Forum for the Future: Finding the ‘holy grail’ of sustainability

By Phoebe Cooke

Founded in 1996 by Jonathan Porritt, Paul Ekins and Sara Parkin, Forum for the Future works with businesses in food, finance and energy to embed sustainability into the fabric of their strategy. Multinational businesses as diverse – and vast – as C&A, O2, EDF, Nike and Sony work with Forum alongside other smaller companies to improve their sustainability by working on their strategy development.

Forum's head of energy Giles Bristow speaks to about the five capitals and the 'holy grail' of sustainability.

How long have you been at Forum for the Future, and what does your role as its head of energy encompass?

I've been there for 18 months. I head up all our energy work, which means working with our partners on their business strategies in relation to energy, and we also do a lot of projects that we hope will add up to collectively create a more sustainable energy system, both in the UK and abroad.

Sustainability is a word that is very in trend at the moment. Can you tell me what Forum for the Future and yourself takes 'sustainability' to mean?

That's a good question! I suppose its natural meaning is the first point. We're working to create a world that is in balance. We think about the five capitals – have you come across that before?

No, tell me more!

The five are natural capital, manufactured capital, human capital, social capital and financial capital. We aim to make sure that they're all in balance. Anything you're doing in industry, manufacturing, or finance – that activity should be balanced as a capital so it's a more sustainable behaviour.

I noticed that Forum for the Future works not only on energy, but also on food projects, finance and other sectors. Was energy the first area that Forum focused on?

Forum was established 17 years ago on the principle really of looking for leadership in society. Where can we drive sustainability from? We realised the government really wasn't pushing that agenda and at that time in civic society, and whilst lots of good work was being done by NGOs and people like Greenpeace, it wasn't really driving forward sustainability.

A couple of years ago we thought, right, we need to focus here on the fundamentals parts of society, the systems beneath it that enable modern life. So finance, food and energy are the critical things you need to get right for any society to live in a more sustainable direction. These three factors need to be in balance. So we're working with those, specifically channelling our energy onto those, still working with leading businesses across the economy, but particularly in relation to food, energy and finance.

Do you vet the organisations you work with for their ethical status, and how does this work with big businesses? A lot of multinationals might be very good in some respects, but I would imagine it's hard to find a multinational business which is sustainable in all three facets of food, energy and finance. I wonder how you go about working with all these different aspects and strike the right balance?

That's a good question! We work with businesses who want to display some form of leadership. So it's about ambition and commitment. It's in our corporate guidelines that we'll work with the businesses who say they will and prove they want to make a difference.

At any one point in time you're going to have businesses that are a mixed bag, if you like. But the point is to have a vision and commitment to sustainability, that's what we need to see. We have targets and we work towards them with the businesses.

The reason why we're established as a charity and not as a consultancy is that it gives us the independence to sit along beside them and to hold their feet to the fire – or hold them to account – for that part of their business practice. And if that was out of kilter then at any point we can obviously look to re-examine that relationship.

Presumably the businesses who you work with are all judged by different standards depending on where they are when they begin with you, in terms of carbon neutrality or sustainability.

Yes, it's not that we have a yardstick by which to measure them. It's that we want to work with them to take them on a journey. A lot of this is about corporate behaviour, about individual behaviour. The journey is the important thing and the process of that journey, and that you're working towards outcomes.

So absolutely – there's not a one size fits all badge or certificate. The businesses come to us and say: "This is how we're working, we would like to work towards a more sustainable future for this company," because the penny has dropped that businesses need to do that, to think more long term, so they can look at their survivability in a kind of future context.

And so we'll start with a business when they come to us and say, we want to get going on this journey, and that's when we'll pick them up, when we see whether their ambition is sufficiently serious.

There are only a few industries that we wouldn't work with, such as the tobacco industry, because that is just not sustainable full stop in terms of products and health etc, but otherwise if a company wants to look to change its products and services and where it sits in society, then we would like to do that.

So I suppose the relationship starts with the positive, proactive approach of the organisation that approaches you?

It could be both. It could be that we are invited in by an individual or a director that has a vision for a more sustainable world for their business, but needs our help to help open up the rest of that business so that it's more receptive to the journey it could go on in to a more sustainable future.

It may be an individual approach but then we'll go in to help work through the type of journey that that business could go on, then we work together on it.

But you're right, it's about a positive framing, and saying: "Look, it's a win-win situation", it's about creating a business win and one that will truly go into the long-term and be genuinely sustainable. It should be a win-win for everyone.

Energy-wise, can you give me an example of a plan that Forum for the Future have come up with to develop a more sustainable design for an energy company? It would be interesting to know how the effort to increase sustainability works in practice.

So we work with both  RWE npower and EDF on a strategic basis as partners, helping them develop not only strategy for embedding sustainability in business models, but also embedding sustainability thinking through the organisations. So we've done that with both of those organisations, and we continue to do that with all our partners.

