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Posted: 01 May 2019 by Anne Ashford

Latest issue of Toco B2B magazine for Devon

I edit and write Toco business magazine, which demonstrates how design and communication are central components for business success. Inside we feature one of Toucan's recent projects at the University of Plymouth and I was fortunate to visit Prof Iain Stewart at the new Sustainability Hub.

Prof Iain Stewart MBE: “Sustainability is messy; it’s getting to grips with complex issues and business needs to be part of that discussion.”

Business sustainability is often defined as managing the triple bottom line - a process by which companies manage their financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities. These three impacts are sometimes referred to as profits, people and planet.


Professor Iain Stewart MBE knows a thing or two about how the earth works; he’s UNESCO Chair in Geoscience and Society, Professor of Geoscience Communication at the University of Plymouth and also a member of the Scientific Board of UNESCO's International Geoscience Programme.

But he’s probably best known for his role as geology’s ‘rock star’, presenting science programmes for the BBC where his passion and skill communicating complex issues shines through.

Toco caught up with him just days before the University opened its striking, green-walled Sustainability Hub described as ‘a collaborative space for sustainability research, education and partnerships’. Toucan Design are currently working with Ian and his team to develop a range of interior graphics to adorn the walls of this new facility. 

And, of course, the interview took place at a time of unprecedented uncertainty over Brexit when many companies are caught up with securing supply chains, export channels and recruitment issues amongst a myriad of pressing concerns. But in spite of fears about what will happen after March 29, Iain advocates taking the long view.

“We always complain about government and politicians being interested in the short term, but I think there is a collective responsibility for industry as well as for government to look long term,” said Iain over a coffee in a bustling University café.

“That’s what’s coming through about the sustainable development goals and climate change agreements and in the UK we have an Environment Act which looks up to 30 years into the future. We need everyone to be collectively looking over those longer time scales.”

Sustainability has reached critical mass, with world summits and economic forums monitoring issues of resource scarcity and high-risk environmental factors affecting world populations. More so than ever before, the consumer has the power, and is becoming the deciding force of change for sustainable business practices.

“Our students are much more environmentally aware, much more interested in sustainability, and will be quizzing us on our policy [to discover] whether its greenwash or actually is more substantive. A lot of students are increasingly saying they make decisions on that. And I think it is part of a wider picture where the public are starting to be really critical – they’re looking at it in plastics, they’re looking at it in food and are being much more discerning.”

This is why sustainability makes such good business sense. Iain isn’t calling for businesses to tear up the rule book but advises them to add maximising their social value into the mix; don’t disguise the necessity for profits but use sustainability to demonstrate positive impacts.

“One thing you see in businesses is that if they are sustainable they reduce costs from the bottom line. It may well be that initially there’s a lot of disruption and it’s problematic, you have to change your practices etc, but if you add into the picture the social gain by actually being ‘a good company’, being a leader, and, if you can emphasis the social value and the long term purpose that you’re a company with vision, I think a lot of people buy into that as much as to what the actual business is.

“People are looking for guidance. They’re looking for certainty in a world that’s uncertain. And for companies which say we know what we’re about, we know our customers, we know where we’re going and this is the direction of travel; that we’re going to bring you with us, we’re going to engage with you, that’s really critical, we’re not just going to rush off and you can follow. It’s this notion of guiding and co-creating with your customer base.”

The University’s Sustainability Hub provides opportunities for SMEs to explore these issues and others further; it links commerce and academia through formal projects (such as big data and artificial intelligence), workshops and public talks (the most recent one was given by Mike Barry, Head of Sustainable Business at Marks and Spencer).

The building houses the Sustainable Earth Institute which brings researchers together with businesses, community groups and individuals ‘to develop cutting-edge research and innovative approaches that build resilience to global challenges’. Currently they’re involved with the geothermal power project in Cornwall researching local people’s perceptions about the technology and its impact on their neighbourhood.

At the heart of it all is communication; there’s never been a better time to take a leaf out of outstanding communicator Iain’s book and get buy-in for whatever lies ahead.

The bottom line should be the highest priority for small businesses — or you go out of business. But if you are not eliminating waste and implementing energy-efficiency measures; if you are not engaging your employees in the sustainability efforts that will motivate, excite, and inspire them; if you are not capturing the brand equity of operating as a responsible business; then you are just not doing good business.