Sustainability needs to be in a company’s DNA: interview with Martin Blake

If your company has a CSR team, chances are it has not understood sustainability at all, says outspoken CSR pioneer Martin Blake, who speaks to Eco-Business about ‘Blue Economy’ solutions and why he came to Asia.

Martin Blake
Martin Blake, director at be sustainable and adjunct professor of Sustainable Business Development at Griffith University and the University of Southern Queensland

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) pioneer Martin Blake, owner of consulting firm Blake Advisory, is well known as the former head of sustainability at the United Kingdom’s Royal Mail. He helped turn the insolvent public agency into a profit making enterprise by pursuing a business strategy that put sustainability at the heart of its operations.

Throughout his career, he has worked on sustainability projects across Asia, Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe. He recently set up sustainability consulting firm be sustainable in Singapore which practices Blue Economy principles as coined by author Gunter Pauli. It aims to develop business solutions that are both environmentally beneficial and which have financial and wider social benefits.

Blake is also an adjunct professor of sustainable business development at Griffith University and the University of Southern Queensland. In this interview, Eco-Business speaks to him about his experience and why he has decided to set up be sustainable in Singapore.

You were working for oil companies in the Middle East before going into sustainability, can you share with us some details of that journey?

I was working for Saudi Aramco in the late 80s in the area of healthcare. The country had virtually no infrastructure before it struck oil. When it did, Aramco was the largest employer and had the funds and government support to build facilities so we created universities, healthcare institutions, roads, water and waste infrastructure. My work was to provide healthcare facilities across the kingdom and that extended into broader projects involving primary and tertiary care, preventive medicine and a full suite of services. If that was done today, it’d be called CSR. But in those days, no one talked about these terms.

My degree was in environmental and public health, so I was very aware of environmental issues. You can’t separate the two when you’re dealing with things like water diseases and control. I was tackling things like immunization programmes, waste disposal, sewage and waste water treatment. That was the basis of my training in corporate social responsibility. Eventually I was headhunted by Royal Mail as they wanted a holistic CSR programme that dealt with a range of issues – environment and social, education and philanthropy. I also had an MBA in change management and so was asked to develop a programme at the strategic level, deploy and manage it.

Can you tell us more about this game-changing initiative that saved Royal Mail?

The business redevelopment of Royal Mail was at that time the largest change management programme in Europe. It was insolvent at that time and losing £1 million per day. When we were finished, we were making that amount a day.  We went from insolvency to a profitable business in the space of three years and shrunk 50 business units down to just three.

There was a major reconfiguration involving changes at all levels. But they wanted to do it with an appropriate degree of ethics. So we created a CSR initiative that managed social and staff engagement, environmental issues, health and safety and well-being of employees. Each of that segment succeeded, we improved our quality of service and made money at the same time.

CSR was relatively undeveloped and unknown at that time. What guided you in your strategy then?

Good business and CSR practices, even if nobody had given it a name, has been in existence for hundreds of years. Older companies such as Cadbury or Clarks Shoes have been doing what is now called sustainability or CSR for a long time. They recognize that looking after employees paid dividends in improved productivity and contributed to the longevity of the business. There were a group of people who were the initial leaders; there were Marks & Spencer, Whitbread too. We created an organization of CSR professionals and started sharing best practices.

The CSR approach we adopted had five pillars: health and well-being, social inclusion, environment, safety and diversity. Many CSR programmes are headed by public relations and communications, but ours was out of the human resources department because it was about the inclusion of our stakeholders. We needed to engage them internally and externally but we had no budget because we were bankrupt. So it had to be an effective operation that delivered on the triple bottom line.

We looked at how to reduce employee injuries and reduced sick absence from 12 to 8 per cent, saving 230 million pounds a year. We had the biggest road fleet and each year, 16 customers were killed in road accidents. People get drunk and stumble in front of our lorries at 3am, or our drivers would encounter armed robbery. Some postmen were bitten by dogs, and people would sometimes send drugs, wild animals, weapons, explosives through the post, so protecting our people and the integrity of the service were interrelated. There were so many issues.

On the environment side, we had 33,000 vehicles and more aeroplanes, boats, trains, industrial sites, we had to manage an enormous environmental footprint. Our waste, water and carbon footprint needed to be counted and managed and that’s when I developed the abatement cost curve to evaluate the options available to reduce our environmental impact. We reduced our energy bill by 60 million pounds a year.

The ethos of our programme was very clear – it was about doing the right thing. It was not about how we look good, but how do we become good and do the right thing by our people and the environment.

We also started the largest payroll giving scheme in the UK with our staff donating part of their salary to charity. And we started a social inclusion project that brought people who were disabled or homeless into work.

