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FT REPORT – GLOBAL TRAVELLER 2007: Managing to keep the business clean

By Jill James, Financial Times
Published: Oct 15, 2007

You may think that a builder of luxury yachts would be the last person to be either interested or passionate about the environment, but you would be wrong.

Amsterdam-based Hugo Le Breton cares very much about climate change and about his own carbon footprint.

Mr Le Breton left his job in environmental and social impact management with Shell in The Hague two years ago – although he still does some consultancy work for them – to build high-performance yachts that combine speed, comfort and fun. The yacht, the SIG45, can be used for fully-crewed racing or for short-handed cruising.

Like so many people running small businesses today, Mr Le Breton needs to travel regularly in Europe for his company, Le Breton Yachts. His architects are in France, his boat builders are in Italy and his interior designer is on the Isle of Wight. Trying to square that particular environmental circle is no easy challenge.

“It’s quite difficult,” admits Mr Le Breton. “I cannot avoid travel, but I try to take the train whenever I can – high-speed links are improving all the time – but it is expensive to travel that way if you can’t always book in advance and if you are running a young and growing business.” He leaves the question of expense unanswered.

“I try to offset my carbon emissions through Green Seat, a company set up by a school friend,” he says. “I have looked into this quite carefully and have friends who are very environmentally aware, friends to whom I can turn for advice. Offsetting emissions is a somewhat contentious topic and there are risks involved if you don’t know who you’re dealing with. But in the end I decided that I’d rather do something than nothing.”

When he decided to add up his total CO 2 emissions as a result of flights over the past 18 months – all of which he has offset through Green Seat – it came to 30.1 tonnes, offset at a cost of €360. (This includes the flights of his architects when they visit the yard).

He uses Skype, the internet telephone software, as much as he can and uses a Skype camera to correspond with suppliers and business contacts around the world, including South Africa and Argentina.

“The internet is a really powerful tool that saves an enormous amount of travel,” he says. “My designer and I don’t even have to sit in the same room. We can just scribble away on the screen.”

When he has to travel to boat shows – he was in Cannes last year – he drove from Amsterdam rather than flew. Not ideal, he admits, but probably the lesser of two evils.

He is thinking constantly about the products he sources for the SIG45, which he describes as a high-quality product with the latest in racing multihull design. It can use an electric hybrid system that saves on fuel. The wood in it is Forest Stewardship Council-sourced wherever possible, so it comes with the imprimatur of responsible management of the world’s forests.

However, Mr Le Breton says, to build a boat that is light and fast he has had to use carbon fibre and resin. And, as every schoolboy knows, carbon fibre is not an environmentally-friendly product. “There’s not a lot we can do about that – although we are looking at hemp,” says Mr Le Breton. “The materials we use do reduce chemical emissions, but need to be cured in an oven, which uses energy: it is always a question of trade-offs. Office energy is supplied from renewable sources, and we are investigating possibilities to do the same in the yard.

“At the end of the day the boat should stand on its own merit. It’s no good saying this is a really great product if it’s sub-standard,” he says.

Nevertheless, this is one former executive who has never owned a car and is at least trying to make dreams of a greener life on the ocean wave a reality. * Matt Fearnley, managing director of London’s Brighter Public Relations group, recently moved house to be closer to his office. While this is a step that many executives take, Mr Fearnley’s home in Fulham, west London, is still a 35-minute trot to his Hammersmith workplace. But, instead of taking the Tube, he prefers to walk.

The 43-year-old married MD says his wife also walks to her teaching job. “For years we’d been using trains and we thought there must be a better way – and a way of avoiding delays.”

He says he was very conscious of trying to avoid having an impact on the environment. Since Mr Fearnley started his role with Brighter PR six months ago, he has also implemented a recycling policy for the company. Paper, bottles and other plastics from the office kitchen are all recycled and he also strongly encourages everyone to avoid printing out emails and faxes.

But how does he square leading a travel PR company with the need to travel frequently? Mr Fearnley says he looks at the environmental and climate change aspect in three ways; as three tiers of responsibility.

He says: “We can’t change the world, but when you look at the business tier, that is far easier to change. And then of course the next tier is how you change yourself and what you do.”

He says: “We have to travel a lot – we have clients all over the world. We start off by booking only electric cars when we are in London – we don’t do the chauffeur driven petrol-engined ones any more.

“If we send someone to Korea we pay for their carbon emissions. It comes off the company’s bottom line, but it makes sense. For example, when we travelled to Edinburgh for a client meeting recently we paid a £1.08 tax on that.”

He points out that the company has airlines as clients. “But we always tell them what we think they should be doing,” he says.

“We have one south-east Asian airline client who is enthusiastic about tackling climate change and constantly asking ‘How do we reduce the damage?’ It sees the environment as another bottom line. The company knows it has a responsibility to things other than money.”

So who do the “green” taxes that Mr Fearnley’s company pays go to – and are they effective?

“We don’t have the environmental knowledge ourselves so we go to the gatekeepers who we see as redistributing our tax in a correct way – in our case, www.climatecare.org. To some extent we have to take it as a matter of faith that companies like this will right the wrongs environmentally.”

But how do his colleagues and office staff feel about the company’s green policy? Has Mr Fearnley made a difference? He laughs. “I almost feel that they’ve made a difference to me,” he says. It’s a relatively young office and we all feel the need to do this. They don’t think it’s a drag to collect bottles and call the council to make disposals. They are actually asking me what more they can do.”

He adds: “I have worked with larger companies with older staff and they were definitely less enthusiastic about green ideas.”

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