Interview with Mark Shayler, Director at Ape, innovation, Sustainability and Design

03 July by Miriam Heale


Part of our Global Sustainability Leaders Inteview Archive, this interview dates from 2015

As part of our series of Global Sustainability Leader Interviews, ALLEN & YORK were delighted to interview, Mark Shayler, Director at Ape, an innovation and sustainability consultancy, about how he became involved in Sustainability and what he believes are the upcoming trends within sustainability careers.

Who or what inspired you to go into a career in sustainability?

When I was nine years old I did a school project on Greenpeace and the whale, I came across the North American quote; “When the Last Tree Is Cut Down, the Last Fish Eaten, and the Last Stream Poisoned, You Will Realise That You Cannot Eat Money.”  This struck a chord with me and I began my interest in the environment.

As I got older it dawned on me that people only talked about the ‘negative’, the constraints – don’t do this, don’t do that – what I became interested in is; how we can create ‘better’ and use fewer resources.

I completed a degree in Environmental Science, worked for Bradford Council going door-to-door with local businesses, specialising in cost savings and eco-innovation, and following that, ASDA as an Environmental Manager.  However, I wasn't cut-out to be inside a big business like that. The politics were stifling. I wanted to do my own thing.

For the last 15-16 years I’ve worked for myself and focused on how design can make things better. I have always been curious about how things are put together and how they could be improved. I spent time with designers and engineers, I am self-taught, but I have a blend of analytical and creativity skills and enjoy solving problems and looking at things from a new angle.

At Ape Consultancy we work with the biggest and smallest companies to bring sustainable innovation into their businesses, products, processes and business models, and to-date have saved our clients over £120,000,000 from the environmental work we’ve done with them. If sustainability is costing you money then you're doing it wrong.

What would you like to see across sustainability careers and education in the future?

Due to the changed financials of higher education there is a risk that we push engineering at the expense of art.  Art is really important as it removes rather than imposes boundaries. I say this as a committed STEM advisor keen to see students study science, engineering and maths the blend of the two is an amplifier.

We need to have broader definitions and see the synergies between disciplines.  In the past we have focused on creating specialist Sustainability roles, but you don’t need to have a ‘green’ role to champion sustainability - you can take your ethics into the job that you are doing.  This mirrors the move from CSR to CSV (Creating Shared Value), building sustainability considerations into every role and keeping it broad-based.  

Start with kids, focus on subjects that they are good at, rather than subjects that their parents think they should do.  Don’t just churn out graduates, look at more apprenticeships and put a higher value on practical skills.  Educate children to look at every aspect of their work and life from a sustainable perspective.

What do you see as trends within Corporate Sustainability in the next 5-10 years?

Clearly the circular economy is a current trend. This is good. But we need to be careful that the term doesn't become another trinket in the jewellery box of business lingo. There are really interesting examples of circular business models and these are increasing revenues as well as reducing resource risks. These need celebrating in the boardroom as well as at environmental conferences.

We also need to embrace new thinking, start-up culture and the seriousness of our current situation. Not just environmentally, we have 3 billion people moving from working to middle class in the next 15 years. Yes, this will increase resource use, but it also threatens to make our economy less important. Who will make the things we need? We need to re-shore manufacturing. Urgently, before our manufacturing skills are lost into retirement.

We work with some of the largest of corporate businesses (e.g. Samsung, Coca Cola) and some of the smallest. We are regularly asked "how can we think like a start-up, become more nimble?"  This got us thinking and so we are piloting something called  ‘rebel cell’.  This involves developing start-ups inside larger businesses; replicating the passion, determination and risk that you see in start-up businesses, embedding a group within the business, who have the ability to challenge the norms and go against the grain.  These cells produce a number of business ideas that are then hot-housed to produce a product or deliver a service over 6 months and then feed their entrepreneurial ideas and successes back into the business.   As Sir Ian Cheshire, ex-CEO of Kingfisher said “if you don’t disrupt your business model then someone else will”. I whole-heatedly agree.

What is the future for sustainability careers in the next 5-10 years?

The biggest challenge is Governance. The "greenest government ever" weren't and we see the real risk of investment in renewables slowing down considerably.  Also the uncertainty in terms of EU membership will have an impact. Removing ourselves from the EU would have a significant effect on UK sustainability efforts and the sector as a whole. Hence the importance of mainstreaming what we do.   We need innovation and creativity.  Hot topics will include; bio-diversity loss, resource constraint, raw material quality, the growth of the leasing economy and a return to manufacturing in the UK.

Skills to drive sustainability, include being; commercial, creative and innovative.  We still need to record the data, but measuring and controlling is not the answer.  Think BIG and challenge traditional models.

Read More Global Sustainability Leader Interviews