Interview with Angie Robinson
Q: What role does Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce play in tackling climate change?
A: I think that it’s really important that we actually make sure that we are at the forefront of the debate. Particularly because we have some businesses and membership, we are actually a good means of getting out that information towards them. It’s about helping people to get their heads around this issue, as climate change and energy issues can actually be very simple or they can be incredibly complex. And I think that people are quite fearful of it because of the language that surrounds it, and an important thing for us as the Chamber of commerce is to actually translate that so businesses can understand it.
We employ our own specialist who is very professional and knows a lot about the climate agenda, we also have a committee of the chamber which looks at transport, which looks at the environment and planning. Whilst these issues are bundled up together, they do separate out quite easily and so they get the attention that they deserve. Also, one of vice-presidents, Phil Jones from Brother, is very much leading the charge in terms of climate change.
I think from the business perspective, they are still getting their heads around it and because of the dark economic climate we found ourselves in, we very much got our message along the lines of “not only is this good for the planet, but perhaps more importantly in the short-term, this is good for business”. There is a business case that this will beneficially improve your bottom line. This is one way that we are contributing to the debate, it’s not the only argument that we are using but it’s about getting people to sign up and recognise the agenda. And if we are brutally honest we are not all there yet.
Q: Have you experienced any resistance in looking at the climate change agenda?
A: I don’t think that there are any businesses that are resistant to tackling the climate change agenda because most businesses at the very basic level are looking to reduce their energy costs and usage. Now, their reasons for doing that may be varied and I think that whilst climate change isn’t always at the forefront of everyone’s agenda, it has moved up there a lot more in recent times because everybody talks about it. I think we need to move now from everybody talking about it and knowing that it’s something that we have to get our heads around to actually making a difference very quickly. We are looking to support the leadership that our politicians, both locally and nationally, are showing because some of the greatest ways to make a difference isn’t about sticks necessarily but its about carrots and helping people to understand.
You know I haven’t come across any companies that are saying ‘climate change is a load of twaddle and I am not interested and I’ll carry on.’ I suppose there will be companies that are carrying on as normal and are either waiting to be lead or it’s just not high enough on their agenda at this point in time so we have to help them understand what opportunities are open to them. The whole issue of climate change is that it is a shared responsibility and it doesn’t belong to just the business community or the householders or schools, we are all in it together and we have to work hard to make sure that where we can make progress we are and that we support those who want to make progress but I haven’t quite managed to get there yet.
We need to understand what our relative responsibilities are. I mean there are some massive opportunities in relation to new energy technologies and if we could retrofit all the homes, it could be a huge business opportunity. There are chance in this for businesses and it just about getting the money raised really.
Q: Is there a sense that there will be some clear winners and losers from Manchester moving towards a low carbon economy?
A: I think that there is still a lot for us to understand about that and I think our job is to help businesses interpret where they can contribute and gain from a low carbon economy. That might be a longer-term gain or a shorter-term gain. I think there is still much to do to help them understand that. I think that if we even begin to suggest that there will be losers in this, then the argument will be dead in the water and so will we as our planet will be destroyed in many ways. The important thing for us to do is to find a way in which companies can come on board, willing and happily, and with benefit to them, their workforce and their community within which they operate as a whole.
Q: Do you ever envisage a time when Manchester businesses won’t be motivated by economic growth and their bottom line alone?
A: I wish I had the answer to that. I’m not sure that we ever want businesses not to focus on the bottom line because private sector businesses is all about making profits, providing jobs and creating wealth. But that’s not in a ruthless, Victorian sense at all. People these days who are running businesses recognise their responsibility not just to their workforce and the world within which they operate. Lots of companies now realise that there are customers and member of their workforce who are asking ‘what is your policy with regards to energy conservation and energy usage?’, ‘how green are you?’ And that something that we are encouraging companies to deal with this and we’re saying ‘you know what, this could give you an edge.’
Companies are not naïve about that. We should never really be asking businesses to give up their profit because even businesses that are not-for-profit, still need to create and retain surpluses as you can’t run a business on a standstill budget. You’ve got to have something for a rainy day and I think that economic growth and low carbon economy are not two mutually exclusive things and in fact I think they sit together very well. If we could capitalise on first-mover advantage as a low carbon economy, then that will sharpen up our competitive edge and not disadvantage us.
