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E137 - Samantha Cooper from Business Declares
Episode 13731st May 2021 • The Green Element Podcast • Green Element
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Samantha Cooper, the Director for Business Declares, talks about the work this membership organisation does in supporting companies, however big or small, in declaring a climate and ecological emergency and taking purposeful action to reach carbon neutrality.

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Will Richardson:

Welcome to the Green Element Podcast, where we meet business leaders and innovators transforming their operations to be more environmentally and socially sustainable, and in the process help you on your journey of sustainability. I'm your host will Richardson. Today we're speaking with Samantha Cooper, Director for Business Declares the which both Green Element and Compare Your Footprint are members. They raise awareness across the business sector of the imperative to accelerate action to address climate change, biodiversity loss, and social injustice. Samantha has a master's in chemistry from the University of Oxford and is currently studying Tibetan Buddhism. Samantha left BP in 2015. To find a more fulfilling path. She has been using her corporate experiences to help organisations in two areas, social impacts, and the hugely challenging low carbon transition. Samantha. Welcome.

Samantha Cooper:

Hi, Will. Thank you very much for having me on your podcast today.

Will Richardson:

No problem. Thank you for joining us. Could you tell us about your journey from the oil industry into sustainability? Was there a particular aspect of your previous work that drove you into the sustainability sector?

Samantha Cooper:

That is a great question. And I'll try not to share. I could talk about this for hours. So I'll try and be succinct. Um, I think I fell into the oil industry coming out of university. I found myself in oil trading, I studied chemistry. And I really enjoyed the fast pace of trading. And really, it was a puzzle to solve. And through that time, I was quite good at it, quite an obsessive character. But suddenly, I find myself 15 to 20 years later, fully entrenched in the oil market, really defined myself by my work, working at BP, we'd have the Macondo oil spill. And we're really just starting to see some of the stories of climate emerging. And I think it's fair to say I had a kind of midlife crisis, in the sense that I really realised that what I was doing was so far aligned with what felt like a purpose. I actually read Rene Brown, and it said, if you are distant from your purpose, it can actually feel like grief. And it really, it really sort of struck me into my core that I wasn't really doing something that I really felt aligned with. And I'd actually say it was probably through mindfulness, that I actually found some space and time to really think about what I wanted to do and realise that life was now and not in five years time, I always in the future, I was going to do the things that I said I was going to do. So BP were great. I was a good lever, I left on very good terms with them. But I started to mentor as part of the arc scheme, business in the community. And I just started to meet amazing people through the Impact Hub Network, that were doing amazing things in social justice, inequality, unemployment. And when I felt 10 years younger and realised that I wanted to take a path where I could really learn, learn from people that are doing amazing things and just keep learning and seeing where I could possibly give back.

Will Richardson:

I just find BP really interesting in the fact that when they had Lord Brown, there, he was such a driving force for renewables. And I think it was a real loss when he was asked to leave. Because you saw that beyond petroleum and the fact that you're one of the biggest renewable energy producers in the world for photovoltaics at the time. And it was a real kind of driving force in the sustainability world, I guess. And they took a different path. Absolutely.

Samantha Cooper:

Absolutely right. They were ahead of their time. And unfortunately, with business, the timing was everything. And there wasn't the foresight, then to realise that they were on the right path. I still have great connections with BP, I think they've got a very, very difficult transition. And they are definitely doing what they can to try and transition but there are huge challenges on the way, as we know.

Will Richardson:

Tell us a bit about Business Declares and we've delved into a tiny bit of the purpose but what is the purpose and who do you work with?

