“Any business that is created should be integrated into the environment”
An interview with Vincent Collet, Director and founder of the eco-innovation agency Think + which supports businesses, from start-ups to large groups, to help integrate business development and responsible innovation practices.
Is a business with an impact a business for tomorrow?
In my opinion, the raison d’être of a business is to create value and to meet the needs of society. Is a business with an impact a business for tomorrow? The term itself risks being much overused. When we talk about a business with an impact, we risk setting off on a wild goose chase in an attempt to justify this impact. On the other hand, the current context of a multiplicity of crises will cause businesses to reinvent themselves as a matter of urgency.
In the course of our support we are noticing that businesses are starting to integrate the environmental dimension into their choices of industrial processes, for regulatory, societal and human resources reasons, as well as energy reasons, of course, with the current crisis acting as an accelerator. There is also greater and greater awareness on the part of business leaders, especially the youngest ones. Events of this summer suggest to us that things will never be the same again. And for business, it’s a matter of controlling risks, especially those involving energy and the climate, in their value chain, both upstream and downstream. These issues involve anticipation and preparation.
Even if we are still far from what needs to be done, public opinion and the economic world are now overtaking public authorities in taking this on board. It is they who will drive politics to adapt to the world of the future. You can now do business while minimising its impacts, and are even obliged to do so. Any business that is created should be integrated into the environment. A business that fails to do this is not aiming for survival.
How can we accelerate change in business towards taking account of impacts?
There are several factors at play. For example, investment funds require environmental guarantees, which means that the impact must be measured and thought given to operating the value chain from an environmental point of view.
Businesses that have already taken that approach are increasing their commitment by no longer working only within their own area but beyond it, upstream and downstream in their value chain, to respond to issues of transparency. Upstream, the more you control your value chain, the better you manage your costs and impacts. Downstream, the relationship with the user is what must be re-thought. New entrants arrive with more virtuous practices and greater integration of the environmental elements, encouraging others to emulate them and pushing them into action.
At the HR level this is also becoming a prerequisite, in the same way as wage freedom. Nowadays the environment is one of the organisational mutations of a business, along with the digital transformation. It is one of the major works in progress for the business, yet it is not the first thing to be implemented because it is complex and requires a case by case approach.
Is it easier to evolve when you are small?
That is self-evident. In a big company, you can have a motivated management team and operational colleagues prepared to go ahead, but the cogs of the machine lie with middle managers who are used to working with economic, not environmental, data. Conversely, in SMEs there are direct lines between the management and the team. One of the basic principles of transition in business is to acculturate the greatest number of people, overturning previous ways of thinking. The more people there are in an organisation, the more difficult this is.
What value should be placed upon ‘responsible’ certifications?
These certifications help things to progress, encouraging businesses to perform better from an environmental point of view. Yet some of the criteria are disconnected from the practical life of a company. This is inherent in any system that uses a scoring scale. There are also companies which have no certification and yet use virtuous approaches. Let’s take the example of Bastidarra. This company, producing dairy products, knows all its farmers, and works with a desire to grow while acting in a responsible manner, optimising its resources and having the satisfaction of doing a job well. The idea is to get back to operating at a human scale and, above all, to keep improving. The aim now is for companies to keep going and not slow down. Everyone is doing their best to progress in line with their issues and their resources.
Does the Pays Basque have any advantages to help it do this?
When people are aware, yes. The biggest issue is raising awareness. I’ve seen some entrepreneurs become aware very fast and take action. That’s the important thing.
The second stage is to raise awareness and knowledge in the value chain. Then you can bring into play the third aspect, that of action.
More and more businesses now want to act in a responsible manner. It has become a strategic asset. Action is now being taken at management level, where decisions are made, whereas ten years ago it was confined to the QHSE department. If you want to act in a sustainable matter in a company, this must be integrated at strategic level. For example, an eco-designed product requires strategic choices, suppliers, etc. These are decisions calling the organisation of the business into question. Companies that want to produce and act in a new way are truly engaged in a paradigm shift. More and more are choosing to do so.
Will the evolution of regulations accelerate things?
Of course. If we take the example of regulations on product end-of-life, companies will have to question their practices and evolve, or they will risk penalties. Regulations are in place to provide constraints when decisions are not taken, hence the importance of thinking ahead. Regulations require long-term changes (supply chain, technical solutions) and investment therefore involves strategic choices. If a business leader integrates this into their strategy, they are anticipating regulatory evolution and making a conscious effort to think about their processes and use environmental data, which will be key. Businesses do not always know what their products contain or where they come from, yet this is a major issue of the AGEC (anti-waste) Law.
Is the future local?
It’s not as simple as that. You could make an analogy with comparing organic and non-organic production. You could have an organic product from the other side of the world which is not necessarily any better than a well-made local product. On the other hand, you could also have a local product made with pesticides or poor practice. The most important thing is to be proud of what you do, to respect your environment and be in harmony with it. Localism responds to some of these issues, avoiding some problematic issues such as transport. But there too, solutions which seem best from an environmental point of view do not always prove to be so. For example, a piece of furniture manufactured in Europe and transported by lorry may have a greater environmental impact than one made in Asia and transported by boat.
More generally, being an impact-related business means having data about your activities, together with a related awareness, and taking informed decisions. It means asking yourself questions and taking the environment into account in your business decisions, in order to make the lowest impact possible, with internal deployment and external dissemination.
Are approaches such as those undertaken by the Communauté Pays Basque (call for eco-innovation projects, eco-innovation Masterclass) really necessary?
Yes, because they raise awareness and support businesses as they change their practices. The region needs them for support with this dynamic. Especially as once the approach is begun, the rate of transformation is considerable. Companies are often afraid to take the plunge. But once they commit, they rarely turn back.