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Becoming Net Positive with Sustainable Business Growth


We're dealing with a solvable problem.

Sam Zindel

James Harrington 

Welcome to The MAJOR Difference podcast where this season we are exploring the theme of positive impact.

Today we have a guest who truly embodies the spirit of making a difference. We're talking with Sam Zindel, who's the co-MD of the award-winning, digital growth agency Propellernet, who are a certified B-Corporation.

With a career built on the powerful blend of data, insight and creativity, Sam has worked with renowned brands like Apple, Sky, Procter & Gamble, Red Bull and many more, helping to drive them to their full potential. But Sam's impact doesn't stop there. He's a leader who champions empathy and autonomy, ensuring that people, planet, and profit hold equal status in his endeavours.

He's taken radical steps towards addressing climate change and when he's not steering the ship at Propellernet, you might find him running over the South Downs, or spending quality time on the beach with his family, or producing an immersive venue at a music festival. Sam is also the founder of Low Carbon Leaders, a community of climate elites dedicated to building a positive legacy for future generations. His commitment to the environment is further exemplified as a founding member of the Million Tree Pledge. In his words, as his ventures help rebuild the climate, they're also building the businesses of the future low carbon economy.

So if you want to still be in business in five years time, I think you'd better pay attention. Sam, welcome to the podcast. Sorry for the lengthy introduction. It's great having you here with us.

Sam Zindel

Thanks so much, James.

James Harrington

Sam, could you give us a brief introduction to your role at Propellernet first and how you ended up there?

Sam Zindel

Yeah, so I've been a Propellernet for getting on a decade now, I started my career out in finance and accountancy, but got a little bit bored with that. So I transitioned, I was using the data skills that I developed there, to apply it to digital marketing. And I've worked at a few agencies, and then I've really found my home at Propellernet. It's a company since I started on day one that shares my values. And it's been a real honour to lead the business for the last four years.

James Harrington

So could you talk us through how you started out with Propellernet, and then how you ended up in your current role?

Sam Zindel

So I came in as a, an Insight Director, so essentially working with data to plan digital strategies. And yeah, just built up a great kind of client experience there. I blended well into the leadership team, I get on incredibly well with the two founders of the business who are now a little bit further away from the day-to-day. And when the opportunity came up to step up to MD it was just too good opportunity to turn down. And actually, one of the pleasures I have is having a co-MD, James Sanford, and we are great mixture of skill sets, we blend really well. I'm slightly sort of big thinking outward looking, and he's a ninja with ops. So we work really well together.

James Harrington

And in your journey with Propellernet what have been some of the most eye opening moments regarding the environmental crisis and a business's role in addressing it?

Sam Zindel

Yeah, it's been a sort of three year journey. For me, I have to say that until four or five years ago, the environment wasn't really high up on my agenda, I was very conscious of it. And obviously, with the news coming through that things are looking worse and worse. And I suppose also, the moment of having children and thinking slightly longer term about life, it became clear to me that actually, there's a big opportunity whilst leading a business to have an impact.

I think I was feeling a little bit like, there's so much I could do you know, sure, like everyone recycle as much as possible, walk and cycle when I can, take decisions that are better for the planet. But when you think about the business potential of that, and you've got a lot of different opportunities, customers, suppliers, employees, and colleagues, and also a voice and a platform. And I suppose when I added all those things together, and at the time became leader of a business, it just felt like a really obvious step to take to have more impact. And I guess, coupled with that, it's the direction of travel for the whole economy. So it felt like a bit of a business strategy alongside a planet friendly approach. And it's been incredibly fulfilling to take some of those key steps towards Net Zero and other environmental initiatives to

James Harrington

And in terms of the current situation with regard to businesses contributing towards solving the climate crisis, it still feels like many businesses are just starting on that journey. And they're now only just really starting to realise the gravity of the situation. What would you say was the key turning point for Propellernet?

Sam Zindel

Which is a great question. And I do find myself in a little sort of algorithmic bubble on on places like LinkedIn where I'm seeing a lot of business talking about environmental impact and Net Zero. But actually, when you speak to businesses, like I do my role with Low Carbon Leaders, I'm out there a lot of speaking with particularly small and medium sized businesses. There's a huge amount of challenges to taking steps towards more sustainable operations as an organisation. And I suppose recognising that perhaps between 1-5% of businesses are moving on this was really important for me, because it just highlights the fact that there's so many businesses that hasn't done anything yet.

But help is out there. And I think what I've really got a lot of fulfilment from is speaking to businesses and giving them some early tips and advice about things you can do to both save money as a business, which any business leader would want to take advantage of, but also improve your sustainability. I can give you a couple of examples of things, you know, they seem like really obvious things, but so many businesses actually haven't moved on it yet. You know, the cost of renewable energy has come down so far in the last five or 10 years that most of the tariffs now on a renewable deal are much cheaper than the old fossil fuel based energy provision. So just switching your energy and your office, encouraging staff who work from home to switch their tariffs as well can have one of the biggest impacts and it actually saves the business money.

A couple of other things, you know, reviewing if you have an office, how you heat and how you light the building. There's grants out there, particularly in Sussex. There's some brilliant websites that you can find if you look for solar grants, and you can get solar panels installed and over a very short period of time, you can pay those off and actually it becomes a more affordable way to power your office. And also things like lighting, and you can replace all of your lighting, if you haven't already with LED lighting - it's so cheap to run. And of course, there's an initial outlay with a lot of things that are in this area. But I love these kind of win-wins, where you get to save money as a business and feel like you're doing more for the environment. And that's really where Propellernet started. Just taking those small steps towards becoming more sustainable and looking at ways to do it that also created cost efficiencies.

James Harrington

And how far into that journey are you at Propellernet? When was the turning point for you? And where are you at now?