Samantha Cooper:

I'd say our purpose is evolving. Um, just as the pace of change of the climate news and the climate story is, is you know, changing day by day. We came about on April 19. After the IPCC report, which sparked the climate strikes Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion. It was a letter to the times from some senior business leaders led by John Elkington, who's been in our mastering space for a long time. And it really is born out of believing that business, you know plays a critical role in tackling the climate and ecological emergency. And I think at that time, Extinction Rebellion, some factions of Extinction Rebellion were still concerned about seem to be working with business. And we're sort of still work closely with them, but very much are led by business leaders from across, you know, footsie 100, SMEs be caught all manner of different organisations who really want to partner with business. And I'd say in those early days, yeah, the tagline was very much about raising awareness for business to act. And also explain that not only is it the right thing for people and planet, but also to future proof the business. And I'd say, where we are now, in a good way, I think climate is at the heart of almost every conversation, business leaders are having. And so we'd probably say we're less about raising the awareness. And we've moved on. Much more certainly, we still champion those organisations that are declaring a climate and ecological emergency. And we share their stories, we hope to inspire by action that has been taken by bold action. And once men, once a company becomes a member of business declares, such as compare your footprint, you know, you're part of a network where you can share those stories and learn from others. And we absolutely believe that collaboration is critical to the huge changes that we need to make. I think we also are really there to support action, amplify action, and businesses come to us at every stage, they may be on the journey. We were open to small and large businesses. And the key is to be willing to take authentic action. And so we find very small companies can often be overwhelmed by the task, don't know where to start, can't afford consultancy. And so we look to advise, be a bridge to organisations that are out there, we, you know, we signpost, such as compare your footprint that will offer free measurement services to smaller organisations. And so we really feel that it's very complex is a spaghetti soup of acronyms out there. So we very much like to help provide those steps to action. And then think the next area is very much about having the hosting the difficult conversations, being open to the complexity, and really also champion businesses that are there to say, this is really difficult. This is an area that we really struggling to overcome. You know, we've got the whole complexity of scope three, we've got a lot of solutions that aren't really out there, the difficulty in getting offsets that are, you know, certified offsets. And so we really are welcoming, and I'd say that we champion businesses and support conversations that are probably on the edgier side, we're much more up nervous have come to say, yeah, we're all sorted, we've got a 2015 net-zero plan, no worries, that that would be a concern. And we'd much rather hear the difficulties and where further collaboration and solutions are needed. And then the next piece of this is especially key, I'd say for larger organisations, is advocacy. We absolutely know that politics and regulatory change are often driven by business, and political decisions will be taken if they feel there was business backing. So we really like to galvanise a resounding voice from businesses. They are really pushing for faster, a clearer regulatory change that supports faster than Paris Agreement, and really will keep not just the UK but the globe within 1.5, if that is possible, or two-degree warming. And so we really know that businesses want to find a way to come together so that their voices really, really part of this call for action.

Will Richardson:

Do your members get together? I mean, do you, have you seen any kind of collaboration?

Samantha Cooper:

I'd say yes and no. We've seen great collaboration in our members actually informing our work, or helping us fill a gap. So a perfect example is around digital, our digital footprint. It's growing exponentially. Its impact is now larger than aviation or shipping. And that was aviation pre-COVID levels. And we really felt saw that there weren't any really good resources for companies to go to, to really look at how they, they, and their employees could tackle their digital footprint. And so we worked with one of our, our members, wholegrain digital, who helped us were instrumental in putting that expertise together. And we now have a free open-source resource, which is our digital declutter for business, I think that's a really good example of where, actually, it's the knowledge and expertise of members that come in and then helps inform our body of work. But definitely for us, the next step would be improving, those nodes of support on that web, where it's not just business declares, that reaches out to members, but members connect with each other as well, in sharing solutions. And, actually, um, on your part of this on Thursday, we have annual members check-in, where we're absolutely going to be exploring how we can, how we can do more of that. And especially now, as our membership is growing, we really going to go to the need for the members to come alive in helping grow the movement and share solutions.

Will Richardson:

Brilliant. We've actually had Tom from wholegrain, he was one of our first guests actually, almost three years ago, talking about what he's doing. He's absolutely, Wholegrain Digital is brilliant.

