Driving sustainability: insights from West Midlands Businesses of the Year 2024

West Midlands Businesses of the Year 2024 joined to discuss the key to success and stability, despite an uncertain environment.

Winners and shortlisted companies came together at Freeth’s Birmingham office and delved into how they are managing exceptional growth and what opportunities are on the cards for future prosperity.

Sustainability was high on the agenda for each firm alongside the evolving nature of recruitment and talent retention. Collaboration and stability are essential for the success of the West Midlands as the region and the rest of the UK await a general election and a potential change in administration.

Sustainable labelling is the priority for labelling firm Mercian, and it has recently worked with Whitakers on a recyclable paper packaging sachet in a UK first with Japanese partners.

Steele believes sustainability is driven by consumers “but it’s got to be done at a certain price”.

He said: “Plastic packaging tax is really driving a lot less plastic recovery and recycling and it’s really important. I’ll certainly be advocating that all of my customers are taking much more consideration of the types of plastics that they are using from labelling to the packaging, to improve credentials because it can make a real difference.

Electricity supply however is “a real issue”. After putting solar panels on its Burntwood unit, it’s “severely constrained by what we could give back as the grid wouldn’t accept it. That’s a real limitation as you should assume that energy could go to the grid but the infrastructure can’t cope with it.

These thoughts were echoed by Jon Stott, group managing director at infrastructure and building consultancy Ardent, who said one of their “biggest challenges is grid connectivity and capability”.

He said: “You can’t get a certainty of connection in the 2030’s at the moment. There needs to be a massive upgrade of the national grid but people don’t want to see a new pylon outside their properties.

“There’s been a lot of phrases that politicians have used over the past few years to win votes without properly explaining why things are needed or not needed”.

Being more sustainable has also created more commercial opportunities for firms such as DRPG.

CEO Dale Parmenter reflected on the 17-year-long journey of becoming more sustainable where board members used to ask “why are we doing this, it’s costing us money”.

But now with clients such as Lloyds Bank, he said “all the top 100 suppliers of the bank went on a call with procurement and they were very, very clear – if you don’t hit the standard, you’re not going be on the roster anymore, so we’ve invested an awful lot.

“From a commercial point of view, it makes sense to be more sustainable as well as from the environmental point of view. But sustainability isn’t just about the environment, it’s about people, planet, and profit”.

It also made sense for creative agency One Black Bear, which has recently engaged with Sustainability West Midlands. Its old Jewellery Quarter property was refurbished to secure a B-rating on energy efficiency.

Jon Harrison, creative director said: “We’ve picked up new accounts thanks to being more sustainable. One new client is really focused on recycling all old windows and plastic.

“It’s not a box-ticking exercise. You can tick that box without even trying as it’s just good commercial sense. Staff feel good about it too as you’re working with an interesting new company. The investment has meant we’re securing new business and it’s basically paying for itself”.

Edgbaston Cricket Ground held a sustainability engagement day for its England and New Zealand IT20 match on September 3, and cut carbon emissions by more than a third.

The ‘Go Green Game’ introduced initiatives such as free bus travel to and from the stadium for ticket holders, whilst the game was powered exclusively by wind, hydro and solar energy sourced by Drax.

A final report into the impact of the game has found it emitted 33.7% less carbon than the initial forecast which was based on a comparable major match day in 2022.

More than 3,600 fans arrived on a free shuttle bus service from New Street station – with around 2,400 on the return leg – while almost 1,000 fans travelled for free on other National Express West Midlands services.

Ground staff used electric mowers and rollers, food packaging was made from compostable seaweed, and 5,000 four and six cards handed out were printed on seed paper that fans were encouraged to take home and plant to grow wildflowers.

No red meat was served in hospitality areas and spectators also played their part by signing up for stints on the pitch-side energy bikes which, when pedalled, charged up Edgbaston’s electric road sweeper.

Lydia Carrington, sustainability manager for Edgbaston said: “All of the signage and recycling information still remains as we want to keep educating the public.

“As a business, we can put all these initiatives in place, but if no one’s on board with it then there won’t be that behavior change”.

But being sustainable can cost, so many companies will only be able to do the bare minimum to remain profitable.

Matt Beckley, head of development of Keon Homes said that in the wider market and in terms of registered providers, “they aren’t necessarily pushing sustainability and that’s purely down to affordability.

“Because of the extra costs of building products and new methods of construction alongside the cost of borrowing with inflation, some simply cannot afford that. They’ll just go with the minimum standards, because they have a choice of building 60 houses that are absolutely desperately needed to the minimum standards, or they can’t do anything”.

Darron Owen, executive director at Trident said the business has worked with the UK Green Building Council in order to provide training for staff, as every bit of advice given to clients now must have sustainability built into it.

He said: “Clients want advice for buying a building, they want to know what they’ve got to do and what they’re able to do to it.

“With sustainability, they want to know how much it’s going to cost, but there’s the benefit that you can get as well. How can we make the building perform better?

“We’re taking it really seriously and we’ve upskilled everybody. It’s not something you can learn straight away as it relates to activism. It’s now a key service we have to provide”.

Commercial fit-out business Estilo Interiors has been working alongside The Good Plastic Company in order to improve its own credentials as well as clients’.

Jack Soars, marketing manager said: “The business takes old fridges and freezers, old plastic white cutlery, and mashes that all up and makes worktops – it looks really nice. We’re using it a lot for worktops and tiles.

“We’ve just engaged Positive Planet to do training courses for our staff and find other ways to become more sustainable and use better products for our customers”.

Fast-growing B-Corp beauty brand Absolute Collagen has been looking at ways to trade-off between convenience and sustainability for its packaging.

Darcy Laceby, co-founder & chief people and product officer said: “We’ve worked with the University of Birmingham quite a bit on biodegradable laminates and had some grants to make good progress on it.

“Our product oxidises and that’s still safe, but customers don’t want a different colour product in six months time. We’ve completed surveys with 5,000 of our customers, trying to look at the trade-off between convenience and sustainability.

“We’re doing office fit at the moment and we looked at loads of more sustainable options for furniture and buying from B Corp UK brands but it’s so much more expensive”.

Reusing furniture was an aim for the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce’s office move.

Henrietta Brealey, its CEO said: “Reusing is easier said than done because you rely on what’s available. For instance, our office chairs were used in the Commonwealth Games, and they are of such a high quality you wouldn’t know.

“There’s lots of things that we’d have liked to have reused but just weren’t able to. Instead, we looked at stuff from our old premises that could be donated for charity, and how we could increase our social impact by donating laptops and mobile phones”.

Despite challenges such as market instability, rising inflation, and recruitment difficulties, the West Midlands Businesses of the Year achieved remarkable growth whilst focusing on sustainability, collaborations, and innovative solutions.