20 years of sustainable business – Sir Stephen Tindall

Stephen Tindall was one of the original founders of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development in 1999. He reflects on the progress made in sustainability and what is yet to be achieved.


How did the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development start?

Back in 1999, we decided that we needed to do something about sustainability from a business perspective and so we ran a forum and in fact Helen Clark came along to that forum and basically explained some of her aspirations. We had a large number of leading business people there and we workshopped it virtually all day and as a result of that we decided we needed to establish something and those that had obviously offered to be part of it became part of the inaugural committee.

In those days we were called the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development because we kind of annexed ourselves from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development that already had a framework that we could work from. From there I joined our company The Warehouse Group to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and became a Councillor and over the next 10 years got quite heavily involved.

What are some of the achievements in the last 20 years?

I think the NZBCSD and more latterly the Sustainable Business Council have achieved a lot more in the last few years. I kind of see it as a hockey curve because this has become so much more of an imperative now. We are seeing climate change really clearly as something that’s happening and likely to be quite devastating in years to come and so people are really having to do something about it.

Back then we thought well this is something that’s important but it’s not imperative and so lots more happening now. This group of companies that signed up last year to reducing their carbon footprint and a large number of them has made such a massive difference.

We’ve worked on a number of programmes over the years, there was a lot of research done in those days and we took quite a bit of data from large international companies and we got youth involved, there’s a lot of stuff happened over 20 years you can imagine.

What would you like to see in the next 20 years?

What I’d like to see happen over the next 20 years is a much much bigger focus and a huge amount more effort so there’s absolutely no doubt that unless we try and hold the temperatures down to 1.5 degrees more than we’ve got at the moment, we’re going to really have some really major problems and it’s probably not going to happen from what we can see, but we’ve got to make a massive effort and so you’ve got to break the economy down and look at where all the big opportunities are.

So clearly in farming there’s a huge opportunity to try and reduce methane levels. We’ve just got to do it and we’ve got to find ways where New Zealand can still get its income using premium to do that but try and reduce stock numbers but also find new scientific technologies that reduces greenhouse gases.

Probably second there’s transport and so you know that converting the domestic fleet to EVs, electric vehicles as fast as we can is really important but in the bigger end where you’ve got you know ferries and buses and big trucks, fleets, dairy tankers, all that sort of thing we’re going to have to move to hydrogen so there’s got to be some real leadership shown and there’s some massive opportunities for us to actually produce green hydrogen in New Zealand if we’re prepared to make the impact investments and so there’s a couple I’m investing in at the moment which includes wind and solar that can convert, then unless we go ahead and do those things you know there’s big trouble coming.

How did you get started in sustainability?

I got interested in sustainability probably about the time we started the Tindall Foundation back in 1994 and we started dealing initially with waste so we saw some big issues with waste and we’ve still got them today, and particularly with plastic waste and so we started to fund various things around that stream and so I got to meet a lot of people in the sustainability movement and as I did that and started to realise that we’ve got this huge issue coming up I got more and more involved. I’m still heavily involved in it today.

What are some of your current projects?

The biggest thing that I see at the moment that I’m working on is hydrogen, I think that’s a huge opportunity for New Zealand so I’m putting a lot of effort into that.

The Tindall Foundation works primarily across trying to mitigate so our big goal there is to try to get two hundred million native trees planted by 2026 and that’s called Trees That Count and we’re funding Project Crimson to deliver that for us. The research would suggest that would sequester a very large amount of carbon bring us right back down into the 1990s again with some luck so that’s a big one for us.

In the past we have funded well over 500 projects through WWF, that’s been big for us and a lot of that’s to do with riparian planting to try and clean up waterways etc. We’ve a huge project in the North called Reconnecting Northland which is a whole landscape approach for pest control, growing natives, basically restoring the land and we’ve got a very big Māori programme now we’re working closely with tangata whenua to actually look at the way we can we can restore things back to Māori principles.

What progress has The Warehouse Group made on sustainability?

Even back in 1999 I was basically representing The Warehouse Group and I was involved with them as the CEO for the next two or three years and then I started to take more of a backseat and put more efforts into investing and sustainable impact type of investments and through the Tindall Foundation.

But The Warehouse Group has continued to try and practice sustainable practices – they’ve got a fleet of 60 EVs now, they’ve become carbon neutral just earlier this year, one of only three major retailers in the world that’s done that so that’s a great milestone for them and something that you have to feel proud about.

Have you got an anniversary message for SBC members?

What I would say to the 110 members for SBC today is keep going but increase your efforts. You are part of a legacy, there’s been a lot of work done before you but the real important work is to come and you’ve just got to do more of it and do it faster and so we’ve just got to reduce, in particular, greenhouse gases.

We did a lot of work with the Emissions Trading Scheme back in the late 1990s and unfortunately that didn’t really get taken up, that would have made a massive difference because people would have actually been charged for their emissions and then we would have been [able to] reinvest that money again so legislation is going to be important and very important part of what we do going forward but it’s much better to have a carrot type approach than a stick in this case and so volunteer types of ways of doing things like we saw last year is very important.

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