We’ve detected that you are using an outdated browser. This will prevent you from accessing certain features. Update browser

Podcast: Our Planet, Our Plan - The power of transparency in business

The Future in Focus

Need to get in touch?


10 OCTOBER 2023 - 24 MINUTES

Today, LRQA launched Our Planet, Our Plan - a sustainability program that outlines our ambitious Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) commitments over the next seven years, underpinned by time-bound performance metrics. To accompany the program, LRQA is launching an eight-episode podcast series to explore each of the seven commitments within Our Planet, Our Plan. The first episode, ‘The power of transparency in business’, sees Ben Western, LRQA’s Head of Sustainability, exploring how the program was developed, the evolution of ESG in business, and how other organisations can embrace its principles.

Follow us on Spotify

Hello everyone and to all our listeners across the globe welcome to LRQA’s Future in Focus Podcast. My name is Holly Wild, I am the Global External Communications Manager for LRQA, and it is my pleasure to host this podcast today for you all in which we have some big news, and to help deliver that big news I am joined by my colleague Ben Western. Ben, how are you doing?

I’m very good thanks Holly, great to be with you.

Thank you. Now could you introduce yourself briefly to our listeners for those who may not have heard you before?

I am the Head of Sustainability at LRQA and actually my job is what we’re going to be talking about today or rather the part I’m responsible for delivering, but essentially, I look after ensuring that in our own actions as a company that we make decisions and take actions which are always founded on being a sustainable company.

Nice little hint there. Now without giving too much away Ben, myself, and the whole of LRQA are really excited to share our news today. For a bit of context our announcement is on the topic of sustainability or environment social and governance also known as ESG.

As a company we at LRQA dedicate ourselves to helping clients achieve transparency and transforming their sustainability commitments into robust measurable outcomes, so with that in mind we also want to hold ourselves accountable to the highest ESG standards.

So let’s not wait a second more, Ben I’m going to ask you to share our news with our listeners today if that’s okay and then I’m going to be asking a few follow-on questions about your own personal experiences within ESG. So over to you.

Thanks, Holly. So, the announcement is the launch of Our Planet, Our Plan which began last year and what Our Planet, Our Plan is, it's our seven-year sustainability commitments.

So when LRQA was created as a new business we really wanted to ensure that when people looked to us as a company whether it's our clients or our employees or our suppliers or our communities, they would see a company that is really committed to integrity which is doing the right thing not the easy thing, so in any action we take are we ensuring that we’re making a decision which is the best and most sustainable decision for society and indeed for the planet.

And so, over the past year or so we came together, all of our colleagues, everybody had the opportunity to contribute towards this and the outcome was Our Planet, Our Plan. The name was created by a colleague called Mags Fisher who has a great creative mind and a passion of soul about the topic of sustainability.

And what it outlines is what we’re committed to doing over the next seven years and the seven is an important number because that takes us from 2023 to 2030 and that’s in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, so everything that’s in this plan which we’re going to talk about today is related to which of those UN Sustainable Development Goals are we contributing towards.

And the other reason the number seven is significant is that there’s a wonderful ancient tale of the seventh-generation principle which is my favourite definition of sustainability. I first heard it from an environmentalist called Tim McCarthy and that principle is that every decision you take has a net positive impact for the next seven generations and beyond, or the other way to look at it, it doesn’t have a negative impact on the next seven generations and beyond. If you think about it is quite audacious if all the decisions you make everyday is that going to positively affect the next seven generations, if it doesn’t then why, why would we be doing it or can we not do it.

And so, it's for the next seven years, for the next seven generations, and conveniently it just happened that we have seven commitments in the make of Our Planet, Our Plan so it's great to be sharing it with you today.

Thank you so much, Ben, it really is an exciting development for LRQA. Now to bring it to life even more I’d like to ask you a few more questions about Our Planet, Our Plan as well as your own experiences developing the plan as well as in the world of ESG more generally, so let’s get started.

Before recording today, I asked you to think of a bit of an introductory story or a personal anecdote on the theme of today’s podcast, so could I ask you to kindly share it with our listeners.

Absolutely. It really began for me that when I was growing up, I was always interested in enterprises and I was also very lucky to have a grandad, Harry Hanks, who was a man really dedicated to this community. And I remember when I was beginning my career, about to begin my career I didn’t know whether to go into the humanitarian sector or the corporate sector and I was advised like you know business really kind of runs the world, get to know that first and really understand the principles about how organisations work.

And so I was very lucky to join a really great graduate programme for a huge global business, a fantastic experience and I was so impressed by just how businesses of that scale operated and what you see is well intentioned hard working, kind of tenacious people trying to do the right thing to bring a great product or service to the market that’s been deemed necessary by the general population of the world right, and I would say on the whole that almost all businesses are doing their own as to have a positive impact on the world.