The ethos of our programme was very clear – it was about doing the right thing. It was not about how we look good, but how do we become good and do the right thing by our people and the environment. This was what the management wanted. We didn’t set out to win any awards – that was not part of the strategy – but within five years, we won 75 awards.

You mention sustainability and CSR – many people in business use them interchangeably, what’s the difference?

There’s a disconnect about the terms. For example, when we developed the Royal Mail CSR programme, sustainability sat under CSR and it referred to environmental sustainability such as waste and water. If I had to do it again, I would have put sustainability at the top, and CSR as one of the things under it. Supply chain, procurement and HR… these go under sustainability, not CSR.

Ultimately, it’s just a name. The most important thing is what you actually do. Does it come from the heart and spirit of the orgnisation or is just cosmetic? Sustainability is not just environment, it’s holistic. For a business to be truly sustainable, it needs to manage everything it does in a sustainable way. It needs to be in the DNA.

It needs to be managed at the Board level to the C-suite down. The management needs to set the sustainability agenda from the top. Employing someone and creating a department, isn’t ‘doing CSR’.

It has become my mantra. So I’ve come to be known more for sustainability – and it’s broader than CSR.

For a business to be truly sustainable, it needs to manage everything it does in a sustainable way. It needs to be in the DNA.  

So why did you decide to come to Asia? What drew you to this region?

I came to Asia because I’d like to make a difference. My heart and soul is in helping organisations and businesses do sustainability better than they are doing now. It’s not about making money – sure I need to make a living – but my passion is about changing the world to be a better place for everyone. For it to be better in terms of abundance and prosperity, for ecosystems to be restored, and for people to live in shelter with good food and water security. It was very clear to me, three years ago, that this is the place where I can be the catalyst.

I didn’t want to stay in the UK to preach to the converted; it’s the same in Australia. Asia is slowly catching up. Singapore has a paternalistic government that is able to identify and do things in the interest of its people. In many other countries, they are plagued by indecisiveness and political dogma which belittles the agenda. A lot of the political messages are being massaged to suit the electorate, not what’s best for the country.

Sustainability is a national security risk. It is such an important issue it needs to be managed centrally in a non-partisan way. Politics has no place in sustainability - you should not be taking sides on what’s good for the people or the planet. You can’t be taking sides, you should be for your people or you’re not. You can’t say you like pollution, or support toxic development. It’s absurd. It needs to be taken out and managed.

Singapore has the ability to see what’s best for the country and take a 50-year strategy to articulate it, fund it and deploy it. Its insightful and intelligent government policy is what drew me to Asia.

Do you think companies in Asia understand sustainability?

Unfortunately, many companies here in Southeast Asia don’t understand or believe in sustainability yet. In my view, there has not been a single Asian company that has a sustainability programme that is the company’s profit centre, or that is embedded across the business and providing profit in significant numbers. In other words, they have transformed the business as opposed to making it less bad.

Many companies here in Southeast Asia don’t understand or believe in sustainability yet. In my view, there has not been a single Asian company that has a sustainability programme that is the company’s profit centre.

As an example, Marks and Spencer in the UK implemented a sustainability plan and did it with such passion and sincerity that it became a profit centre, and the company even gained market share. There’s no equivalent example here.

Sustainability needs to become a ‘hygiene factor’. For example, before CSR, companies were focused on total quality management – how to make business and products more quality oriented. Within 10 years, it was gone, because it became a hygiene factor. Everyone said ‘of course we expect businesses to make things of high quality’, so the term became redundant. Similarly, sustainability should be indoctrinated and virally infect everything that we do.

CSR and sustainability should sit directly under the CEO at the company secretary level, because this is ultimately a governance issue. It is about the ethics of the way the business is run. From the way the business deals with labour law, to the way it sources and pays its people, products and services. All the ethics and governance of a business needs to be infused with sustainability at the highest level so that it pervades the business. Not from the side in – if you’ve got a CSR team, chances are your company has not understood sustainability at all.

Can you explain what are ‘blue economy’ solutions? What’s different about it? 

Its fundamental difference is that it is about embedding sustainability into the business in a holistic way that is transformational. It is not just about ticking boxes and complying to the conventional notions of ‘CSR’ such as charity-giving or doing a simple energy audit and retrofit exercise. Its about looking at a business in a holistic manner and implementing solutions that, for example, eliminate all wastage, while minimizing the impact to the environment and improving society at the same time. Simply put, blue solutions are the best of the green solutions. Its about the metamorphasis of a company, like I mentioned earlier, it’s about embedding sustainability into every aspect that it becomes a profit centre. If you take the life of a butterfly, it started as an egg, then became a caterpillar and then it grows into something that’s beautiful and elegant but the DNA is the same all the way through. I’d like to be the catalyst of change for companies to make the leap between the caterpillar and butterfly.

The Sustainability Leaders Series is a regular interview profiling sustainability leaders from the Asia Pacific region.


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