Changing the business climate

Here's what happened when top-level entrepreneurs met the CEOs of three international charities to come up with ways to tackle climate change.

Irregular weather patterns suggest the environment isn’t quite what it should be. Top-level entrepreneurs recently met the CEOs of three international charities to come up with ways to tackle climate change.

‘Entrepreneurs make things happen; that’s what they do,’ says Karl Watkin, a non-executive director of biodiesel provider D1 Oils. ‘It’s clear that if entrepreneurs act as part of a team on the issue of climate change, with their funding and business acumen, they can bring about good results.’

It’s this view that led an unlikely trio to stage Entrepreneurs with Conscience (EwC) in Bath: Andrew Mercer, a former software company director who runs mentoring business Footdown and green energy firm 2OC; Michael Edge, founder and chairman of London & Country Mortgages (he also founded mortgage broker Chase De Vere); and Midge Ure, the musician who was a driving force behind Band Aid and Live Aid, co-writing Do they know it’s Christmas?

The event brought business leaders together with John Saven, CEO of Greenpeace, Tony Juniper, CEO of Friends of the Earth, and Stephen Howard, CEO of The Climate Group. The consensus was that the wine was awful, and there was the trauma of a power cut ten minutes before Ure was to play to the 150 VIPs in attendance, but the evening ultimately proved to be a hit and is set to be repeated across the UK despite originally being planned as a one-off.

Mercer has been surprised by the response from the business community. ‘I’ve received numerous texts and emails about the next step,’ he says, adding that he is speaking with the NGOs and other parties about how to proceed.

Follow the money

Getting entrepreneurs involved with NGOs to make individual, philanthropic donations is one thing, but if you’re in business there are many commercial opportunities to tackle climate change.

George Polk, who founded The Cloud Networks, a provider of wireless broadband across Europe, comments: ‘People who ask themselves: “If this is really going to happen over the next five years, then what does it mean for my business?” are really going to be ahead as these trends start to emerge.’

It can be as simple as looking at alternatives to fossil fuels or assessing how the gadgets and appliances in your office or home are powered. Moreover, if your business is committed to being green, then, to be purely cynical, it can boost your brand and marketing capabilities too.

‘Those entrepreneurs who aren’t engaged in this are idiots,’ states Mercer. ‘You can make money by [addressing green issues]. A large amount of cash is going to change hands over the next decade or so because of the carbon economy.

‘It’s a bit like the gold rush at the moment and if you don’t act now you’ll have missed it. Actually, the sooner more people understand this, the faster we’ll save the planet.’

Related: Why green ethics makes business sense

It’s something that the former Ultravox frontman Ure can relate to. He says: ‘The template for the event we held is similar to what I’ve been involved in during the past 20-odd years. It involves the idea of bringing a bunch of people together who, independently, can’t achieve much, but together, as a community, they certainly can.’

Building momentum

Ure lives in Bath and is soon to be an entrepreneur himself, launching a website – ‘a bit like MySpace’ – for musicians to record on. He says: ‘[EwC is] not a lot different from Band Aid and Live Aid. When Band Aid did the record in 1984, it created its own momentum; it was only six months later that Comic Relief was launched.

‘The gung-ho attitude that entrepreneurs have is similar to what we had with Band Aid. While other aid agencies at that time, at the height of the famine in Ethiopa, had to go through the red tape and take the official channels to do things, we just had a rock and roll attitude: let’s buy this stuff, put it on a ship or a plane and get it out there.’

According to Polk, ‘entrepreneurs are traditionally people who like a challenge’. He continues: ‘It’s something they can get excited about and engage in as they feel they can make an incredible difference.

‘Moreover, they can help because they know how to operate quickly, without rules and without a great deal of support.’

As with any new market (think of the internet pre-millennium), there are charlatans and scams to avoid, such as certain individuals involved in the trading of carbon credits and dubious “green” marketing initiatives. Watkin is confident that carbon trading, for one, is experiencing the teething problems typical of any emerging sector: ‘It’s inevitable that, in an early stage market, you’ll get trouble occurring.’

As for other forms of carbon offsetting such as planting trees, Mercer observes that a lot of the schemes currently out there ‘are close to being swindles’. He says: ‘If you want to do a carbon offsetting because you want to fly to the US and visit friends, the fact is that offsetting as it stands makes no difference. The real message is: don’t fly.’

Watkin adds: ‘If everybody did their bit then we’d make a big difference.’ In fact, he says that he’s no longer worried about climate change: ‘There are so many bright people working on it that I’m sure technology will provide an answer.’

An imminent problem

Friends of the Earth CEO Juniper isn’t quite so sure: ‘In terms of timeframe, for the worst effects of climate change to be unleashed, we could be pushing the atmosphere over the critical threshold within a decade.’ He reveals that despite the talk about going green, carbon emissions in the UK over the past few years are still going up, not down.

He says: ‘We don’t have time to mess about. On the one hand, we’re saying we want to go green and then, on the other hand, saying it’s too complicated and expensive. We have to do it now.’

That means governments have to bring in regulations. ‘We need all companies to be doing green things as a matter of course,’ he says. Polk agrees. ‘To a degree, the hard choices will probably be forced on us,’ he says, suggesting that air travel, for instance, needs to be more expensive to deter people from flying.

What is clear is that participation from all quarters is welcome in tackling climate change and there are entrepreneurs who want to get involved.

Talking about ethics and ‘saving the planet’ can sound overly righteous and sanctimonious. At the core of those involved with EwC, there is a kind of rebellious spirit to all the participants in this scheme, mixing the idealism of students with the power that comes from success in their chosen industries and professions.

It’s summed up neatly by Watkin when he says: ‘I enjoy sticking it up the system and doing things that nobody has thought of.’

Spoken like a true entrepreneur.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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