Alice Cahill

You don’t expect to hear someone who runs a government agency program say budget cutbacks are the best thing that has happened to them.

But so it is for Alice Cahill, senior team leader with the NSW government’s Sustainability Advantage program, which assists companies and organisations hone their sustainability skills and strategies.

Since the cuts – of around 40 per cent – kicked in mid-year, a good proportion of clients who had been with the team for a decade decided they were getting value for money and paid membership fees.

Clearly something’s been working. For Cahill this is positive endorsement and puts the business case for the agency on much stronger footing.

In a recent briefing with The Fifth Estate to talk about the upcoming 10-year anniversary of the program, Cahill nominated a range of carbon emissions cuts, smaller footprints and lower energy bills as wins.

The clients are not exactly from the small end of town either. They include some household names – such as Coca-Cola Amatil, OneSteel, Unilever, Ferrero, Veolia, De Bortoli Wines and the giant Mars. There’s also The Salvation Army, Transport for NSW and Gosford City Council.

So how did the change of structure work?

“We asked our customers how they would feel about a fee for service structure and they agreed to give it ago,” Cahill says.

The annual fee set is $4000.

From an active client base of 100-130, just over 88 clients have agreed to sign up as members.

That’s not a bad response rate.

With only eight on the team that’s close to a full house, Cahill says. Another 300-400 organisations are in the network but not be currently active, in the past diving in and out of the program on a needs basis.

“So that does a couple of things. It generates an income stream, demonstrates to government we’re valuable and helps focus the minds of the business on what they want,” she says.

“It changes the relationship.”

Cahill thinks the future for businesses will be more about a circular economy, with more sharing of product and services and ideas such as leasing carpet or chemicals, and then handing these products back the manufacturer or distributor for ordered recycling or waste management (the program was runner up in the cities and regional category for the Circular Economy Awards last year).

“We’re moving from product to service… it’s coming,” she says. “We’ll be sharing and leasing.

“There’s a lot of idling capacity. We’ve got enough assets in the world, we just have to use them better.”

Cahill points to Rachel Botsman on collaborative consumption for good leadership on this issue.

So what do the organisations get out of the program?

A lot, Cahill says, adding that she thinks there is no real parallel to the team elsewhere in Australia.

Environment is clearly a winner, so too climate change adaptation and improvements in the supply chain. But well up the hierarchy, too, is better employee engagement.

Members get a recognition program, and this strikes a big chord – something as simple as an awards certificate with progression system ranging from bronze to silver and gold has real impact.

Recipients “love it”, Cahill says, mainly because it recognises an internal champion among their peers.

There’s also an annual event with the state’s environment minister, which is also strongly valued.

Some of the outcomes include an aged care facility that wanted to make its villages more like community hubs, advice on sustainable construction, through a leadership group with John Holland and Lendlease, and from Mars, a demonstration of zero waste for one of its pet food facilities.

Ferrero was able to ensure its palm oil is 100 per cent sustainable.

“A lot of them do a lot on their own. They get gold for having it in their strategy.”

The next big focus for the team is waste.

“No one understands their waste. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and they don’t even know where the bills are.”

Electricity bills, by contrast, end up in neat spread sheets.

There’s also a certain pall of unaccountability around some waste contractors, but that’s putting it politely.

Much work needs to be done, Cahill says.

It’s clear this team is up for the challenge.

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