A Chat With Dan Atkins
Dan Atkins is the co-founder of Sustainability Drinks, a networking event that currently runs in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Darwin. Brisbane, Perth, Canberra and Hobart are set to join soon. He is also Managing Director of Shaper Group, a group of companies that works with businesses and other organisations to improve their competitive advantage by embracing sustainable practices. The Switch Report spoke to Dan about his motives, his experiences and his report card on corporate sustainability. This is a distillation of some of what Dan had to say.
How do you define sustainability?
No one definition of sustainability is actually wrong. Everyone has something to add, no one has all the answers when it comes to sustainability, so the first thing is not to impose a view of sustainability on anyone else. For me, I’m very attached to sustainability and the environment in the context that the planet is here for us all to share and ultimately trying to create a balanced system that nourishes all the species on the planet with equity and fairness.
If we are going to move towards a balanced system we have to address consumption. We are consuming too much stuff because we think it makes us happy, but it doesn’t actually drive happiness. I’m very passionate about the principle of abundance, that we can have everything to meet our needs. We just have to redefine what our needs are. It’s not about taking things away from people; it’s about giving more but giving more of what we need rather than the things that we don’t need. I believe we have the capacity to innovate and to create abundance by being smarter and doing things better.
Where do you think your interest in sustainability came from?
I grew up on an orchard so as a young kid I spent a lot of my time out in nature. My Dad always said “if you want money go and get it”, so I set up my first business at the age of 8. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, but also deeply connected to the environment. In year 11 economics in 1988, the teacher made it clear to me that unless I could place a monetary value on a tree it wasn’t going to get included in economic decision making. For a split second I thought I’d have to choose, between business and the environment, but then the entrepreneur in me kicked in and goes “well hang on, there could be an opportunity here linking business and the environment”. This was a lightning bolt moment for me. I realised I didn’t have to choose. I refused to choose. I couldn’t accept doing business that leads to a deteriorating environment then, nor can I now. Everything I do has to fit within my value set in terms of sustainability and I never will compromise that.
What was your career path before you set up Shaper Group?
I started at Deloitte’s in 1994. On the first day the managing partner came up to everybody and said “What do you want to do?” I brought out a brochure on environmental accounting and said “I want to do this.” He looked at me like I was a madman. “Mate, we don’t do this”. I pointed to the brochure and said, “Well, actually we do, here’s our brochure, this is where we say we do it globally. It’s based at this practice in the Netherlands, and I want to do this in Australia.” His response “we don’t do that here.” So I did some more research and wouldn’t let it go. Two years later I became the founder of Deloitte’s Environmental Services Group. I was involved in putting a $90 million tender together, and although we didn’t win it, it showed the company that there was a market. I pulled together a global network of practitioners within Deloitte’s, moved to Copenhagen and helped set up Deloitte’s Centre of Excellence on Sustainability.
I came back to Australia in 2000 thinking this is going to happen now in Australia. I presented to the Business Council of Australia and they said “This is brilliant.” I said “Are we going to do this here?” and they said “Oh, no, we can’t.” So I began working with people on the inside, people like Greg Bourne who was president of BP at the time, and a number of other leading business people in Australia to try to bring forward a positive attitude to the environment and the understanding that it could be an opportunity for business. But the traditional business model saw the environment as a threat, a compliance issue, a cost. Australian businesses didn’t want to ratify the Kyoto protocol, so there became an axis of evil and an axis of good. So there was a group of ten or twelve of us really trying to challenge business thinking around sustainability…
Lined up against how many on the other side?
Thousands. With very deep pockets, very influential relationships and glaring self-interest.
Were you still at Deloitte’s at this stage?
Yes. I’d set up a global climate change group with a guy here in Australia and managed the Australian practice and one of my clients in Europe that become a client in Australia was Toyota. By chance the head of environment for the manufacturing group and the head of the corporate group for environment were both retiring, and I ended up heading environmental affairs for Toyota in Australia. The President and the Chairman had a strong mandate to create change and we created a vision where we wanted Toyota to be number one in Australia on environmental and sustainability management.
We got to the point where Toyota was number one, had successfully launched the Prius and demonstrated the business case across the organisation, so my job was done. I’m not a maintainer; I’m a creator and an instigator.
You have consulted to a lot of major companies. Are they serious about becoming truly sustainable in their practices or is it more bout ticking boxes?
