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Lessons from Zapp: How to set sustainability goals

Sustainability guru and Zapp's head of sustainability Oscar Benjamin shares his golden tips on getting everyone in the team involved with sustainability.

By Freya Pratty

Oscar Benjamin is head of sustainability at UK-based speedy grocery company Zapp. He’s a sustainability expert — he has two master’s degrees in environmental management and business administration and, before joining Zapp, worked in the sustainability team for a home improvement retailer and as a sustainability consultant. He spoke to Startup Life about setting sustainability goals like a pro.

First: do a sustainability audit

When I joined Zapp I did a big review of the business and its environmental and social impacts, so I could say which things we needed to focus on. You can use carbon footprinting software to measure your footprint, contact utility companies to work out your water consumption, and speak to waste management providers to work out what your recycling rates are.

Figure out where you can have an impact

Understand which parts of your business have the biggest impact — and which parts you can control (that’s often called a materiality assessment). You’ve got to focus first on the things that you know you can control — either you have the technology available to implement a more sustainable alternative, or it’s something to do with how you run your operations. Then there will also be goals that are longer term and require technology that isn’t developed yet.

Set up principles

Setting sustainability goals in a fast-growing startup is different to doing it at an established company. It’s not as simple as saying “we need to make a certain percentage annual change in our environmental impact” because you can’t predict the scale of your operations in a few years’ time. Set up principles that will drive decision-making as the company grows. For us, it’s to keep our carbon footprint as small as possible, to sell more products that protect the planet, to recycle and reduce waste as much as possible, to run on renewable electricity and to transition to cleaner cold storage.

Get senior leadership involved

Have internal KPIs focused on sustainability and set up roadmaps for each department. I spend a lot of time with the founders and senior leadership at Zapp, making sure someone is accountable for each sustainability goal.

Make your goals science-based

You need to focus on reducing the intensity of your impact, and not focus on offsetting as the primary way to reduce it. The Science Based Targets initiative is useful here. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board is also useful — they’ve set up guidance on how you should word your goals to make it easier for people to compare different businesses and see how they’re doing.

Engage employees

We’re setting up a sustainability champions network at Zapp. They’re employees spread across the business who help engage everyone and explain what sustainability means for each department. They get training and become experts so when they see their teams working on new projects, that can help work our sustainability principles into those decisions.

On the subject of… sustainability

🍃 Greenwashing is rife in startupland — if you actually want to make a change, avoid these pitfalls.

📈 The rise of the head of sustainability. Are scaleups just hiring them to virtue signal or are heads of sustainability really changing how businesses operate?

🤷 What is carbon accounting? The process of measuring a company’s carbon emissions is shrouded in mystery. Sifted breaks it down. 

👉 Intro to climate. This free two-week email course explains what the climate crisis is, and what you can do about it, all backed by science.

🎯 Wondering how to pick the numbers to aim for? This guide goes in depth on how to pick the right targets for your sustainability goals, and what baseline to start from.

Freya Pratty is Sifted’s news reporter. She tweets from @FPratty 

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