Sam Zindel

We're about three years, I would say, since we started taking things really seriously. And really interestingly, for us, we didn't really know much about carbon footprint measurements, scopes one, two, and three and some of the technical stuff around all of that. We just kind of rolled our sleeves up and started doing things that we thought were a good idea at the time, three years ago. And that really started with planting trees. So it's very easy for businesses to get sucked down the carbon tunnel, which is basically thinking like you measure your carbon footprint, and then you try and reduce it. And don't get me wrong, that is the most important thing that businesses can do - lightening their own impact.

But when you actually think about the climate crisis and our reaction to it in a much wider sense, we are also struggling with difficulties of biodiversity decline, ecosystems that have been destroyed through our action. And so one of the things that we've really prioritised is making sure that we are both trying to reduce our carbon footprint, which is key, especially towards the Net Zero target, but also restoring nature and just trying to create balance again, because the world is in such an imbalance at the moment. And it's a bit of a downward spiral at the moment, things are getting worse and worse and worse.

So when we started out, we just thought, well, why don't we just plant some trees, that feels like a good idea. At the time, it was just a quite a simple idea that we would just plant as many trees as we could and as quicker time as we could. And you mentioned in the intro, actually something called the Million Tree Pledge. And what we did was we doubled our ambition up to the maximum we thought we could achieve.

So we set ourselves the goal of planting a million trees in three years. And luckily, we found a few other businesses that were thinking along the same level of ambition. And so we joined forces with them and created this idea called the Million Tree Pledge, which has got its own website, people can check it out. We're basically as a small and medium sized business, you sign up to this website, take a pledge. And within a given timeframe, you commit to funding the planting of a million trees, most of which are in the global south, which is the best place to plant trees.

But what we're also struggling with with the climate crisis is an issue of climate justice. And what we mean by that is that the countries and the businesses and the people that have created the problem in terms of generating the most amount of greenhouse gases aren't the ones on the front line of the impacts of that climate change. And when you look at parts of Africa and the global south, in that sense, there are huge issues with extreme weather events, you know, seven year droughts, floods, you would have seen the news about Bangladesh and Pakistan in recent years. And these countries need the resilience to respond and adapt themselves to the impacts that climate change is having.

So one of the things we looked at, rather than sort of taking our team tree planting on the South Downs, which is another great thing to do by the way - all of these things are great things to do. We looked at planting trees where they would have the biggest impact. And that means lots of different features to that impact. So not only does a mangrove in Madagascar sequester four times the amount of carbon than a native tree in the UK, so therefore, it's better at sucking carbon out of the atmosphere - so it's good on that basis. It's also helping communities defend against land erosion, because the mangroves are part aquatic species, as well as terrestrial, and also creating marine habitats for life to respawn in areas where it's been in decline.

And not only that, as with a lot of sort of charitable giving, with organisations like Oxfam, it's creating jobs for communities that need those jobs the most. And so, you know, one of the planting sites that we support now now has 200 women in Kenya and Madagascar working in it, and those are jobs that did It exists because farming communities over there don't necessarily have that scale of operation. And so when we were looking at our tree planting, we did our research. And we realised that for a number of different reasons, planting trees in that part of the world just had so many different benefits, as well as the obvious kind of restoring biodiversity and ecosystems,

James Harrington

I've got to say, I find that approach and intensity of thought really intriguing. Do you think your analytical and data insights experience and your intuition around that has led you to a more focused analysis of where and how to make a more positive impact?

Sam Zindel

It might be partly responsible for the approach we've taken in terms of being quite forensic and making sure that everything we're doing is verified, data backed, because there's a lot of issues with tree planting with schemes that aren't vetted properly. So we were really conscious of that. And there's a there's a certification called the gold standard, which people should look into if they wanted to take part in this. The verification on these projects is really, really high... high level of integrity. So that was definitely something but really, to be honest, it's not my data analysis background, I'd say it's just will and vision.

You know, when I when I think about where we started with Propellernet, it needed me... I can give you the penny drop moment, actually, for me, because I'm definitely I wasn't born an eco warrior. I'm an activist, but I wasn't before. I had to be woken up to this in a meaningful way. It was actually my daughter's school play, I went to production and one of her at the time, eight year old classmates told this incredibly powerful story about a hummingbird in Africa. Which was written by a climate activists and it really spoke to the challenges of feeling small and feeling a bit helpless, that you couldn't really do much to help and it was such a beautiful story.

And at the end of it, this little kid just said to the grown ups in the room, said "so what are you going to do about this?". Here we are, we know what's happening, and we think we know what most of the solutions are. But it seems to us that no one's really talking about it enough or actually taking action. So I was welling up listening to this story. And I walked out of that hall that day and just said, right, I'm going to do everything I can on this. That was a significant penny dropping moment for me. And since then, it's been one hell of a journey.

Yeah, I went back to university and studied Net Zero Transition, I cut down my time in the agency to four days a week. So I could spend a day a week on this. And I've really felt like I'm addressing some of the anxieties and helpless feelings I was having about this giant, complex, global, generational problem. It's very hard and quite overwhelming for people to get their head around what's happening and how to do something about it. But actually, rolling your sleeves up learning about it, and taking action is the remedy. And that for me has been really fulfilling. And it's great I can do that and bring a whole business, you know, along with me.

James Harrington

That's a really interesting point. Actually, we were talking last week with Mo Kanjilal about the power of storytelling.

Sam Zindel

She's great. Yeah, I love Mo.

James Harrington

And the story you've just told, I guess, is a great example of, exactly that, the power of storytelling. In terms of other activities. I know last week, you were at the Blue Earth Summit. Could you tell us a bit more about that, and what the experience was like, who you met and what you learned?