Samantha Cooper:

I have not read his book, but he is amazing. And as you know, he's spoken for hours as well. And he's that he's got that amazing ability to be an absolute expert in his field, be able to speak in a way that brings a subject alive to people like me that know pretty much nothing about website design. So yeah, he's, you know, he's is a true, true force.

Will Richardson:

And that's what the books very good at is. It's actually very well written, you know, when friends or people, you know, you see that they've got a book out and actually said this to Tom. Yeah, I'll start. I'll try and read it. Because you kind of can refer to that. All right. But actually, it's he just is quite hard to read. His wasn't. His was actually quite enjoyable to read. And I, I was quite blown away by how easy it was and how enjoyable it was as well.

Samantha Cooper:

Well, that is the nudged to me that I must read it. All we're doing, we're actually doing a Business Declares and wholegrain Digital with the B Corp, the B lab has got a global Global Climate Summit. So June the 30th, there will be a chance for people, it's 3:30. I think I'll do the 30th to plug in and listen to Tom and get his bite-sized overview of all the things we've got in the digital toolkit and how people can take steps themselves. So fantastic.

Will Richardson:

Now, there's a strong emphasis on having a no-judgment attitude on the business declares websites. What was the driver behind this point? And have you found more businesses engaging with you as a result of this?

Samantha Cooper:

It came from Cook? I think they were when Cook joined, when Cook were thinking of joining us, they were really clear. And I think and it was such a point that we understood and really took on board that everybody is on a journey. And I think nobody can claim to have all the answers, especially the more complex your business. We understand businesses need to make a profit they need to pay their employees. So this is not something as we said earlier, where people say I've got the answers all done. And people didn't want to join us in declare and see that as something then that they can be pulled down by someone go Ah, yeah, but you still blah, blah, blah, and certainly for Cook their absolute champions in the food space. But they also talk and I think Riverford, our newest member, also really talk about some of the uncomfortable truths be around. If we all like chicken that was, that was free-range. Actually, is that possible? Is there enough land? Are these things possible? And so we really liked that wording. And we found that since then other companies have really wanted to take it on board. And we're all about authentic action. And I think that does really embody saying we're there to learn. And as we know, the situation is changing very rapidly. The climate science is changing rapidly. And what might have been appropriate behaviour even a year ago, quite quickly make may not feel appropriate.

Will Richardson:

No, absolutely. And when communicating and I guess engaging staff, suppliers, and customers with your mission and purpose. Could you tell us a bit about how you do that because that's a big part of what you do, isn't it?

Samantha Cooper:

That's a great question. I first step for someone to become a member is really for us to verify that from the leadership of the company, the core of the company, there's a genuine, authentic wish to take this transition journey. And we do, we're part of the race to zero. And, and we ourselves have these, what's a fairly strict criteria, which is that they will measure scope one and scope two emissions, look to be net-zero by 2030. Where at all possible, we're also very conscious of net meaning that isn't just you can plant some trees and carry on with business as normal. But really look at where emission reduction is possible first, and then the offsets are permanent and additive. These in themselves, and understanding scope three are huge. And as you say, what we really need to do then is actually for organisations that haven't done that already. And especially for organisations that can't afford expensive consultancy, as we've talked about. We really look at what resources are available, and signpost resources for measurement, which companies can help them do that. And we also share stories and transition plans from other companies that have already done this. It's almost a step-by-step guide of saying, this is how you start. This is the organisation we think can help you This is the resource available. And these are steps you can take. And so we also and we're growing our volunteer network, but we'll also there was a specific question a company has, will then try and find within our network, someone that they can go to, for, say, a 30-minute conversation. And particularly if they're struggling on an aspect of reducing our emissions or their supply chains. And we've got various experts in different industries, we've got safrea Mini, who was the founder of people train is very focused on fashion and supply chains and worked with fair trade. We've got Ben Tolhurst is a director at j LL. So he very much understands the built environment. And sonore. Jane is also one of our sustainability advisors. So we really try and have people that they can talk to, and as a sounding board, and develop their ideas, all we would partner them with people within our membership base, as you say, but we don't claim to have the answers. It's incredibly complex. I see a lot of my job is keeping on top of all the initiatives out there. As we know, there's a lot of collaboration in the space, there's also a lot of companies merging, there's a lot of organisations that are coming together and really being able to explain what is happening out there. So companies are bridge to be a bridge to all the different initiatives so that they can save time and accessing what they need quickly and easily.

