A Dragon's take on sustainability and business

As a University of Exeter alumnus (or alumna if you’re being picky), I recently attended an event held in their impressive new Alumni Auditorium. Dr Deborah Meaden held an interactive talk on ‘Sustainability and Business’ whereby the audience could tweet questions in to her (#meadenlecture). Most well known as a Dragon’s Den panellist, Deborah Meaden is also an honorary graduate from the University of Exeter Business School, not to mention being a successful entrepreneur.

The Alumni Auditorium contains 400 pink and purple chairs that feel like expensive swivel office chairs, and that are individually networked with electricity plug sockets and internet points built into the chairs. This provided a great environment for the interactive discussion led by Deborah, and was quite a change from the older style lecture rooms I was used to!

Deborah explained that corporate social responsibility was a good thing, but it now seems like more of a “box ticking” exercise for companies to be able to promote that they “do CSR”.

Sustainability, Deborah suggested, is not about box ticking but is a mindset or behaviour that all employees of the company should be adopting and driving forward. Sustainability can have many added benefits to businesses, as well as to the environment. By cutting down on paper use (which can seem like an impossible task in a law firm), businesses can save money. We have recently had our own paper drive down and have seen a reduction in the amount of paper we are using. I think this is because everyone is now aware of the issue and is consciously trying to make an effort.

Deborah said that she often goes into businesses to talk to them about sustainability. We have to get smarter when a recession is on, as we don’t want to waste as much money – sustainability helps to save money.

Deborah and the audience discussed whether all businesses have an optimum size, and that sometimes it is frustrating when businesses continue to talk about growth. Deborah suggested that perhaps what businesses should be looking at as well as growth, is innovation. Sustainability is a method of innovating, as it may save costs and attract a different audience. It was suggested that the next generation (which I think includes me…) are growing up with sustainability as a mindset, and so should provide fresh thinking to businesses that are not so fleet-of-foot.

Deborah suggested that we need to evaluate the way companies report on profit and CSR (especially publicly listed companies who tend to have a “tick-box” approach), and that perhaps we should be measuring sustainability of businesses in a new way. This made me wonder whether I may be drafting sustainability obligations in supply agreements one day…

An audience member suggested that sustainability is linked to happiness… I am sustainable therefore I am happy? As a past law lecturer of mine used to say, answers on the back of a post card please…