Sam Zindel

Absolutely. Yeah, it's such a brilliant event. It's the first year I've been to I heard about it last year, but I couldn't quite make it. It's in Bristol, but it has satellite events called future events that are happening more and more around the country. And I don't know about listeners to this podcast but I've been to many, many conferences in my time, often marketing or data conferences because of my sector. And I'm a little bit underwhelmed on a regular basis by some of these conferences. I now prefer going to things like TEDx and slightly more inspiring speaker events.

And I'd say what this event did brilliantly was it blended those two. It was a really informal gathering of shared value people. There's about I think over 3000 people attended. And there are over 200 speakers, some famous the likes of Deborah Meaden was there, the CEO of Triodos Bank, and yeah, some really kind of headline speakers, but then a whole range of grassroots speakers as well. Some activists lead, some science lead, and a lot of lot of storytellers, we just mentioned storytelling here. And I came away yet truly inspired.

I was privileged enough to be able to lead a workshop and be on a panel talk about ocean conservation too. I find those types of events just really humbling, inspiring, it's often the sort of drinks after the day that really all the great conversations happen. I met some brilliant, brilliant, brilliant people that I now feel like allies in this whole sustainability movement, a lot of whom I sort of know through LinkedIn, because that's the main platform that I occupy. And yeah, it's great. And you know, we I'm sure we're coming to talk about it about a B Corp certification, but it was packed full of businesses that are either certified B Corporations, or are on their journey to that. And I feel like that's a really, really meaningful step for business to take in terms of showing intention, and for demonstrating best practice,

James Harrington

Are there any moments or discussions that particularly stood out?

Sam Zindel

Yeah, there was a couple, I suppose. Yeah, there were some great talks but I was quite busy. I was I was also running our own stand for Propellernet. So I was kind of handing out vegan brownies and grabbing conversations with people as they were walking by.

Yeah, one of the most interesting conversations I had was around investment. So who is going to pay for restoring nature to the level that we need it to be to create balance again and restore the climate is such a big question. You might have seen in America that Joe Biden has passed the biggest funding of climate solutions ever, in the trillions, in his inflation act. And I think the UK is now falling a little bit behind that. No surprise, many people who listen to this will have heard what's going on in UK politics right now. For me, it's a horror show of reeling back on some quite fundamental commitments.

But you know, even those decisions have been taken because of affordability for people and for governments. And so there's a really big question, I had this brilliant conversation with a guy who manages a kind of green investment portfolio. And he was sort of saying, I'm working on this project that I was at the Blue Summit to talk about called Sussex Bay, which is our local area. It's blue ecosystem restoration work, helping accelerate and amplify a lot of projects, amazing projects that are going on to restore things like the sea kelp on our coastline.

And I was chatting to him about it and I was sort of saying, Look, we were always looking for investment for this kind of stuff. And his dilemma was, yeah, I love it, and I've got this big fund to work with. But the fund looks for return, you know, there has to be returned. Otherwise, it's essentially just charitable giving. And there is there is that too, but that can't fund the entire restoration of our natural world. And he raised some really, really big questions, which just made me think about it.

And what I'm quite excited by is an emerging kind of market, you might have heard of carbon credits. So there was already a carbon trading market that exists, whereby removal of carbon is worth something to your business. And then we do that Propellernet, investing carbon credits, which means we essentially put money into projects that are taking carbon, either stopping it being generated in the first place, or taking it out of the atmosphere. And that's worth something we get a piece of paper or a digital receipt to say you've purchased a carbon credit, and here it is.

But with nature, we're just developing that market at the moment, we're writing the code of things like biodiversity credits and ecosystem credits. And these will become tradable assets, they'll sit, you know, in a P&L or on a balance sheet. And it's really exciting to chat to people like him who he's looking for this emerging market to appear. And when it's ready, there's an opportunity there to have a commercial transaction. But until that point, you know, he's been very realistic about this, it's kind of like, you're not going to get 5 million quid just donated to a project until there's a sort of tangible return on that investment that is greater than just the recovery of nature. And so we've got work to do to try and create that mechanism to make sure that it's really compelling. And we start to get financing flowing in the right direction to restoring nature. And, you know, putting a value on nature is a complex, but absolutely critical task that we need to undertake.

James Harrington

Yeah. Switching back to Propellernet, obviously, well, maybe not obviously, to you, but from our perspective, you're known and admired for your unique and radical approach to business. Could you elaborate a bit more on how your approach is at Propellernet aligned with your mission to reduce your carbon footprint? And to help restore nature?

Sam Zindel

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we see acting the way we do on not just sustainability, but on equality, having social impact as the sort of engine of our business, they give our team more than a job to turn up for. They inspire us to tackle things that are bigger than ourselves. And I genuinely believe it's a really tried and tested business strategy.

I think we will win more work on the basis of having a really strong reputation for really caring about things. And so for me, yeah, it's just a brilliant thing that you can be purpose led, you can live and breathe your values. And you can take these things really seriously, knowing that it's generating business to keep the longevity of our commercial operation moving in the right direction. And we've shown it particularly the last four years since James and I took over the business and really took sustainability on board to add to what was already quite a well established business culture. I mean, hats off to Jack and Jim, the founders and Nikki Gatenby, who was MD of the company before we were, for creating the most amazing workplace culture.

Investment in the team there is second to none. I've never worked anywhere that feels like it or act with with such, sort of, pure intent around the team and the wellness and wellbeing in support of the team that worked there. And we've really just expanded that now out into having even more social impact and environmental impact alongside that work. And for us, it's not just the right thing to do. We're not kind of "do-gooders", for the sake of it. We're ambitious, we're for-profit, we want to grow the business. And it just seems to me that this is taking a long-term view on how we run our business, making good decisions based on reputation and not short term. Profitability has just held us in good stead and we've we've had three of the best years of the whole company in the last three years and that was at the same time as certifying as a B Corp and ring-fencing budget to put into climate action and they just fit together for me. It's very, very clear.