But I also saw that there seemed to sometimes be a gap between what companies projected as their image or their values, their beliefs, or their vision and then what would actually happen. And I became quite interested in the idea of corporate social responsibility which is almost now been superseded by environmental social governance, but those two things are sort of synonymous with one another.

But then another kind of cornerstone moment was I then got heavily involved in the humanitarian sector as part of building a non-profit organisation in the space of international volunteering. And the reason we began that non-profit was because in that sector there was a bunch of unethical and controversial ways of operating the world and so it wasn’t like there’s business over here and it's doing bad things and the humanitarian sectors squeaky clean. Actually, that problem was the difference between what you project and portray and what actually happens was almost true in both sectors although there’s nuances to it.

And I just became very interested in like why is the case, why do we say one thing but do another and that began in 2008 and so over the past whatever that is, 15 years, I just became totally fascinated by how is it that we can ensure that companies are not only doing the right thing and not the easy thing, but they’re also transparent in the work that they do and the impact it has including when they fail. And it's not to be shamed by failing or doing the difficult things because the world is complex, so it's not about perfection but it's about progression.

Thanks so much for that story, Ben. Can you tell us how that experience inspired Our Planet, Our Plan?

Yes absolutely. I’ve said I became fascinated with the gap between what companies say they do and what they actually do and as I started to explore well how on earth do you that. It was companies like LRQA that I came across which was alright there’s this whole industry of organisations which help businesses to not just mitigate that type of risk but that they help them to actually decern what is the right thing and how can I have the right impact. And then how do you navigate all those complicated issues such as well if we’re having this environmental impact how do you first understand that and then how do you present that to the world.

And the reason that I joined LRQA is because in our services and what we do as a company is everyday our great colleagues go out and they’re helping organisations to understand their impact on the world, and how they can improve that impact you know whether that’s environmental or with human rights.

And so with Our Planet, Our Plan given what we do as a company it is fundamentally important that we walk the talk and to Our Planet, Our Plan is our commitment as a company to say, this is the impact that we have on the world, this is where we think we can have an even better impact on the world and therefore here’s this transparency like window of the things that we’re committed to, to making sure that we’re a company that does the right thing not the easy thing and that includes showing where we’ll fall short.

So no business is perfect you know and I always think there’s an analogy between a business and a person, if you ask any person in the street okay what’s your net positive contribution to the world, there’s things that all of us individuals do really well, i.e. we might be kind, we might be generous, you know we might be hardworking. Theres also other things that we don’t do well as human beings like you know we, you know whatever that might be, and the same is true of a company is that you look at any company on the planet whether it’s the biggest or the smallest and there is almost always positive things that they’re doing, but there’s always areas that you can improve. So, it's not about perfection it’s about progression and it’s about, and Our Planet, Our Plan is ultimately our promise to be a company that is committed to doing the sustainable and right thing.

I love that, thanks, Ben. If we look beyond LRQA for just a second, ESG has become a mainstream topic or mainstream issue and as such I think it’s fair to say it’s received a lot of criticism as well. So regardless of political orientation, what do you make of that criticism?

Well I think that the point we come back to is that about 30% of people always disagree with everything, right so no matter what it is, like whatever political issue or topic, let’s say education, and so you’ve got a position on education, you’ll always get people who will disagree with it and so I think it’s no matter what the thing is, there’ll always be people that are against it.

But I think with ESG, that the criticism it gets I think is in some ways understandable, because how people see it is, is as a measuring stick that will lead to heavy regulation or moral expectations that will slow businesses down, and perhaps the apex of that is net zero. So there are people that do not believe in net zero as the right strategy even if they believe that climate change is real, and so if you just take that one segment, as in net zero, there are so many different ways you can look at the best way to do it.

Like should the target for net zero be 2050, 2030, something in between, should it be a thing at all, and so the criticism comes that there are people that believe that this is just going to slow things down, make us less productive, or be used for creating more taxes upon businesses. So I think the criticisms have to be listened to and there will be some truth in a lot of that criticism and there will be things about it that are, that aren’t right but ultimately there’s always the, there’ll always be that happy middle ground or ground somewhere on that spectrum of disagreement to agreement which will be the right place to be.

Yes, thank you, I think it is really important to provide a full picture from all angles for our listeners, so thank you for doing that Ben. Now I’d like to start sharing some practical guidance for our listeners if that’s okay. Could you tell me where an organisation should start or where they should begin if they want to start embracing ESG?

Yes absolutely. It begins with what we would call a material analysis and what that really is, is a discovery, an inspection if you like, of understanding the impact your business currently has on the world and in society as where it works. And what you’re trying to decern in that process is where are we doing really well like where are the areas we’re having a positive impact, and then where are the areas whereby we’re having a net negative impact or at least we could improve.