I think there’s a genuine intent among a lot of them to explore sustainability where it meets their interests, but the blockage really is at a board level and investor level. There are some companies at the World Economic Forum who get that now. Nike and Novo Nordisk are examples, so there are some companies who understand that this is actually a question about what business are they in and what value do they create for stakeholders? But for the majority you’ve got people driven by self-interest, you’ve got people sitting on boards who are 60-65 years of age with three to five years left to go on their career, and they don’t want to change things or necessarily know how.
Are there any substantial businesses that you can hold up as champions of sustainability?
In Australia? Big ones? You know, I’m really struggling. I can say they’re doing some good stuff. They’re getting to six out of ten. But ten out of ten? I can’t say that. .
I’m really impressed with Nike. I was at their headquarters in New York and I got to see the genuine commitment of Hannah Jones who is leading that program. She was the BBC correspondent on labour rights back in 1997, 96, and she was beating these guys up, so Nike said, “Look, Hannah, how about you come and fix this from the inside rather than just shooting us from the outside. Come in, we’re genuinely committed to fixing this up and we want you to lead that.” Fourteen years later she’s VP of Sustainable Business & Innovation.
Then there’s SC Johnson – a fantastic privately owned business in the US and a very strong values based company. Novo Nordisk who makes insulin, I love working with that company in Denmark. Proctor & Gamble and Dupont are really starting to make some significant moves addressing the life cycle impacts of their products.
You’re developing a new business model to replace the consulting-based model. Tell us more about that.
The question became “do I want to continue working with a lot of these big companies where I’m just tinkering around the edges and I’m trying to educate them about changing their business model, but I’m not seeing that transformation,” versus “do I just go and create the companies from scratch with people who get this.” That’s where I’ve got to now. It’s very much around creating these businesses with a number of good, like-minded people. I think that’s the future. You’ll then get some of these old ones who will want to shift and collaborate and there’ll certainly be a role for those who will transform themselves in the next five to ten years. A really great example is the movement of centralised versus decentralised energy systems. There’s no question we should be moving towards a decentralised energy model. We know the prevailing argument, we know where the future is going, but policy continues to be dictated by those with vested self interest associated with the old way of thinking, E.g. push towards the lowering of the feed in tariff for solar.
How are current policies affecting your plans?
I’m focusing on the opportunities that are here right now as opposed to trying to change the whole system. Until there is a carbon price I’m not developing a business around one. I’ve already lost my dough a couple of times around that expectation of global or national agreements. So it’s about working with the opportunities that are there; working with groups to try and create a community culture, engaging the community in the discussion of our future. What does a meaningful job look like to you? Is the policy going to create the right conditions for you to have the job you want to have? Is it going to create the right sort of structure and the economy we want to have in Australia? Are we going to have the resilience in our systems to have the lifestyles we want? You know, it’s about engaging in a real conversation about what we want for our future and then getting the government to respond to it. We’re not leading the discussion. The big companies with self-interest are leading the discussion and we’re letting them do it. So it’s time we stopped blaming everyone else and start saying what we want.
Within your definition of sustainability do you think we are becoming more or less sustainable in the way we’re managing the planet?
Oh, completely less sustainable. But I also think it’s at the brink that we’ll be the most innovative. We’re getting closer to that point of really critical challenges for the planet, but at the same time we’re getting to that point where we’ll be really motivated to do something about it. The problem is that nature doesn’t rebound as quickly as we cause the trouble. I think we are in for a pretty big and sustained shock that’s going to take a fair bit of innovation to get out of.
But you can never discount hope and passion and inspiration. Personally I’ve gone past the doom gloom stage. I had my moment of admitting defeat about five years ago – that moment of realising the mitigation game was lost and we’re now in the adaptation game. There was a mourning period of 24 hours where I was just a mess. But I didn’t give in to it and now I have this genuine hope. The more I travel, the more I come back to our needs. I’m connecting again with indigenous cultures. We’ve got a lot to learn from these guys. You go to these developing countries and you can see the spirit and love and connection with their souls and they’re happy. They don’t have a lot but they have happiness.
Sustainability Drinks is now four years old. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
Being in this space for so long, I’ve met so many great people. I found I was getting busier and busier and not finding the time to enjoy the company of the people that I met along the way. I thought it would be great to organize something where we could come together and mix with like-minded people and just have social time. I figured if you had a function of an hour or two hours, you get to meet eight or nine people. So that was the humble start. We didn’t try to create a national event to start with, we just tried to create a gathering of like-minded people and it has organically grown from that.
My measure of success of the event is when I take some time off next year. I’m going to finish my PhD and expand my businesses overseas. If the event grows bigger and better when I’m not here, that’s going to be my measure of success. When it’s seen to be owned by the community and it becomes a catalyst to connect and grow towards a sustainable future, that will be fantastic.