James Harrington

I'm recovering from a global pandemic.

Sam Zindel

Well, that was a slightly unexpected twist for us all. But yeah, I'm sure you may cover that on a separate podcast.

James Harrington

I think you touched on a really important point there and I think many businesses struggle with balancing profitability with sustainability. And I guess how is Propellernet managed to align your business goals and your direction in terms of environmental responsibility and making sure that you remain profitable, but you're hitting your new objectives?

Sam Zindel

Yeah, it's a great question. And I think it's a barrier for a lot of companies in taking serious action, but it shouldn't be. Because really, you know, there's a great book called Net Positive that Paul Polman wrote in collaboration with a management consultant, Paul Polman being the ex CEO of Unilever. And that really inspired me when I was reading that they were talking about, sort of, 10 year business horizons and actually create positive change in the business generally has, over the longer term, a much better return commercially. So that sort of, if you'd like, reinforced the thoughts that we already had, reading it from real experts who work at that sort of level in corporations of that scale.

But more to the point, I think we, yeah, we got quite quickly past the idea that investing in more sustainable things now will pay off over the longer term. So there's another book, Richard Walker, from Iceland supermarkets, he's the CEO of Iceland, wrote called The Green Grocer, and he talks about their company being long-term greedy, which is a term that I absolutely love. It's the idea that we're not just chasing this year's numbers or this month target. We are chasing those things. But we're also thinking about, what about three years? What about five years? What about 10 years? How does our business, mitigate risk and capitalise an opportunity?

And for me, the climate crisis represents both of those things. There's inherent risk, you know, when when we had a global pandemic, which has been linked to the climate crisis, because of how it originated, you know, our client base fell to the floor overnight. And these, you know, these are fundamental risks to our business. So at that point, we diversified away from certain sectors that were really open to that type of, you know, once hopefully in a generation event happening and taking that taking it down. And I think that there's a real idea in our business about thinking, if we can think really clearly about how sustainability is going to drive the future of the economy and align with that.

So you know, for example, in tender processes, now we get asked for our Net Zero pathway quite a lot. And we've just got it, we've got it written up, we've had it for years, whereas other businesses were competing against might receive that and think, Oh, God, what's that? You know, how do I write that? I'm not sure, can we just say that we recycle in the office, you know

So I feel like we have a competitive advantage through being very sustainable in the way that we operate already and winning work off the back of it. So having that depth of kind of preparation and knowledge is really important for us in the business. And it might feel like devoting time and resource to it now is a little painful. But over the longer term, we know that's going pay off because we can see the direction of travel, then it's towards low carbon, right?

So if we are a low carbon business already, we're an attractive agency to start working with. Not only do we have knowledge and can educate them, but we're also don't add much to their carbon footprint as a supplier of services. And the final point on this, I suppose, is around a question around cost. And people think, oh god, you know, but it's going to cost more to be more sustainable. I gave a couple of examples earlier, where that's just not the case.

But it depends how you measure cost. If it's in this financial year, yeah, maybe. But if you extrapolate that out over the next five years, for example, if you install solar panels, solar has come down so much in price, you can pay a solar array on your roof off over in two or three years now. And then you can actually store energy and sell it back to the grid. So it becomes a revenue stream, not a cost. And I think that idea of you know, capitalising on these opportunities, reducing long term costs and mitigating risk, for me are just key business decisions you'd make whether it was about sustainability or anything else. These are just good decisions to make.

James Harrington

We talked earlier about the Million Tree Pledge. Just coming back to that, could you tell us what inspired that? And what do you envisage its impact being in the coming years?

Sam Zindel

It's a great story for us to tell both internally and to the outside world. It's a meaningful narrative around the ambition of our climate action, for me. That's the, I mean, it's obviously good for the planet, there are even better things you can do for the planet, like reducing your own carbon emissions is better, I would say, than planting a few trees. But I think when you when you look at the scale of the tree planting that we're investing in, as you know, we're a 45 person business. We don't have a tonne of money and a lot of resource. So a million trees feels like a pretty ambitious target. And we have had to find ways to spread it over three years, there's a cost involved. But for us, it just, it's just for me one great symbol of the scale of ambition that we're taking and the fact we can invite other businesses to take part in that is really compelling.

We're hugely inspired by companies like Patagonia and the movement they started the 1% for the planet, which is 1% of sales put into climate action. They've gone even further than that now, but we put 1.2% of sales into the planet and I love like that, because when I saw Patagonia's number, I wanted to beat it because I just felt that would feel like a really good thing to do just to set us off on the right course. And by saying we're planting a million trees, you know, I could say that to you, and you know exactly what I mean.

When I started talking about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to align with a Net Zero pathway, the climate solutions are full of terminology, science, technical language, it's really gets in the way a lot of the time. But if I say to you, James, we're planting a million trees in three years, you know exactly what I'm talking about, you know, it's good for the planet. And it might inspire you to plant a few trees too. So I feel like it's just a really great. It was the first thing we started doing and I still, to this day, I feel like it's one of most important things we're doing, because it just demonstrates scale, how easy helping nature is, and because we've done our research into doing it in the right way, we know the impact that it's having as well.

And so that's why many, many more businesses have now joined on, you know, we've raised over 10 million pounds of private funding from small and medium sized businesses joining the Million Tree Pledge. And I think the reason we've been able to do that, at that level of funding for nature, is because, you know, a lot of entrepreneurs will see that million number and say, yeah, yeah, I'm going for that. I don't know how we're going to get there, but it inspires me, you know, I want to push that hard.

