Blog post by Ruth Welters:
On 15 and 16 April 2015 around 40 people from business and academia met in the beautiful grounds of Selwyn College, Cambridge to explore business-led action from Nexus Thinking at the Natural Bridge workshop.
The Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees started the discussion over pre-dinner drinks in the garden, with an inspiring talk….including a thought that if we can tackle Nexus issues sufficiently, then one of his other projects; the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk would no longer have anything to work on.
The following morning, the workshop kicked off with a talk starting to explore the usefulness of Nexus thinking to business. Ian Ellison, Sustainability Manager from Jaguar Land Rover, talking about the company’s commitment to understanding their impacts on materials, energy, climate change, water, health and air; and to assessing these impacts across the entire life cycle of their products. This is no easy task with around 30-40,000 process steps involved in creating a car. The company has used a natural capital accounting approach to asses the impacts for each car, and also uses this not just as a set of accounts, but as a decision tool to see where natural capital impacts can be reduced.
Grant Kopec, University of Cambridge, then started to explore how academic research can help to map out the Nexus. Grant showed some great images from the Forseer tool which ‘visualises energy, water and land resource futures through a set of Sankey diagrams which show the flow from basic resource (e.g. coal, surface water, and forested land) through transformations (e.g. fuel refining and desalination) to final services (e.g. sustenance, hygiene and transportation).’ The tool can then be used to how how flows might change over time, for example in response to population growth and climate change.
After the two introductory talks, the participants then looked at the Nexus2020 question ‘What are the most important questions around business practice that, if answered, could help companies manage their dependencies and impacts upon food, energy, water and the environment?‘. On our table, this generated a range of responses and quite alot of discussion on the level of focus that is of use to business – some people felt that it should be specific to the particular company, whilst others felt there would only be traction if the questions could be set at a generic level, of use to all business. The ideas will be fed into the Nexus2020 process (and if you would like to add a question, please do so on the Nexus2020 form).
CAse studies: dairy, timber and cotton supply chains
Laura Babbs, Sustainability Manager from ASDA gave an overview of the company’s sustainability goals; which are pretty far-reaching:
- To use 100% renewable energy
- To be zero waste
- To sell products that sustain people and the environment.
The interesting thing for me was the research that ASDA did on how they would talk to customers about these goals. ASDA customers a reflective of the UK demographic and, with a commitment to sustainability for all, ASDA found that customers used the concept of ‘green’ rather than sustainability to cover a whole range of issues and behaviours, including health and social issues.
Moving onto Diary, Andy Richardson from dairy nutrition company Volac, talked about the economic, social and environmental issues affecting the dairy industry and the industry’s impact on these. Andy talked about his involvement in the Dairy2020 project with Forum for the Future, a collaboration between people across the UK dairy industry examining how to make the sector sustainable and about the recent Review of the Dairy Sector in Wales which has been welcomed by the NFU and others.
Peter Gardiner from the gobal packaging and paper group Mondi, gave an uplifting example of how improvements to the planting of commercial trees in South Africa; to include wildlife corridors and move planting away from the wetlands had a big benefit for wildlife. For the company, this meant taking a small amount of land out of the productive area but had dramatic improvements in biodiversity, including recovery of the iconic big animals such elephants and giraffes.
Nexus thinking: dairy, timber and cotton supply chains
After lunch the real hard work began as the meeting split into 3 groups; one each tackling dairy, timber and cotton. Each group was asked to consider the key challenges for the selected industry and how these mapped out onto the food-energy-water-environment nexus; including dependencies, impacts and interrelations. I was in the dairy group and as you can imagine, we soon had a picture with arrows going all over the place. We also talked about the social factors around dairy and the fact that it can be a very emotive issue, with regards to both animal welfare and farming and and the community. Economic factors also loomed large, with much discussion on the situation where the cost of production being higher than the price paid for the milk. How did that happen; how will farmers respond to that in the longer term?
The final question was ‘has Nexus thinking been useful in the case study?’ This again generated about 4 pages of notes from our group!
You can read the report from the workshop on the Natural Bridge page.