Q: Do you feel that attitudes towards climate change are changing in the business community? And in what way?
A: I think that attitudes across society are changing and certain things are driving that. First of all, it’s very much in the media and that effects the sort of things that we think about and young people have bought into the climate change agenda and therefore putting pressure on their families and friends. And we should never forget that people who own and run businesses are parents, are brothers, sisters, uncles and citizens at the end of the day and are aware of what the issues are at the end of the day. Probably the pace of businesses attitudes towards climate change are just slightly ahead of society as a whole (maybe not hugely but just slightly) because it is something that companies are having to focus on. I am starting sense a slow change. I can’t tell you that there is a huge tide, an unstoppable tsunami because that’s not the case.
There are some companies that are in front and are real role models, other companies perhaps need more help and assistance to do what they would like to do because making changes when you are running a company is not always the easiest thing to do. Particularly if you are in a small company where you own the company, you are also the companies finance director and marketing and you may have people to help you but there is an awful lot on these people’s shoulders and this is another element of running a successful business that they are having to turn their attention to. And of course when people were being taught how to run a successful businesses, energy was just an issue of cost and not climate change and so they are having to change the way that they look at things too.
Q: Who do you feel are the real leaders in change in the business community?
A:Brother UK, the Co-op is world leading, some smaller companies. We can shine torches on these companies but what we really want to do is mainstream the climate change agenda. We should not be making it something special that we applaud people for, it should part of the routine and part of what makes a businesses healthy and successful.
Q:In the US, the Chamber of Commerce has faced a severe backlash from big companies for their opposition to the climate change action. Do you as the GM Chamber of Commerce see any risks in making a real stand with regards to climate change?
A: I don’t see any major risks associated for us. Our main job is to represent businesses and their views and create a climate which foster their activity. So our jobs is very much about asking well, what is their issues and how can we persuade policy makers and others to understand those. I think it always dangerous to compare ourselves to the US, the US it could be said, have not really faced up to their responsibilities in terms of climate change in quite the same that we have in the UK.
We are aware of the concerns of climate change, the impacts it has on other people across the world, our responsibilities and we are a sophisticated first-world society and we have responsibilities towards others. As much as I love the US, and I do, they have disappointed me and I can’t imagine for one moment getting into a fight with our members as it’s our job to fight for them and get our voice heard and we are full of responsible companies. There are no companies that see this as the elephant in the room or the big black bear that is trying to prevent them from going forward. Companies adapt to the environment that they are in so that they can flourish, otherwise they go to the wall.
Q: What firm commitments is the GMCC making to tackle climate change?
A: Whilst I wouldn’t say that our support programme is fully mature, and we do have a lot more we want to do, we do have our committee and our own polices in house to recycle, reduce the amount of energy that we use and to be more sensible and responsible in our activities. I am not going to say to you that we have it right, we are on a journey and we are trying to improve our performance and organisation and we do look at that very closely. So whilst we are not an exemplar, we are trying and I think that’s very important and we are honest about that. And as a small business ourselves we do understand some of the issues related to that.
In our business support company and partner agencies across the whole of the city-region, we are helping them to access businesses so that they can talk to them and we are making sure that advice is readily available. Amongst our board of directors there is an environmental specialist who runs an environmental consultancy, so right there in the heart of our boardroom (she’s female as well- we are ticking a number of boxes here!) we have environmental issues being raised as part of our business strategy. So we are on this journey, we are not there yet but its a good start I think.
Q: Any plans for future improvement?
A: Yes, we always want to improve. It would be great at some stage if we could be a carbon neutral organisation but we are not quite ready to do that. We still need to do some work around that, and maybe even less then neutral although I have a feeling that getting to neutral will be a good starting point. But environmental issue is a very big theme for our presidential team and particularly in 2010 when Phil Jones steps up as president and he has already given us a very early warning that he will be bringing environmental issues as one of his top themes. So it’s in the pipeline, it’s happening and we are not resting on our laurels.
There is an increased demand for CC information but we need to make sure that we package it appropriately. The worst thing that could happen is that we start to legislate to penalise business, the greatest way that we can make a difference is to encourage companies and to change their practices or help them understand a little bit more rather than threatening them. You don’t change people’s behaviours by frightening them. For a lot of the companies it makes sense to deal with the CC agenda in terms of attracting customers and in terms of our business. It really is a no-brainer.