Will Richardson:

It is hard. I think once you're on the journey, it's actually easier. I may be speaking out of turn here, but I kind of feel that watching people, I think once they kind of that lightbulb moment goes and they go, actually, this is good for business. This isn't something that is going to take up loads of our time and take us away from our core business, this will be a part of our core business. And those resources you're talking about, I think are incredibly important. Because in reality, and I remember starting 20 old years ago and thinking by 2020, I'll be completely out of a job. There's no reason why anyone would be using consultants by them because everyone will be doing it for themselves and the office manager in a smaller organisation will just No, we'll just basically do everything. Because it's it will be a part of the job. Obviously, that hasn't happened, I still hope that it does happen. But I think that will be accelerated by what you're talking about. And organisations like you. Because we really need to not be reliant on people and consultants, but we need to be reliant on each other.

Samantha Cooper:

So why is what you're saying so resonates. We say that business declares its whole long-term vision is just not to be necessary. But you're completely right, I'd actually say the situation is becoming more complex. I still think very simple guidelines to climate science and the most important things that we can do to affect our, our own footprint and as a business, well understood. And so yeah, consultants like you absolutely necessary and instrumental in helping businesses and I do think you definitely aren't going to be talking yourself out of a job because certainly small organisations, don't expect to be fully experts in accountancy or law. Now they would often outsource to experts on this. And I think that's exactly the same with climate. The pace of change is so fast that somebody within an organisation can't be expected to be doing this on top of their day job. You know, you're trying to keep on top of this all day, every day, and then the amount of information coming at us is just absolutely enormous.

Will Richardson:

And I'm starting to have to carve out time in the week to do research and read. Because I'm starting to become out, I'm just being honest, I'm starting to become out of date in stuff, and it's very quick to become out of date as well, which is the worrying part.

Samantha Cooper:

I'm really glad you say that. Because I think one thing we question ourselves all the time at Business Declares about our mission, on what you know, rather than just using our conscience, are we really making a difference? How can we make a difference? And exactly that just keeping on top of the various initiatives, and I think the level of expertise for every sector is needing to get greater and greater as the complexity of genuine solutions, you know, is moving on and so absolutely trying to decide which are the key books to read. And, you know, it's huge, isn't it? And that's why I think this collaboration is hugely important for us to say, Well, I don't know that, but I think the person that you can go to that can help you is x. But then, on the other hand, I don't think anybody has the answers.

Will Richardson:

No, absolutely

Samantha Cooper:

Which is another, you know, it's much better for you are aware of our gaps and our lack of understanding in certain areas. But I don't think there's anyone that can put the hand up and say, we've got this, we've got this.

Will Richardson:

I had a meeting yesterday with a large company. And they came to us because they'd heard I think they've listened to podcasts or something I don't know. And I was a bit like, you know, I know, you really want me to lead on this. But there's absolutely no way I will do a good job, go and speak to this person in this company. Because actually felt that they'll just do it better, they'll do it better, basically. I was a bit like, you will literally get a really rubbish job done. If you ask me to do it, you may like me, but no point. And I think it's that honesty that we probably need to be having with people because even if you do something that's similar to another organisation, if you're not best fit for that, then actually, why not just recommend other people. And I think business is changing in that way. Because I think that's happening more and more, because people are recognising that actually, as from a business point of view, by me recommending, Andy from seismic changes, actually means that he will very likely recommend us as well. So when you ended up working in your sweet spot through referrals, which makes a lot more sense.