So for example, if you are a food manufacturer the chances are that your material analysis is going to focus on the environmental and the conditions of your factories, the conditions that work in that factory, whereas if you’re a professional service business that produces nothing, you’ve just got people up the road, your impact is going to be in a different area of your business.

So having a thorough and scrupulous analysis of what is your impact to business and in order to that though you need to have a framework to work from and there’s a number of great frameworks out there. For example, Our Planet, Our Plan is divided into seven different areas that we decerned there was seven different areas that we can have a major impact, a positive impact or otherwise through what we do. And I would say a core part of this as well is involving your people, and so if you think about the impact you have as a business or where you could improve, or what you’re doing well, it's going to be your people that know, your colleagues, and so involving them.

So what we did at LRQA is we had decision design sprints, 27 design sprints in total where people came, everybody in our business was invited to come along to give their perspectives on different areas of our business and we had an employee survey which over a third of our colleagues contributed towards where they also had the opportunity to contribute their ideas.

And then I would say as part of that as well is that bringing in experts, outside experts can be fundamental to making sure this sort of stage is a success. Most companies aren’t experts in ESG and there are companies out there that really are and they’re there to be your trusted advisor and of course there’s a whole spectrum of work they can do from very small to owning that entire process.

But it's doing the hard work, doing the discovery, digging dip, bringing in the right experts, involving your people and then as an outcome of that you’ll be in a position to really understand where your business can make the biggest difference.

So how does that compare to LRQA’s journey. Can you summarise our approach to developing Our Planet, Our Plan?

Yes, I mean it's been a real privilege to be part of the whole process because what you tend to find is when you announce the organisation of a vision that we want to be in seven years’ time, and sooner if we can, a business which whenever anyone looks at that organisation that they see an organisation that has sustainability, ethics, responsibility, care over the heart and everything that they do.

And we kind of put a few sort of different ideas at the front of that for example, what if we’ve become the highest scoring b-corporation for the company of our size and in an industry and if people aren’t aware of the b-corporation process is like, like anything it’s not, it’s not the complete picture but the b-corporations are those that have passed through a verification, an auditing process which proves their sustainability credentials.

And to have achieved the top score and for example Patagonia the second highest scoring company, Sunrise Banks are the first, if I have that right, when you look at everything, they do from top to bottom of their business is that it’s a company committed to doing the right thing. And so, our process was to announce look we want to create a sustainability plan that ensures that you know we really stand out as a company that is committed to ethics, responsibility, and sustainability and then we began that material analysis.

So, we looked at okay, where in our business can we have the biggest impact, we involved our people, we ran those design sprints on different topics, we made sure it was global, I think it's very easy to be headquarter centric or first language centric, so we gave everybody the opportunity. As part of that what we did was we created different leadership teams, so in the first phase we worked out there was going to be the seven different areas we were going to focus on, so we then created a leadership team for each of those seven areas, and again we invited if you care about governance or if you care about environment or equity, join this leadership team and they became our team of advisors that the went to the next level of detail to say okay where could we focus. And we’re lucky at LRQA that we’re ESG experts so we, it's not to say we didn’t look outside because we really did. We looked at what other companies are doing, so looking at other benchmarks. But we had those experts in environment, in governance, in safety, but then outlined and this is the really important bit, what are the key performance indicators that we’re going to work towards.

So, if you look at our seven commitments, they’ll look very similar to a lot of organisations and the underpinning of those seven commitments are the sort of headline ambitions, and then underpinning those are the key performance indicators. And to put it into context we have 380 which might sound ludicrous but when you look at how do you get to net zero, so our third commitment is environment, there’s easily 70 things you have to do like look at your water, look at wastage, etc., etc.

So, once you’ve then got those key performance indicators the final phase is then to try and may them objective. Now it's always possible to have things that are truly objective but ultimately a sustainability strategy and an ESG management system that underpins that, it has to be about delivering measurable objective results that are time bound. And so, what we’ve got is these key performance indicators that show people objectively these are the things that we’re going to do, or try to do, this is the date we’re hoping to deliver them by, and therefore you’ve got a measure of success.

Thanks for outlining those key steps there, you mentioned global engagement as well and that exclusivity is so important, I think, and makes an initiative like Our Planet, Our Plan so much stronger. Now come on, lets share a little bit of the good, the bad and the ugly here. Were there any major challenges along the way Ben?

Yes, there always are. The first is no matter where you end up there will be people that disagree with it. So, to give an example when we were asking questions on inclusivity there was some feedback from, in the survey and this is just fluffy nonsense, and actually we talked earlier about why does ESG get criticism? And if you take DEI, diversity equity and inclusion, you know that is an industry or a sector which has come under immense scrutiny and there’s clearly been things in that space which haven’t been done well.