So that's been a really fulfilling journey as well, just to see how that whole project has scaled to the tune... you know, in the last couple of years, we've planted more trees in the Million Tree Pledge - so less than 50 small and medium sized businesses contributing to this - than the UK Government has managed to plant. And when I think back to the manifestos of 2019, I think it was you might remember there was this one upmanship of the party saying how many trees they were going to pledge, it was around the time leading up to COP26. And they haven't done it. They haven't fulfilled their own numbers. And here's a small group of businesses who have absolutely smashed out of the park on this. I feel there's a there's a vacuum of governmental leadership here, and businesses are stepping into that vacuum and saying, fine, well, we're just going to get on with it anyway.

James Harrington

Well, congratulations. That is pretty damn impressive, which sounds like a pretty hands on approach to making a difference. Could you share any success stories or particular activities that have had significant impact as part of that movement?

Sam Zindel

Absolutely. Yeah. So as I mentioned before, I decided I want to spend a day a week on climate stuff, and I came up with Low Carbon Leaders as just the kind of vessel to hold that in. And since then, yeah, it's been really amazing to to be able to talk about myself and other businesses within that kind of branding, if you like.

What I've been doing most recently, actually is working with local authorities. So one of the things I really wanted to do is be hands on with a local response to the climate crisis. Because it's fine planting trees in Madagascar, that's a great thing to do. But also, there's something about your local community and contributing there, too. So I've been working with West Sussex County Council, I'm leading along with Clean Growth UK from the University of Brighton, an initiative at the moment called Let's Go Net Zero, where we're running a number of different events.

We've got a team of green business champions who are kind of experts who've walked the walk on sustainability already. And we're touring those champions and these events around the county of West Sussex, covering multiple sectors, helping small and medium sized businesses to take their first steps towards more sustainable operations and Net Zero. So that's one project that's having impact right now, in fact Horticulture and Growers event in Chichester on Wednesday leading a panel session there. So yeah, I'm learning a lot as well as I'm going along. So I'm finding that really fulfilling.

The other thing I love doing is, is running events. So I know you guys love running this podcast to have influence, and I see Low Carbon Leaders as my vehicle for doing that. So just around the time of COP26 in 2021 I hosted a TEDx countdown event in Brighton, which was really fulfilling to put together and had some amazing speakers that I still go back and watch some of their talks now. Some of them quite emotive, some youth climate activists, some poets, it was a really, really kind of mixed curation of an event. So I love doing that. And then I run workshops. So helping businesses to understand their impact and improve on it and really like talking to business founders, business leaders, and C-suite and directors of businesses just to open their eyes to what's going on, what they can do, and how it might help their business. So all of that, yeah, it's been a thrill under the Low Carbon Leaders banner, and it's really going from strength to strength and, yeah, trying to find more and more time to put into it.

James Harrington

And that one day a week, is that paid consultancy, or how does that work?

Sam Zindel

It's a blend of things. I mean, it, yeah, it's kind of, if there's an opportunity to do some well paid work that that is actually having impact and I'll take it, but to be honest, I kind of just commit that time on a voluntary basis where needed as well.

So I'm, yeah, I've kind of got a mixture of different projects. I also run a sustainability meetup called People Planet Pint, which is not just nationwide, actually, I think there's even some of these overseas that a guy called Adam Bastok started up in Glasgow in 2021. And I run the Brighton leg of that which happens now every month, we get over 100 people coming to that. It's just essentially a pub, you get your first drink paid for and you're there to talk about the planet and sustainable initiatives, and you get some amazing people, the complete cross section of society.

And I've also started feeling not necessarily under Low Carbon Leaders, but a will to do more around having social impact. So I've partnered with a group called Dad La Soul, they often run events actually here where we're recording this at Plus X, but they now use Propellernet's office to do a monthly event, as well. And that's helping community of dads that may be struggling with issues of parenthood or loneliness, or some of the big issues around men's mental health. And that's a really great thing to be part of as well. So I'm, yeah, kind of I have like a Wednesday climate day and a Thursday night, community impact time, and they're sacred to me. So I kind of ring fence them as much as possible just to get involved in anything that I can, that feels like it's contributing.

James Harrington

And for businesses just starting out on this journey, what would you say are the top three pieces of advice you would give anyone?

Sam Zindel

So I love the phrase, "don't let perfect be the enemy of good". And I think in the climate movement, that is never been truer. You can spend months and actually quite a lot of money measuring your carbon footprint. You can dither and think about what's the right thing to do. Just do something. Literally just do something.

Have a look at your recycling in the office, the smallest step can create actually the journey that you need to go on. So taking that first step to do something without overthinking or writing a three year plan would be the number one piece of advice, because that's exactly what we did. We just thought, let's fund some tree planting. And it took us from there to now. Where we are now which is just unrecognisable. The whole business kind of lives and breathes a sustainable approach. So I'd say that's probably the top piece of advice.

The other thing is, yeah, go and speak to people. And most people aren't experts in sustainability. We all reading about the kind of consequences of climate change that we feel slightly affected by that. But there aren't many people who could class themselves experts. But there's enough people out there to go and have a chat. So People Planet Pint, for example, would be a great place to come to if you're a business and you want to just chat to some other people about what they're doing or get some ideas. So yeah, go out and find information from people.

There's copious amounts of webinars as well that you can join, if you work from home, just chuck in a webinar over lunch, we're just coming up to the next conference, the UN Conference, which means there's bound to be a lot more kind of talk about the climate crisis. So this would be really good time to kind of invest in in looking at that. So yeah, speak to people take your first step. And don't plan it forever, just get on with it.

And then the final thing, I suppose is just nothing happens without a bit of personal and motive will to make something happen. We're all busy, we none of us have got enough time. And none of us have got enough resources and money, really. But there's something about this challenge, which to me is quite inspiring. It's quite overwhelming, but I quite love the complexity of it. And I'd say, just think a little bit about your own life about the impact, you might have had it probably unintentionally, through flying, through wasteful consumption.