Samantha Cooper:

Yeah, so that that is absolutely true. I've kind of, now I'm more into this climate space are finding that companies who are really authentic and have this at the core of the business, there's such generosity as well, and with our members, including yourself, the amount of time that is offered for free, there's no question of what's in it for me and the open-source sharing, but also really understanding that businesses have to pay their people and pay their way. So it's a really difficult balance. And also exactly right being able to say, you know, I'm just not an expert at that. I'd love to learn about it. But I'm not the right person to lead. And I think that it's brilliant. And that kind of attitude is what is going to get the changes that we need, just as the attitude of businesses being able to say, I think the old industrial leaders of the past that said, I know what's going to happen in the next 10-20 years. Here's my business plan. I know the answers. It's starting to wear thin people, people know that that isn't the case. We have to be looking at risks. We have to be understanding the various things that are coming our way. I mean, COVID has been the perfect example. We know that they were in an ecological unbalance, but we don't know exactly how that's gonna play out. So for all of us to say we don't know the answers, but we're going to work our way through as best we can is, is hugely important.

Will Richardson:

You mentioned your volunteer network. If anyone listening to this would like to become a volunteer, how would they do that? And are you a registered charity? Not for profit, or how does it all fit together?

Samantha Cooper:

Um, so, we're completely volunteer LED, not for profit. We run on a donation basis. We do have one permanent paid staff member who just very excited. We've just taken it on as part of the government Kickstarter scheme. So it's great, we've been able to give a young person an opportunity to work with us. But we really on the in terms of the volunteering, we are really flexible. We have three directors. We have non-executive directors. And then we have a core team of about 10 of us who run various elements of events, the website, social media, and we get together every couple of weeks and have strategy meetings, and people will run with various aspects of that. But then we have a wider team of experts, who I think we, who I kind of mentioned before, people who work in organisations in sustainability, on offer their time, be at two hours a month, anything upwards from two hours a month, is absolutely welcome, whether that's helping onboarding members helping with climate transition plans, being involved in events. So I would say just get in touch, I'm Samantha@businessdeclares.com. And also for any, any organisations interested in becoming a member in so at businessdeclares.com really do get in touch. And we're there for sort of big and small organisation and for all volunteers, who may have some time that they want to give either as part of that employee volunteering scheme or separate as an individual.

Will Richardson:

The fact that you're all-volunteer lead, your growth plan must be that you are going to be paid at some point.

Samantha Cooper:

I'd say that all of us are seeing this as something that is additional to what might be another source of income. And we really didn't want to have the complexity at any point. Okay, of this being something that we're trying to monetize. So we are a donation lead. So organisations that we've worked with where we've given webinar, tailor-made webinars, and for our member organisations that feel in a position to donate, we take donations, but that purely funds in terms and the website, and any kind of digital costs that we may have, and we don't look any of us any of the directors or the leaders to take a wage from this at any point. What that does mean is that we often have, we have a sort of a corm number of volunteers. But also we have a fluid number of volunteers. So during COVID. And last summer during our furlough scheme, we had some fantastic climate consultants that came in, we had a fantastic guy from BP who was on sabbatical, which wasn't part of the furlough scheme, but on sabbatical came and worked with us for five months. So we do have people that really come in and commit a period of time, and then perhaps become part of our wider alumni, but move back into a full-paid job. And then we have people that just volunteer time outside of their working week, as and when they can. And I'm in a lucky place now that I can be a full-time volunteer.

Will Richardson:

Okay, cool, brilliant. And I guess understanding the environmental impact of you as an organisation, is that something that you have looked at.