And if for example, we said well we’re going to have this metric let's say 50% of people will come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, that’s a good example whereby your leaning into greenwashing risk territory because what great ESG looks like is understanding well what’s the point of achieving that, and what you suddenly get into is it becomes very philosophical, it becomes very political and it becomes very much about people's opinions and what you’ve then got is how on earth do you prioritise this, the whole challenge of ESG business results, delivering profits with doing the right thing and like anything in society you’re essentially asking more or less a question.

So, inclusivity is a great one. If you ask people what does inclusivity mean and how do you get good at it, and why should you do it and you ask a 100 people, you’ll get probably at least 30 different things as answers and so the challenge was how on earth do we include people in this process without becoming a trifle of ideas that ultimately gets you to no clear end result.

I have to say that I didn’t find this whole process, I don’t think we do as a business, to be that painful and but in the end, you have to except that at some point you’ve got to put pen to paper. And one of the challenges of ESG is that when it’s done really well it can be this big cumbersome thing and which is why one of the fundamental principles is that you can make the complex simple and the way you make it simple is the fact that you divide into different topics, and we’ve got seven. You then put a leadership team on each of those seven and you say to everybody else like they’ve got this and you’ve got to trust now that team are going to deliver it and you get involved with the bits that you want to contribute towards.

And so to finish on that point, there are some people in our organisation that really, really care about the environment and they might not care so much about safety or equity, now I’m not saying they don’t care at all, but their passion is environment so will you focus on that. And we’ve all got a unique gift, we’ve all got a certain topic or topics we’re passionate about.

So part of the way you get through the pain is to say to people well you can have your say on it but ultimately there comes a point where right we’re going to make a decision, this is what it’s going to be and you might disagree with it but that’s what we’ve collectively agreed with which is why we’d recommend you make it as inclusive as possible but also setting clear boundaries about you know the endpoint.

Thanks Ben. Finally, I have one last question for you, and I’d like to know what’s next now Our Planet, Our Plan has been built and we’re launching it today, what happens next?

Yes great, well the simple answer is we have to deliver it and that’s the, that’s the uneasy part but also the engaging part. I think the important thing to say about something like Our Planet, Our Plan is that it is hugely ambitious and our hope would be that someone reads those ambitions and reads what we’re committed to, they’ll be getting a window into our business and you’re really reading what our culture is and type of organisation that we are and the things that we care about. And it’s also important to say that something like this isn’t binary and stagnant, we’ve listed down these commitments and the performance metrics that underpin them and we’ve already hit a lot of them as you would expect. There's many that we might fall short on and there’s many that we hopefully will surpass.

But the important thing is that whatever we do we’re honest about where we are at and why we did deliver something or why we didn’t and then sort of the next part is we need everybody in our business to participate and the way that we’ve built Our Planet, Our Plan is that it’s for everybody connected to the company. And so our colleagues will directly or indirectly contribute to the things we’ve committed to and our job as a sustainability team and our executive committee is to ensure that we give our people the tools and the time and the permission to ensure that we deliver on these things and you know that’s going to take sacrifices, it won’t be easy to commit to.

Take net zero, if you want to hit net zero or some of our other commitments, we’re going to make decisions, we’re going to have to change things, we’re going to be making investments, and we believe in the long-term that will pay back. And it is also the connection with our suppliers and our clients and our communities.

So for example if were going to work with a supplier we’re not going to hit our net zero commitments if our suppliers are polluting the planet and likewise, we’re going to have to work with clients that want to work with LRQA because they see our commitments but we also share those values.

And so what happens now is that Our Planet, Our Plan is there to guide our decision making and so when you see like we might make this investment or we might work with this supplier or this client, or we might do this volunteering programme, we have to ask ourselves is it going to help us with Our Planet, Our Plan? And that’s the beauty of something like this which is it should make the decision making much easier, so the groundwork is difficult, it’s complex and it takes time, but once you’ve got that you’ve got this wonderful plan which gives you a roadmap for the next well seven years.

Wonderful, thank you so much Ben, as always, you’re such a passionate speaker and you really have brought LRQA’s news today and the broader topic of ESG and that you’ve brought them to life today and I can’t imagine how rewarding it must be to go from the inception of an idea through to well launch and delivery now. I’m pleased to say that we’ve got seven more podcasts one for each of the pillars within Our Planet, Our Plan and they’ll be launched one a week after today’s announcement and we can’t wait to introduce you all to more of LRQA’s wonderful speakers like Ben. So, thank you Ben and thank you to our listeners once again.

Thanks Holly it's been great to spend time with you.

And finally, just a reminder to our listeners that you can learn more about Our Planet, Our Plan on the LRQA website and see our digital dashboard which tracks our progress against all seven pillars at OurPlanetOurPlan@lrqa.com.

You’ve been listening to the LRQA Future in Focus podcast, thanks so much for giving us your time and we hope to see you soon.

Need to get in touch?