And what kind of things do you advise them on in terms of their strategy and longer-term sustainable thinking? A lot of multinational businesses and indeed the government are under a lot of pressure to increase their sustainability. By sustainability are you talking about things like recycling, or is it other aspects that you're referring to?

On the operational side we could be working on aspects such as their energy and water use, resource consumption, lifecycle analysis of their products, their policies, that's the sort of thing we might get involved with.

But to be honest it's more on a strategic side than on a business development side. So we look at how you can embed sustainability within the business plan so that they're not separate: that's the kind of holy grail if you like. We want the business plan to be going forward to bring in all the elements of sustainability, so that the business is more long-term thinking, so it's generating more sustainable profit, so it's more likely to survive in a kind of future operating kind of context.

The specifics I can't get into, because that's ongoing and partly confidential, but that's the kind of broad theme of it. We're looking to embed sustainability thinking so that the teams themselves have that at the front of their minds, they look at what a new consumer offer might be and so on. So it's helping them quite often with innovation processes, innovative products and services so help move them to a more sustainable platform.

I appreciate that these aren't sound bites, and that sustainability and innovation are the terms that are used, but in terms of innovation for a business, what does that actually mean? Sustainability can be interpreted as an attempt to approach carbon neutrality. But I suppose in this context it can also mean that the company can sustain itself in the long term?

Yes – through what it does and the way it operates. It's everything from how it treats its employees, to the way it sources raw materials, but also how it actually contributes to society in terms of its products and its services. A good example would be the Kingfisher group B&Q. We've been working with them on their strategy 'Net positive'. Not only does the organisation want to lower its carbon footprint in the way it operates and what it does in its services, but in the end it's working towards a position where it makes a net positive contribution. So it actually takes out more carbon and is working to advance the sustainability of the entire sector and that part of the economy. So that's a kind of net positive strategy.

Marks and Spencer's Plan A would be another good example of that. Looking much more broadly at their own footprint but working up and down their supply chains, and then through the consumer energy phase, and really taking a bit of responsibility for how that can be changed in the round.

And that's what the leaders are really pushing for. But it varies from company to company obviously as to what sustainability will depend on what they're doing.

So for an energy company it might be working towards long-term ambitions towards lowering the carbon intensity of its generation, for the type of services and products it has on offer to encourage more sustainable behaviour, as well as improve consumer ethos. And it might be about what they can do to encourage energy efficiency in homes and businesses. So it's saying what is the position of that energy company in society, and how can that lead to a more sustainable mode and operation.

How is it possible for all your staff to keep on board with the frequent changes in the energy debate?

There's a lot for 70 people to do. Our mission is to make the world a more sustainable place. But it's not just us; we work with lots of partners and businesses, these guys who are creating the changes in their businesses. They've done work which has really come together to meet that mission. There are plenty of people in Forum who are facilitating this drive for change, but then it's the people in the businesses who are really creating that change.

Obviously from your perspective too, the needs of your partners will also be changing depending on their business models and the economy.

So the first thing to say is that it's definitely not for us to tell businesses how to run their businesses, because that's their expertise and that's what they're specialists in. So we absolutely respect their immense knowledge in things that make them leading businesses.

But the expertise that we bring is sustainability expertise: how to think more strategically around those issues as a business and how to integrate that, that's what we bring to it.

Sustainability is our starting point. So if we keep that as our kind of central base of expertise and point of reference, then we can kind of work out and look out and critique and work towards and with and changing policy and legislation and [..] and that kind of thing.

So there is a lot to learn. And of course there is a lot to be working on the whole time. And energy through general business updating contexts, there's a lot to know there. Working with these businesses, they're their own experts in their own sectors.

One energy company you work with is EDF, who recently had a clash with the No Dash for Gas protesters, who climbed and occupied EDF cooling towers for eight days last autumn to protest against the government's drive to make gas account for over 50% of our energy for the next 30 years. Interestingly, EDF ended up dropping the £5 million law suit against these 20-somethings. What kind of place do you think protesting has when it comes to renewable energy in general?

There's clearly a place for a whole spectrum of NGOs, we would fully respect that. A lot of our sister NGOs are bang on with a lot of campaigning work and so on, and that's all part of the social context around the dialogue of the need for change. In this specific case EDF will have had its own specific internal corporate guidelines in terms of how they responded, that's really a question for them so I wouldn't really want to comment on that.

But on the more general point of transition for energy companies and looking into the future, we feel that renewable are a key part of that and that system needs to change and adapt so that renewable can be adopted at scale. But there is a transition phase we need to go through which is lowering the carbon intensity of the system and that's going to require the use of lots of different technologies. That will require some gas, a lot of renewables, and a lot of different ways of doing things. So there's a bigger piece to play, but it's important that all parts of society get to voice their opinions.