And if you've got kids, especially for me, this became very, very poignant, because it's a bit like, well, who's going to pick up the tab for this? Because we're now seeing extreme weather events in our country. So even if you weren't as concerned as you might be about the rest of the world experiencing violent storms and flooding on a level that we haven't seen for thousands of years. We're now beginning to see that land in Europe, like the heatwave this summer. And in the UK, too. I'm sure everyone listening to this might be able to relate to the fact that storms seem more violent. They just do. There was one about a month ago over Brighton sea and my daughter and I were up all night, we're looking at it thinking, oh, wow, that is biblical in its ferocity.

And I just feel like, we've got a choice. Do we just let this continue? Are we happy with it sliding into just managing and boarding up windows perhaps in 10 years? I don't know. I don't know where it's going go. But it does worry me. And I do think that our kids are the ones that are going to feel the full force of it at a level that we can't really imagine. But we have another choice. And that's just act, just do as much as you can in the lifetime that you make available to crack on with it. And I think that, you do need to sometimes I think get to that level of I'm going to take responsibility here in some small way, either as an individual, as a parent, as a business. And if you haven't looked yourself in the mirror and had that conversation, yeah, there may be maybe now be a good time to do.

James Harrington

I guess that behavioural change is infectious as well, in terms of even taking baby steps, looking at products and how you recycle them, and then using a product that you know, has been recycled, it's actually quite a cool thing and a cool feeling to know that you're consciously thinking about what you're throwing away, and that you're likely to potentially be using that again.

Sam Zindel

Absolutely. And it's so easy, small steps are easy. There's certain things that everyone should just be doing. And it baffles me that people can't get their heads around these very small things that take up no time at all. And actually do one little piece to help things.

And then there's the next layer, then there's just the bigger stuff. And I think, to be honest, you know, a lot of businesses are going to be forced into more sustainable practice because I know that the government has sort of rolled back a bit on their commitment but they haven't changed the year that we are to hit our Net Zero target. They haven't really rewritten loads of legislation, they've kind of bent the year that things are supposed to happen. They are still investing in renewable energy. And if there's a change of government, it feels like that's going to accelerate again, in terms of the provision of that type of energy.

But you know that there's a lot of hidden emissions and things like pension plans or bank accounts. Or who did the people that you give your hard earned money to invest with? What are they doing with that money? Are they putting it into oil and gas because it's probably quite a good return? Or do they have a really mature ESG kind of principle to the way they invest? And do you have an option to switch? Because I feel like there's things more important than making a few extra quid in the next couple of years.

And sure enough, when you look at the way the finance sector is moving standard carbon assets are going to be a thing. And so it feels like increasingly investment is switching into what's going to power the low carbon economy. So align your own investments. And when I say investments, you might not have a tonne of stocks and shares or big pension pot, but you've probably got a current account. So have a quick look into who that's with and what they're doing. Because these are really small steps that don't really take much effort. But actually, if everyone lived that life now, we would start to solve this problem.

James Harrington


Sam Zindel

It's just we need to mobilise lots and lots of people to do it. And let me elaborate on this, I've been under a constant feeling of tension between I run a marketing agency, and that promotes consumerism and consumerism is largely responsible for the greenhouse gases that we are... the throwaway kind of economy that we are working within. But what's really interesting is that also marketing and communications have an incredible power to change people's behaviour. That is what marketing and advertising is, right, it's inspiring people to buy something or to do something or to solve a problem in a certain way, with a certain company or brand.

And so what I love about the potential of a company like Propellernet that we have is if we can help shift people either within our current client base or starting to work as we are at the moment with more and more companies that are aligned with the future of the economy in terms of being... trading more lightly with the environment in mind, and being more sustainable in what they're doing, and providing alternative products and services to the kind of legacy ones that are quite carbon intensive. Then we have a potential as a business in literally using the skills that we have in our business to help that transition to and behaviour change is the number one thing that is going to solve this problem. And if we can influence people taking those steps, then that feels like a really powerful influence that we can have on top of just the bit we're doing for ourselves.

James Harrington

And I know each year, you now publish an impact report, which I've read, I highly recommend anyone listening to this, reads it. And we'll put a link in the show notes. But it's pretty inspirational in terms of the initiatives and pledges that propelling that I've taken, where do you see the company going in the next five to ten years in terms of environmental inequality impact?

Sam Zindel

Yeah, so I mean, I touched on B Corp certification earlier. And you have to renew that every three years. And for those listening, that aren't familiar with what that actually means, essentially, you allow an organisation called B Lab to audit your business through a series of about 200 questions. It's quite a time intensive process to go through, please don't let that put you off having a go at it.

What it did for us is it shone a light on all the areas of our business where we could do better, when it took us, you know, good six months to kind of get our heads around and the questionnaire, populate it, get the report back to say how we were doing. And to get over the line for the number of points, you have to score by acting in certain ways as a business. And I guess what you'd say is this core areas of the B Corp assessment, which are all just great things to think about if you're running a business. So governance of your business and who's leading it, employees and well being and how you're caring for your staff and what you've got in place around them, the climate and your environmental plans, social impact, and what you're having that. There are four of the areas that this whole assessment looks at in a lot of detail. And so what it can do is it could create an amazing kind of playbook really for how I believe a business in the 2020s should be running with a conscience, with a quality in mind with more impact than just generating profit for a small group of shareholders. That's the kind of principles of the B Corp movement.

