3 Questions With: Nigel Salter, Founder, Upland

Name: Nigel Salter

Company/Organization: Upland Consulting

Role/Function: Founder and Strategy/Sustainability Adviser

What He’s Currently Working On: I recently stepped away from Salterbaxter, the sustainability strategy, corporate purpose and communications consultancy that I co-founded about 20 years ago, which is now part of Publicis Groupe. I’m now starting a new consultancy called Upland, which has two areas of focus: sustainability strategy and communications, and forming partnerships, initiatives and collaborations that tackle the current global consumption system, which is just crazily unsustainable. We want to work both on a systems level as well as a company level. On the consumption side in particular, there are a lot of really exciting things we want to do around digital content that connects sustainability issues to young, digital consumers. Our plan is to partner with organizations and pull together coalitions to change the way the world thinks about consumption — it’s kind of a mission to force the pace and substance on SDG 12.

1. What was the “aha” moment that sparked your interest in social impact?

I'm afraid I didn't have a moment when I suddenly woke up and started thinking about all of these issues. It was gradual. When we started Salterbaxter back in 1998, I remember feeling like business was too often being described as the bad guy. I felt there was a lot being missed, that business could be a powerful force if it did things right. Sure there was “big, bad business” — but that was the extreme and there was also a big bit in the middle that was actually trying to do the right thing and was starting to wake up and understand the issues.

So that was my moment of understanding — seeing that business was starting to move in the right direction and feeling that we could go and help accelerate it. Rather than the big conversion moment, it was just seeing that the lay of the land was shifting.

And if you look at some of the really impressive things that have happened in the last several years when it comes to social responsibility, these have often been initiated by business. The scale and the organizational capacity they bring to these problems means that when they want to do something, they do it really well.

2. How did you break into the social impact space?

We started Salterbaxter as a communications agency, and our second client was EMI Records. At the time, I didn't fully understand just how sophisticated a company like EMI could be across a range of social responsibility issues. For instance, they had massive problems dealing with the toxic waste from producing CDs. Remember, this is the pre-digital era. EMI was producing CDs and they were just really nasty things. They also had a historical business in lighting.

But even way back then, they were really clear-sighted about what they wanted to do and the ways in which they wanted to improve their impacts and play a more positive role in society. We even won a Design Effectiveness award with them for a program that was all about reducing waste by reusing the off-cut material left behind after printing record and CD sleeve artwork — it was amazingly progressive for a big listed company at the time.

Having EMI as a client proved to Penny (Baxter) and I that there was a significant business need around these issues. From that moment, Salterbaxter moved into what was then called corporate social responsibility — looking at how business could have a better social and environmental impact.

Then in 2006, we were starting to see signs of the financial crisis coming. Most of our friends and advisors were saying, “Yeah, obviously you need to get out of CSR now because clearly that's going to be the first thing to go when the financial crisis hits.” But our belief was the opposite — that it would become even more important that businesses be ethical, that they have social worth, that they have a positive impact, that they support social causes and that they contribute to society. And luckily, that proved to be the case. So from 2007 on, Salterbaxter started focusing only on sustainability and corporate social responsibility issues, helping companies completely rewire themselves for a different stakeholder world.

The fact that you’re now seeing mega-businesses make absolutely huge changes that impact pretty much everybody  — that gets me very excited.
— Nigel Salter

3. What most excites you about social impact these days?

Having just had a break, it’s quite good to think about that question after 20 years. I have to say that as much as I enjoyed it, I was inevitably getting a little bit jaded. But actually, what makes me most excited is that very big businesses are making very big changes. And as much as I love small companies that do amazing things, building from scratch new propositions in social impact… when a huge business makes a commitment, that changes the whole system.

Take H&M and their commitment to go circular, or L’Oreal’s work in packaging and sourcing, or Maersk’s hugely ambitious commitment to decarbonize logistics. The fact that you're now seeing mega-businesses make absolutely huge changes that impact pretty much everybody  — that gets me very excited. There is a real shift from business saying, “we just need to make ourselves look a little bit better” to a proper, fundamental reengineering of operations to deliver completely different outcomes that change how the whole supply chain works. They are realizing that this is not just reputation management and reduction of CO2 emissions — which, of course, everyone needs to do. But it's completely new ways of doing business, completely new ways of operating.

The other thing that's both daunting and exciting is that we still have a very, very long way to go. There are some big problems and challenges out there that need to be solved — in particular, the fact that our global consumption model is unsustainable and completely unfit for purpose. But there are more people in business who understand the sustainability agenda. They understand what sustainability really means and what they should be doing to get it working inside the business world. And if you connect these pieces together — which is partly what we’re trying to do with Upland — if you can bring people together and build coalitions to help tackle some of these issues, it could be very exciting. That’s plenty to keep me motivated in this space.

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