Travelling down the sustainability path one step at a time

3 May 2022
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If the word “sustainability” sends you into a daze, then don’t panic. After taking a deep breath, you can engage with one of HTA’s Sustainability Reference Sites. You can also read the handy top tips compiled by Susannah Ball – the fourth-generation owner of the global Ball Horticultural Company. Rachel Anderson reports. 

Why is it always those mornings when I am regretting being a chocolate-gobbling lazybones that I am confronted with the sight of my spritely neighbours going for a jog? Then, I reminded that I have once again been beaten by my illogical mental block – the one that makes succumbing to Netflix far easier than the physical act of putting on my running shoes. I’m certain I am not alone in feeling like this – which is probably why Nike’s famous phrase “Just Do It” is so popular and relatable. 

This angsty “block” is how many commercial growers are likely to feel about sustainability. It’s such a big topic that it may feel overwhelming and difficult to know where to start. But with society and our climate crisis in mind, operating as sustainably as possible is a necessary part of running a horticulture business. Thankfully, the Horticultural Trade Association (HTA) launched (in November 2020) a five-year Sustainability Roadmap to help the industry smash through any “blocks” and become more sustainable.  

As part of this scheme, the HTA has this spring launched Sustainability Reference Sites to enable its members to share best practice and experience with each other and build a supportive community. These sites are HTA member businesses, including Hillier Nurseries, The Barton Grange Group, The Gardens Group and New Wood Trees, that are imparting their knowledge after successfully embedding sustainability into their business plans. 

Philip Nieuwoudt of New Wood Trees says: “Sustainability is a huge topic, and it can be very difficult to know where to start. There is an overwhelming amount of information available and knowing what to focus on is not easy. Most businesses do not have the luxury of having a staff member dedicated to sustainability and finding the time to understand and implement changes is challenging. This is why we feel it’s important to take part in this scheme. Businesses need to share their knowledge and help each other make the changes which are so desperately needed.”  

Find your champions 

There will be opportunities for HTA members to engage and interact with Sustainability Reference Sites throughout the year. In the meantime, growers can draw inspiration from the five key takeaways (not the edible kind I consume on lazy evenings when I should be jogging) encountered by Ball Horticultural Company’s Susannah Ball. Susannah began the process of refreshing the sustainability plan for her company some two years ago. Speaking earlier this year (2022) at the British Protected Ornamentals Association (BPOA) online conference, she revealed that the corporation’s new sustainability strategy has a two-pronged approach.  

Firstly, as an international company (of which the UK’s Ball Colegrave and Bordon Hill Nurseries are a part), it is collectively focussing on three elements – the people, the community, and the planet. Secondly, each of its global sites is developing its own set of goals unique to its location. “We wanted those goals to reflect the interests or the passions of the people there. For example, the team at Bordon Hill [UK] for many, many years now has been passionate about conservations, wildlife habitat, rare plants and animals… so that’s wonderful and we want to celebrate that as one of their goals. So, it’s really giving the flexibility to them to reflect on whatever is going on in their location.” 

Susannah summarised what she has learned during this process in the following five tips: 

1. Find your champions (everybody has them)

Susannah reminded growers that every business has an employee who is very passionate about sustainability. “Not only do you have a great person for the job that needs to be done but, for these champions, it’s a huge opportunity for them … and a motivational part of their job. It’s really a win-win for everyone if you can find these champions and get them working on sustainability for you.” 

2.Get Certified (what gets measured gets improved)

Susannah advised: “Find some sort of certification scheme and then enrol yourself onto it,” pointing out that “What gets measured gets improved. And, without the rigor of a certification scheme, you don’t really get that strictness of measurement.” Susannah also highlighted that the UK has the Ornamental Horticulture Assurance Scheme (OHAS), an ornamental horticultural assurance scheme run as a specialist membership group of the HTA (and formerly known as BOPP, which always reminded of a pop song that I would listen to whilst jogging). 

3. Use the Sustainable Development Goals (don’t reinvent the wheel)

The Ball Horticultural Company has used the United Nation’s 17 global goals that were created in 2015 as a global guide on how to get to a better place, both socially and environmentally. “These have been a really great tool… an initial baseline [on which] to start setting goals and getting new ideas into people’s heads, because a lot of people were really stuck on that environmental piece of “we need to recycle, we need to reduce our chemicals” when, really, a vast array of social issues/topics are under that sustainability umbrella.” 

 4. Make it work for you

Susannah advised growers to “flip the script.” So, rather than perceiving the implementation of your sustainability plan as being one more thing on your ‘plate’ you could ask: “What are the challenges that the business is facing? What are the threats that are on the horizon in my market or my business? And how can sustainability solve that?” In South Africa, for example, the company’s energy provider was expensive and, at times, unpredictable. And so, a solar array was installed at this facility – helping the company to reach its sustainability goals but also creating a more resilient and stronger business going forward. 

 5. Just do it

When Susannah and her team were in the early stages of setting Ball’s corporate sustainability goals, she and her colleagues worried about what they should be. Should they set targets for 2030 or 2050, for example? “It was very stressful,” she recalls. “We didn’t know quite what we were committing ourselves to. And finally, one of our board members, who has been involved in sustainability for many, many years, just came to us and said: ‘Just set the goal and then you can figure out how to do it. And, if you figure out you can’t do it, then just change the goal.’” She added: “At some point you just have to make a decision and go for it.” 

And so, just as going out for a run is less about waiting for the perfect moment and more about putting on your trainers and going for it, creating a sustainability plan is also a case of forgetting how daunting a task it is and “just doing it” – one steady step at a time.