Commercial Group had just won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in sustainable development. The company Hindmarch runs in Cheltenham is a multimillion-pound-turnover business services supplier with offices in Leeds and London and divisions in print, IT and office design. Over the years it has rolled out numerous measures to cut back on consumption and emissions.
These include a fleet of hydrogen-enabled trucks with an electric van and use of hundreds of photovoltaic panels to power its offices. They involve innovations to maximise waste reuse and recycling and to embed the sustainability ethos into 350 staff through employee engagement and corporate social responsibility junkets, or ‘CSR days’.
Hindmarch launched the business with her brother, Arthur, and his university friend Alastair Adams, 27 years ago. But it wasn’t until a talk by former US presidential hopeful Al Gore on his climate change film, An Inconvenient Truth, that Hindmarch took up eco-arms. She left the event at Tate Modern gallery in 2006 “a bit shaken up” and resolved to do more for the environment through her firm, which up to then “hadn’t even recycled a piece of paper”.
“Responsible business has always been important to us, which stems from our family values – our father always told us to switch off lights at home to avoid wasting electricity. But when I saw Al Gore’s lecture, I realised we had a duty to manage our impact on the environment more proactively. We initially set out to reduce carbon emissions and soon gathered momentum.”
But not soon enough: a big frustration with sustainability then, she says, was its niche status. Back in the noughties there was little information on how businesses could tap into green technologies or take up sustainable practices. Much of what was out there was more blue sky and theoretical than the practical nuts and bolts her business needed to harness.
So her team measured the company’s carbon footprint – 1,078 tonnes of CO2, 122 skips of rubbish a year, etc – and used the data to draw up a detailed plan in 2007. Commercial Group wanted to cut emissions by 75% in three years, be zero waste within a further three years and maximise reuse and recycling, use of renewable energy and the ethical procurement of materials.
The company has a 51% ownership of In2Print in Cheltenham with kit including a Xerox iGen and B2 five-colour Heidelberg Speedmaster CD 745P perfector press. “The products and services we sell such as paper, inks and goods that we ship have a big impact on the world. It is quite right we should do all we can to minimise their impact.”
From the start, Hindmarch knew maximising sustainability had to be “central to our DNA and not something that pops up annoyingly from time to time in meetings or company reports. It doesn’t have to have a fancy green name because this is not a marketing exercise. We are a purpose-driven company and because of this we tend to attract the right people. Our switch to sustainability therefore unlocked an emotional connection in our staff and a motivation to make a difference.”
Though Hindmarch and her brother went without specialist consultants, they did recruit a head of CSR, Andrew McKenzie to give clear, dedicated focus to their company’s green crusade and help turn aspiration into specific reality.
Around 400 solar panels went up in London and 300 in Cheltenham. The hydrogen-enabled commercial fleet meanwhile is the UK’s largest and includes 11 trucks. The group is involved with two government-funded projects on zero-emission delivery vehicles. The first truck rolled, quietly, off the company forecourt five years ago.
Each 3.5-tonne vehicle at Commercial Group has a 1,000kg payload and gives off 59g CO2 emissions per kilometre against 220g for a conventional diesel truck. The fleet operates wherever there is hydrogen dispensing gear, which currently limits its range to around London and the M4 corridor.
Hindmarch receives the Queen’s Award from Dame Janet Trotter, Lord-Lieutenant of Gloucestershire
Operating costs are higher than for conventional trucks, says McKenzie, who is reluctant to give detailed cost variables. The fleet is currently attracting subsidies, making a precise comparison tricky. But while cost is important, being able to demonstrate the technology works and is not drastically cost-prohibitive is more so right now.
“We are keen to prove the technology is available and can be used at a practical and commercial level and provide evidence to more risk-averse companies such as BT and Royal Mail,” adds McKenzie who is currently trialling a project with Ocado. “And as take-up grows and more companies move into the market, operating costs will inevitably come down.
“We had a lot of success initially, cutting emissions by around 70% in three years. However, until now newer technologies for low- or zero-emission vehicles have not been suitable for large vans with a high payload and wide operating range. We’re determined to develop ways to overcome this challenge.”
Commercial had its 11th annual CSR day recently for 500 people: staff, suppliers, stakeholders and the local community. Speakers, including designer Wayne Hemingway and environmental entrepreneur Ed Gillespie, covered social, environmental and economic sustainability, while Hindmarch launched a new initiative to reduce single-use plastic in the office supply chain. She is also targeting data centres, which produce as much CO2 as the airline industry, she says.
On social sustainability, her business is also on a high: the company’s IT services division is donating old school laptops, monitors and PCs to the IT Schools Africa charity. Around 240 laptops and computers from one school, destined for landfill, were recently upgraded with Windows 10 and educational software packages before being sent to schoolchildren in Africa.
Disadvantaged young people from Commercial Group’s social enterprise Commercial Foundation were involved in the reconditioning process, erasing old data and loading up the new software. The company has invested £400,000 in its social enterprise programme and aims to help 40 people on to its training programmes every year.
Quantifying the positive spin-offs – including financial – is “the million dollar question”, she says: “I don’t think its healthy to be driven purely by profit, and can I measure the benefits to an absolute degree or cost? No, I can’t. But we are on target to hit £70m turnover this year and £100m within a few years, Meanwhile the print part of our company has grown 40% in a year.”
What data she has, however, is promising. When Commercial first measured carbon emissions in the noughties, annual revenue was £17m and emissions over 1,100 tonnes per year. Carbon intensity was approximately 66 tonnes per £1m. Today, with that annualised turnover approaching £70m and staff numbers more than double, carbon intensity is about 80% lower at 14 tonnes per £1m.
“The staff have embraced sustainability, as have our suppliers and customers. We have partnered with some fantastic companies such as vehicle manufacturers and gas suppliers. There are challenges, such as the driver who has to go out of his way to fill up. But if you are working with like-minded people the collecitve response is positive, which is crucial.
“Organisations need to transform the way they operate to properly tackle the many conflicting sustainability issues we face today. I can’t pretend it’s going to be easy, but we’re determined to keep on raising the bar and chipping away at the bigger challenges.”
Vital statistics Commercial Group
Location Cheltenham, London, Leeds
Inspection host Managing director Simone Hindmarch
Size Turnover: £70m; Staff: 350
Print products Catalogues and office stationery, mugs, t-shirts and keyring fobs for corporate, beverage and retailer clients such as Sky, Next and Ocado
Printing kit Litho, digital and large-format kit including two Heidelberg Speedmasters and a Quickmaster, three Xerox machines – iGen4 Diamond, 8080 colour printer and a 144 Nuvera mono printer – and a Roland XR640 wide-format printer
Inspection focus Maximising sustainability
Identify your objectives and audit all areas of your company on emissions, waste and carbon footprints before drawing up a sustainability plan.
Become an expert in sustainable working and corporate social responsibility or appoint a specialist member of staff or consultancy.
Build partnerships with suppliers and get your team on board by clearly outlining your goals and keeping everyone in the loop with regular progress updates.
Point out to customers that your products have an added value in terms of their sustainability, which may be reflected in their price, but will help customers’ towards their own environmental and CSR goals.