Interview with Sue Welland, serial social entrepreneur

Sue Welland is a serial social entrepreneur. Her first business, The CarbonNeutral Company, defined some of the language and tools used today to address climate change.

In a recent interview she discusses what she’s learnt over the past 18 months. After the onset of the pandemic forced the closure of her latest venture, Sue finds much ground for future optimism.

‘Suddenly we had no business’

The pandemic resulted in very big changes for us.

We were in the process of developing a car-share business. A completely different business model, whereby a street could share a new car. Neighbours got together to share the monthly costs; each family felt like it was their car.

We had major manufacturers and insurers involved and were about to accelerate from the pilot stage. Then in March 2020, the last thing on anyone’s mind was sharing a car.

We decided to close the business. We all felt that the pandemic wasn’t going to disappear quickly and that we should pause and spend some time fully re-imagining a range of opportunities. Personally, I felt in limbo – too much time on my hands and none of the work pressure I thrive on.

‘We can all be global faster’

To my mind, ‘re-imagining’ sounds sexier than it is. One of my core skills is this inventing stage, picking through the chaos to create order. But it’s hard work and there is a lot of frog-kissing before you know you’re on to something brilliant.

From Lockdown Day 1, I set up daily Zooms with the two colleagues I’ve worked with for over a decade. We debated new ideas, examined pitches, networked with everyone else online.

Before the pandemic, having a Zoom meeting was my third or fourth preference. Now it’s often my first. And I don’t feel as if I’m getting a second-rate experience.

Because this behaviour change was forced, sudden and common, businesses were ‘given’ the ability to fully operate at a distance. If there were issues, we collectively found a way around them because we had to. This feels like a systemic change.

Now we can all be global much faster. And reduce our carbon emissions in the process.

‘The work/life balance has improved for some’

One of the downsides of course is the need for absolute clarity when you’re only engaging on-line only at set times of the day, rather than through casual encounters too – those water cooler moments.

And we’re missing the very different chemistry that happens when people are physically in the same space – ‘IRL’ (in real life) has become an unusual event but a label we’re getting familiar with.

I’m concerned about the impacts on training, learning, mentoring, broader social skills, mental health, the digital and wealth divide.  The list goes on. And on.

More positively, my experience of working online with people who are traditionally office-based is that their quality of life has improved; they feel it and they talk about it. No time is wasted commuting, and a better morning and evening routine, for exercise, family and hobbies.

Interestingly, I haven’t found our company culture or commitment has suffered.  We built up a small team over lockdown – just 30 people – and almost all of us never met in person, not even through the recruitment and training process.

We still managed to create a company ethos. When we had a deadline to meet and messaged for everyone who could to join a Zoom at 10am on a Sunday morning, everyone turned up, ‘ready to go’.  There is something about the ease of Zoom combined with the ‘gift’ of working more flexibly that translates positively for an entrepreneurial business like ours.

‘ESG commitments must be more than words in the annual report’

My businesses have always been in the ‘green’ sector one way or another, and this inspires commitment from people. I’m seeing that the scale and immediate horror of Coronavirus has led people to think more about the nature of what they’re doing, and their priorities.

As a result, mission has become much more important. I am seeing people making real value judgments about the businesses they work for. ESG commitments must be more than just paragraphs in an Annual Report if companies want to attract and retain talent.

I’ve probably written that sentence in 100’s presentations over the years and nothing seemed to change. I’m hoping that finally something will.

‘It’s essential to grasp the risk of climate change’

The pandemic has exposed widespread corporate failure to build risk fully into management, operations, and processes; it’s been brutal.

Has this shaken Boardrooms sufficiently? Climate change is insidious in comparison to Covid-19. Impacts and requirements at a national level are slow and variable; they provide less gruesome images and headlines for the media. There feels less cause and effect at a personal level: ‘don’t go outside, wash your hands’ links to success in a way which turning off a light switch cannot.

But the positives I am able to take from the pandemic are, I hope, because we caught it early: before we ran out of beds, ventilators and doctors, before the workforce was so depleted that food stocks ran out.

The climate is changing, and it will reach a tipping point. Then it won’t be about getting the equivalent of the world’s doctors working on a cure. The impacts will be too varied, too widespread, too huge, and possibly too late.

Climate risk needs to be fully written into short, medium and long-term business strategy; and we should be seeing ‘green’ decisions as a hygiene factor made by everyone from administration staff to management.

‘We can change’

As an entrepreneur, I am naturally optimistic – anything is possible, hurdles are just bumps in the road. In truth, I am conflicted about the place we are in now.

On the one hand, I have personal experience of the shambles that was the Green Homes Grant. Government did not stick to its promise and mismanaged almost every element – even in the void of the pandemic.

People were sitting at home thinking about saving money and renewed interest in the environment. Yet even in the face of massive consumer demand for low carbon tech and the support of business, all we got was disingenuous political intent and no delivery.

On the other hand, the climate change narrative has changed dramatically since I set up The CarbonNeutral Company in the early 90s. As a trustee of the environmental change charity, Global Action Plan, I have seen the new and huge wave of inbound calls on their services around strategies for Clean Air and post-consumerism. I’m hearing the similar stories from Boardroom consultancies. There is CEO level determination to invest to meet those net zero targets.

In that sense, the pandemic has given people an impetus. It’s shown us what can happen if the world gets behind something. We can change.

‘Let’s not make it COP-out 26’

The response to the pandemic was global and audacious. It should have given Governments the headroom to create low carbon policy and make big changes. It should have given the commercial sector the shock it needed to make ‘net zero’ more of a brand value than a loose, long-term target.

I can feel the change in senior executives. And compared to two years ago, I can feel a new strength in the environmental movement – we are greater in number, broader in scope and are becoming part of business. The debate about whether something is happening to our climate is over, it is now about action.

The last two years were unimaginable, but they happened. Even in my most cynical moments, I believe that as the world takes a breath, we are ready for the next COP to mark a moment of step-change. And we are ready.

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