So when we came across it, we're like, this is perfect for us. So we went through that. And interestingly, we're just coming up to our three year. So next year, we're recertifying. And it will give us a chance to do that whole evaluation again, we had to score over 80 points to certify, we want to get over 100 points when we're recertify. So we don't want to just kind of scrape over the line, we want to really, really build on what we've done and go even further. There's loads of other initiatives outside of that. But to me, they all get nicely encapsulated in this one three year cycle of review. And What's brilliant about B Lab and the B Corp movement is it's tried and tested. It's all there the whole framework has been written for you or the questions or pointed questions that they know every business will answer in a certain way. And again, when you look at the commercial benefits of becoming a B Corp, they're there to be seen.

B Corps generate more revenue and profit over the longer term than your average other equivalent business in the economy. So we know that this is also helping us become more resilient in our business model as well as making sure that we're doing all the right things on things like the climate crisis and social impact.

James Harrington

In terms of the commitment required to certify, could you give us a rough idea of the commitment that took you and James and the team?

Sam Zindel

Yeah, there's a certain amount of time that's required. But again, it's because it's a bit like an audit of a business. There were some bits, which felt niggly and detail and lots of admin, there always is when you look at detail at an organisation. But actually, we were so empowered by going through that process. It was hard work. And we had to change things, we had to implement new policies. And we really had to add to our business and in order to get the certification.

But I have to say, despite the amount of time that it took, I'd say it was probably 20 or so working days worth of time spread over six to nine months. But it was me, it was our Ops Director, it was our finance team. And we worked around this questionnaire, and we realised how we can improve the business. And I say that investment in time could be seen as a big admin job, but actually, when you look back on it from where we are, now I look at it as well, we just strengthened our business.

We worked hard, rolled our sleeves up, worked out what we need to do implement this stuff, and we came up looking better than we did when we went in. So you can build a business case for that time investment. And actually, it's, for me, a huge return on the time invested. And there is a cost to certify that it's related to your revenues or business. So I'd say for most businesses, it's somewhere between £1,000 - £10,000 a year to have that certification. So you need to look at that depend on the size of business. And if that's a barrier, speak to B Lab and see what can be done. But you'll see it now as soon as you become a B Corp that it's a little b and so a B and a circle is the logo, you start to see it people put it on their packaging, if they're a B Corp provider of goods, they tend to wear it with real pride. And it's great to feel that we're in that gang. And the number of B Corps in the UK is doubling every year now. So it's growing as a movement.

James Harrington

And I know we both work in the digital space, which by nature, it relies heavily on technology and data centres, which obviously have significant carbon footprints. How do you see our industry evolving to become more sustainable?

Sam Zindel

It's another big question that we're looking to answer in a really compelling way. And I'd say we're not there yet. There's some brilliant companies out there, I was up at the Blue Summit with them. So Wholegrain Digital, they're a great business, talk about greening the web and writing low carbon code. And they've got a brilliant kind of website checker. And she put it in the show notes.

James Harrington

Yeah, we use it a lot - it's brilliant.

Sam Zindel

Yeah, so they're really leading the charge on that kind of web stuff. And they've got a book that's great to read. Also Krystal Hosting, they are 100% carbon neutral web hosting solution, they only use renewable energy to power their servers and data centres and everything else. So we switched to them. Again, this is a no brainer thing to do as a business switch to Krystal Hosting it's so easy, because they offer Net Zero web hosting, and everyone needs a web host. These are just small homogenous products, really. But you can just switch so companies like them are really leading the charge on this.

And I read a talk that the founder of Wholegrain gave around the fact that the digital footprint of the UK is bigger than the carbon footprint is bigger than the aviation sector, which is quite eye opening when you think about how aviation is probably one of the worst things you can do in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. But because we're consuming so much content streaming, the way that we now are using technology has accelerated at such an exponential rate, that the power required for that sector is so huge that it needs to be taken seriously.

So someone said to me recently that I think Bitcoin, just the servers that allow that currency to exist, generate more carbon emissions than the country of Argentina - the whole country. So you can see that digital carbon footprint is a really big issue. And as you say, us working in that sector. It's something for us to help understand the problem and tackle the solutions. I suppose the only thing you would say about it in terms of how easy is it to decarbonize compared to the aviation sector, for example, which is going to invent an entire new fuels to get planes around the world or reduce its number of flights which have both of which are quite hard to do. We just need clean energy.

Which is why I'm so supportive of things that the Labour government are putting forward, for example of doubling, tripling, and quadrupling our production of renewable energy. Because if we can tip our grid even further than it is now, that will certainly alleviate a lot of the issues in the digital economy, because it's energy intensive and therefore carbon intensive. But if that energy is produced, and the amount adding to the grid is outpacing the amount that we're using, which is the other big problem, because our consumption is going up, then we should get ourselves out of this hole in a much quicker way than some very carbon intensive industries that are going to find that move to Net Zero incredibly hard to do.

James Harrington

It's interesting isn't it? I'm just reflecting now on things like the transportation industry and the shift to electric vehicles. And I know, we're very fortunate that we have access to an electric vehicle and at home we buy renewable energy and the the barriers to entry are continually coming down. And hopefully in the next five to 10 years, you'll be able to affordably buy an electric car.

And I think there's also a lot of reticence around it in terms of will the grid support infrastructure requirements, and also, I'm a petrol head, I love motorcycles and performance cars and things like that. But my wife has a Tesla, I get access to it every now and again, when she let me use it. But the actual experience once you drive an electric car, it's phenomenal. And I'm a real, I'm a genuine petrol head, but the experience is just awesome. And it is undeniably the future. And it feels good to be driving a car that, you know, is consuming energy that's been produced renewably it's just a win win.

Sam Zindel

Absolutely. And a by-product of lack of emissions of driving it around. Yeah, I mean, you know, I dropped my kids to different things. And, you know, I've been really struggling with the idea that I'm just pumping out toxic gases to a bunch of, you know, school aged kids every time I drive near the school. So that was I've been grappling with that.

