Over the past 20 years, Sustainable Business Network has taken sustainable business practice from the fringes to front and centre. Founder and CEO Rachel Brown tells Business is Boring how all businesses can improve their impact.
The Sustainable Business Network has been at the forefront of advocacy and community in New Zealand business for around 20 years, helping businesses understand their environmental impact and improve how they carry out business.
Over this time the ideas they advance have gone from the fringe of business thinking, to being at the heart of many great companies and the centre of the conversation – in large part because of the work of the people in the network, and its leadership.
Founder and CEO Rachel Brown joined Simon Pound on Business is Boring to talk about the journey of founding the Sustainable Business Network, the sustainability issues and opportunities facing business today and how businesses can access tools to do better in every way.
Listen to Business is Boring, the award-winning weekly podcast series brought to you by The Spinoff and Spark Lab. Host Simon Pound talks to everyone from accidental entrepreneurs to industry leaders about their business journeys and what propelled them to where they are today.
Simon Pound: How did you become interested in sustainability?
Rachel Brown: My parents were both science teachers. I grew up hanging out in mangrove swamps with my mum, and my dad used to love doing [science experiments] like making bombs and making these extraordinary loud bangs. So I kind of grew up with it. But my parents were very keen on social and environmental issues, so we learned a lot about that growing up.
I went through university and got a science degree, not surprisingly, and then I went overseas. I grew up in a time when New Zealand was pretty egalitarian, it was pretty clean, and then I travelled the world for three and a half years and that was the first time I ever saw pollution and poverty at the scale you just never saw here. That really affected me. I saw massive businesses in places that were quite poor, that were belching out pollution into the area where these people were having to live and they didn’t have a choice. I felt really concerned about that, and came back to New Zealand and did some more study, and learnt all about the role that business can play in sustainability.
I started working for council, which was fun, because it was Bob Harvey at the time, who was the mayor of Waitākere. While I was doing that, I got frustrated with people in the business space, who I was meant to be working with, expecting me to do things like sort out their parking issues, or move some signs or something like that, when I wanted to talk to them about the state of the planet, and a better way of doing business. So I left and set up an organisation called the Environmental Business Network.
That eventually merged with another organisation, which was the Businesses for Social Responsibility, and that’s kind of how the SBN started.
Tell me about how you decided to use business as the vehicle to advance sustainability causes, rather than like an activism or political solution – because that wasn’t the norm when you started.
What I saw when I was working for council was it was filled with great people, but it’s very rules-focused and it’s not very innovative. Then I’d be out there talking to businesspeople and I just felt like they were bright-eyed, bushy tailed, they could see solutions and they could innovate quickly, particularly SMEs. So I became excited about “how do we get these people together, grow a network of like-minded people who can share ideas and get excited?”
So what does the Sustainable Business Network do today?
We do a lot of capability building for business, because there’s a lot of businesses out there who are short on time, they don’t know what they’re meant to be doing and are also concerned about cash flow. So what we’ve been doing is working with a bunch of different private and public sector partners to create really useful tools.
We do a lot of hand holding of business. Digital tools are useful, but actually businesses like to learn together. So we bring people together to do the learning together. How do you do a carbon footprint? What does that look like? And then how do I market it without greenwashing?
We also do a lot with our really progressive, awesome companies. We do a lot of showcasing and telling people that it’s possible. One of the excuses that I hear is “Yeah, that can happen overseas, but it can’t happen here.” And that’s just not right. The problem is we don’t hear enough about those amazing, innovative, circular, sustainable, regenerative companies.
Brokering is another role that we have. We have a directory, a list of organisations that have already got the solutions out there, that are super hard to find, or have been, and now we’ve got one place people can go to and find them much easier. So we bring the procurement option, anyone who’s looking to buy sustainably, to this group of people.
What advice would you have for someone who does want to change their impact and improve what they’re up to in their business?
Our network is really about being practical – getting things done. We don’t do a lot of lobbying, we inform, but really it’s about getting stuff done. So I would say join, have a chat with one of the people in the team to understand how we can help, and then just get cracking. There are so many tools and resources out there nowadays, you just just need to get creative.