Samantha Cooper:

it's been a brilliant journey for us. And the digital toolkit has been amazing. So and we have other companies say the same as our organisation, which may well, really we just all work from home. We have video calls. So let's not look at our own impacts. This is much more about what we're going to do out there. And then yeah, when we talk about being on the edge of difficult conversations, we've been right there on the edge of a difficult conversation. Our website was designed by one of our members, a fantastic organisation called Leap. It was posted through WordPress, and it was much more environmental. But really, for us, we couldn't go in and update it easily. And it became quite clunky and expensive for us to update. And as we've kind of explained before, we run on a very small budget. So our website, moved to Squarespace, which has much lower environmental credentials, or certainly, I want to be careful here. They may have changed, but certainly, at that time, they weren't so clear on where the hosting sites are. And so again, that was a difficult decision we talk to actually know that we were maybe making our website less hosted in a less environmental way but we wanted to make more impact by being able to meet reach more people with an up-to-date message. But we were then very mindful in working through Tom's recommendations, how to make the website have a much lower footprint, removing videos that are no longer needed, reducing pop-ups, no autoplay. So in our own way that we are, exist, we're really aware I'm turning off videos on zoom calls if you don't need to be sharing videos, and you're not looking at each other and talking, again, they're just lots of things when you're working from home you can do to still improve your footprint, I think we're all very aware of trying to recycle and, and not eat meat and switch to renewable energy supply. But there's a lot more things all of us can do while we're working and then our own households to reduce our footprints.

Will Richardson:

In your opinion, what is the biggest caveat to a low carbon transition?

Samantha Cooper:

Right. Well, I tend to always. It's a huge question. But I think it's, I'm just reading Jason Hickel and it's amazing, "less is more" book, but I think we're caught in a whole structure of the global economy based on growth. And all companies are there to grow and make more profit. And that profit gets invested back into growth, and ultimately, to live within planetary boundaries. And I'm not just talking about the carbon budget, but the ecological boundaries and for social equality, we need to have a talk to say that and you know, Kate Ray was spoken very clearly about this. Many countries in the global south need to raise their infrastructure and their demands on the planet to get within what is a minimum structure to live an equitable life. But most of the very advanced countries are not advanced in the fact that we're way over our resource use. But I think there really needs to be a global rethink about what it means to be a business. What profit is beyond profit that is needed, and how we really reset to live within the boundaries. And that takes, it's usually complex. And it takes you to know, companies that are needing to make a dividend and pay a dividend, are doing very high carbon activities to pay that dividend. And try and transition at the same time. And these are really uncomfortable truths. And so really looking to really question sort of GDP and those measures on that growth question, and actually look at what is important for people and, and health, and really assess what wealth means.

Will Richardson:

Is that any advice that you could give our listeners on what to do, from listening to your members and talking to people what's what would be your one piece of advice?

Samantha Cooper:

I'm going to echo what you said earlier about how it feels better to start. And I would say if you're sitting there and you're not sure where to start, come on to our website, look at some resources, our time from wholegrain shed a spreadsheet that he used just to start to measure. Don't think that to start, you need to get it 100%, right. Just consider your footprint, start to measure your emissions. And then there are a wealth of people out there that can help you look to reduce. So I'd say just starts taking some steps to reach out to us. And really, there are no stupid questions nobody knows the answers to. And as you said before, your employees and your ability to attract talent on a future basis, is really going to depend on the fact that you're starting to look like you're taking the steps to future proof for your business and do the right thing for you. For the people on the planet.

Will Richardson:

Brilliant. Brilliant. Thank you, Samantha, thank you so much for joining us today.

Samantha Cooper:

You've asked some great questions. And I'm sure I'm going to go away thinking of all the things I should have said but it's been a real pleasure to talk to you. Thank you again.

Will Richardson:

And thanks for listening to the Sustainable Business podcast. If you want to learn more about sustainable business and talk to other like-minded professionals, why not join our online community, sustainability solved, or join now and find a space to collaborate, learn and inspire others to become more environmental. And if you enjoy the podcast, make sure you subscribe, so you get every episode. And don't forget to follow Green Element on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.

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