But yeah, there are there are significant barriers to entry at the moment. You know, the renewable energy readiness of the grid is way behind where it needs to be. The charging infrastructure, if you're lucky enough to have off street parking and you can charge at home, that's great, but what about everyone else? You know, it baffles me as to why we aren't really, really pushing ahead with this.

And the fact that the government rolled back five years the target, which I like to try and understand how decisions are made, and make my own conclusion as to whether they're good or not. And I can see how this decision was was made. But I can't for the life of me think why you would signal to that entire industry to slow down when a lot of the car manufacturers were gearing up towards this date where new cars all had to be electric. And themselves have now complained to government saying you can't keep moving the goalposts. We thought this was our target, too.

Because you're right, electric cars aren't cheap at the moment, there's not really a second-hand market for them, because the batteries degrade quite a lot. There's a lot of questions around the rare earth metals required for that kind of technology, which are improving, there are now cars being made without a reliance on those metals. Innovation is really going to help us with electrifying things like the transport network. So why aren't we pumping every pound we've got into that sector to create jobs, prosperity, and a transition, it just seems like such an obvious thing for us to be doing.

So I hope we get there. And I think, as you say, taking small steps if you can to help scale those solutions. So I was lucky enough to be able to afford a new electric car, I feel like I'm contributing to scaling that sector to bring the cost down overall. Because that's what we need to happen to make this accessible for everyone. Because it really isn't at the moment,

James Harrington

It does feel like a real privilege to have access to that technology. And like you say, hopefully those barriers to entry will come down in the very near future. Just finally, we're conscious of time, on a personal note what keeps you motivated and inspired to continue to push for change in the business world?

Sam Zindel

I suppose I feel a responsibility. So I get very enthused about something, once I set my mind to it and could be quite single minded and determined to achieve. So I find it quite easy to imagine a future and then just chase after it. Whether that will just be a personal goal, or actually on this, kind of, a global goal, if you like of reversing what we've seen in terms of climate change.

And I suppose I'm really inspired by speakers like Al Gore, who basically presents often in his talks, he'll present the bleak picture that we're in. But always end by saying, we know what's happening when this is now scientifically backed. This is a human made problem. And we know what all the solutions are. So we know how to solve this isn't an unsolvable thing. We'd now we just need to make those solutions happen and happen as quickly as they can.

So for me, it becomes, my daughter's just learning how to do a Rubik's cube like the whole thing. And I'm blown away by it because I'm a mathematician, but I've never been able to do it. I always wanted to do it, but I can't do it. She can do it. And I look at that and I think wow. And she was like yeah, actually, it's quite easy when you know which order to turn the things. It's actually yeah, you just follow the method, and then you solve it. And I suppose I've been this first time, that sense of my head in this context, but that is what we're dealing with here.

We're dealing with a solvable problem. We can show you we can show individuals, businesses, governments how to solve this problem. And then we can do it and I really hope... the other thing I was really inspired by was David Attenborough's talk at COP26 where his last point on that was, he's in his 90s now, isn't he and he said, I've devoted my whole life to wildlife and conservation, but I've lived through my whole lifetime has been rapid and devastating decline. And what everyone should now experience which is what inspires me is a period of regeneration.

And it's... we're just heading increasingly it seems towards a sort of dark and murky, dystopian future, but that's a choice. It's a choice but it may I mean, we have to move away from as much convenience as we have or go back to old methods for certain things that might feel a little bit uncomfortable, but the price we will pay if we don't do that is so significant. But and just imagine if we did just imagine if we did pull it off, even in our lifetime, right? How good that would feel. I remember that the issue with the ozone layer was in our childhood, and it repaired itself, right, because we got rid of all the gases that were causing the most damage and, and we fixed it. And that's a complex thing to do.

The natural world is still a mystery to us a lot of the time. But we do know what's happening here. We've got to stop burning stuff in order to power things in heat and cool things. And we've got to start harvesting the infinite resources of the sun, and the wind, and movement in order to power the next kind of revolution in how we live. And there'll be some compromises along the way. And there'll be some celebration along the way. But I just imagined that future and running as fast as I can towards it, and hopefully picking up as many other people on that journey as well.

James Harrington

In terms of final question, we've got a bit of a tradition on this podcast, and we're asking all of our guests the same question. And I'd be really interested to hear your response to this one. So the question is, if we gave you complete control of all UK media spaces and advertising, so all TV ads, or billboard ads, all online, every form of consumer facing advertising in the UK? If I gave you access to that for one day, what would your message be? And why?

Sam Zindel


I mean, it would, it would be a message of hope. It would be climate related and it would basically say we can do this. And it would wouldn't trivialise the endeavour but it would give everyone one thing that they could do. I think that's the challenge we face here, if everyone does a little collectively, we will achieve a lot.

And so I would, I would just have in bold, green type saying "we will reverse climate change in our lifetimes and there's things you can do to help". And then I probably have to point to a website if I did it to say go to his website to find out exactly what you can start doing.

And I think it's beginning to permeate, that type of message is beginning to permeate. But I would love for it to land and for the mainstream public to get to their own tipping point, we often talk about tipping points in kinds of climate like decline, but a tipping point in the number of people that are galvanised around this issue to take small steps, then we've done it, that's all we need. We need enough people just cross the start line and let's get moving. And we will reverse what we're seeing right now. And I would love to see that happen within my lifetime so that my kids can, can live a fulfilled and thriving life in balance with nature, because that's where we have to get back to.

James Harrington

Sam, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on the podcast today. Thanks for inspiring us and for sharing your thoughts. And we'll share all of the links and references that you gave us in the show notes. If you got any other final things you want to say?

Sam Zindel

Just thanks for having me. And this is such a great podcast. It's a real honour to be invited to come talk. So yeah, thanks. And it's been great to have a platform again to to share some of my thinking and ideas.

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