as we forge a stronger, more sustainable, fairer and safer economy – building back better so our environment can recover and grow back in harmony with business, not in conflict.

Key to this is the switch to the circular economy – reusing, repairing, remaking and finally recycling to make things last. The single biggest cause of the climate crisis is our over-consumption of Earth’s natural resources. We need to break this universal habit in order to rebuild sustainably for the good of the environment and the economy alike.

Four fifths of Scotland's carbon footprint is generated by the vast amount of goods and materials which we produce, consume and throw away, often after just one use. And we import roughly half of this mountain of stuff from countries overseas where the impact on biodiversity, habitat and water security is arguably even more damaging. 

But this huge amount of waste is also a huge opportunity as we build back better. Scotland has the world’s third greenest grid, which can power the green recovery we need to turn this waste into value. Zero Waste Scotland has already helped more than 200 companies find inventive ways of designing, producing and consuming things differently to create successful circular goods and services, from refurbished computers and upcycled furniture to an alternative to palm oil made from spent coffee grounds and even one company which has shifted from selling light fixtures to leasing light.

This inventiveness is clearly in our DNA as recent events have shown, with reports of brewers and distillers switching fast from manufacturing alcohol to hand sanitiser to combat coronavirus. Even life-saving equipment, such as ventilators, has been produced by car and vacuum cleaner manufacturers. Meanwhile the disruption to food supply chains as key sectors like hospitality have had to close has created new distribution opportunities linking local suppliers to local demand.

This ‘disruptive’ thinking and application will be the hallmark of our successful transition to a circular economy where we all learn to do things differently to not only recover from the pandemic but to overcome the climate crisis as well. 

Because lockdown has also shown just how much we could all do differently, and given us a chance to assess the impact of these sudden widespread changes on the economy and the environment, both now and into the future. 

From our own experience we estimate that after the first two weeks of lockdown the benefits of eradicating all staff travel versus the extra emissions caused by one-off investments in extra equipment cut our organisation’s carbon footprint by 25 per cent compared to the same period the previous year. 

But more importantly we have now estimated that if we continued with homeworking the benefits of that would shoot up to nearly 75 per cent as the ongoing reduction in travel emissions far outweighed the initial rise in emissions from the additional technology we had to make available.

This is, unsurprisingly, because like much of the service industry, commuting and corporate travel are by far the greatest cause of our emissions - and none of our staff are travelling anywhere for work currently as we follow public health advice to stay at home.

Before lockdown we had already identified our organisation’s worst emissions to produce our own net-zero plan setting out how we would reduce them, building on our past success through measures such as expanding our no-fly zone and increasing options for flexible working in our new satellite offices and at home.

We are about to publish our plan and guidance so other businesses can calculate their own worst emissions and learn from our successes and failures as we all plan and implement the different changes needed for a collective carbon-free future ending our nation’s contribution to the climate crisis by 2045 under the Scottish Government’s landmark net-zero pledge. 

But the impact of lockdown has illustrated how agile we need to be as circumstances change. We are now re-examining our own plans to see what we might now want or be able to do differently given our recent experience of remote working. Will it still be worth investing in double-glazing to cut heating bills at our headquarters, as we planned pre-lockdown, if significantly more staff will work from satellite offices or at home in future? 

The pandemic has also highlighted the need to consider the social impact of changing the way we do business. Video conferencing has been a revelation to many, and we are among the businesses making significantly greater use of this technology. But poor internet connection or reception can cause real stress and frustration. And people are, by nature, social animals. We don’t yet know what impact working remotely has on people’s mental and physical wellbeing, morale, productivity or their ability to network and collaborate effectively. Lockdown is not a fair test for that either due to the understandable impact of working from home during a global disaster.

Although our net-zero plan is based on a solid understanding of our worst emissions, there is still a lot which we don’t know about how best to eliminate our carbon footprint. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. And as we all look forward to emerging from lockdown the need to find innovative solutions to diverse problems is greater than ever. 

But as I continue seeking solace and inspiration through cycling, I’m reassured by the knowledge that we’re all learning valuable and lasting lessons at every level, from a simple bike ride to running a business, on how we can do more differently from now on. 

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