#5: Creating a Sustainable Brand, with ThePlant

This week we chat to Matt Utber, Founder and Creative Director of ThePlant, a sustainable branding agency and certified BCorp. We chat about balancing the need for reducing our consumption with the practice of building and growing brands, their journey to becoming a BCorp and their method for making positive change. If you're looking to build a sustainable brand, this episode's for you!

EcoSend Podcast #5
[00:00:00] James Gill: Hi there. Welcome to another episode of the EcoSend podcast. This is a podcast that happens every week where I speak to someone else who is on a journey to building a climate conscious business. Whether that's a founder, someone in the world of marketing, or someone who's just incredibly passionate and trying to drive some change in the wider world of climate and philanthropy. So each week I'm speaking to someone new. And each week I'm sure all of our listeners and myself are learning something new too. Each of these shows is about 30 minutes and hopefully every week people are coming away with learning something new, and bringing something else out that can help them make things a little bit better in their own lives and their own businesses.
[00:00:37] This week, I am incredibly excited to be joined by none other than Matt from The Plant. And Matt is the founder and creative director of The Plant which is a branding agency that is all about believing in a sustainable future. The Plant I believe, have created a refresh of some of the UK's most memorable and successful brands, including names that I'm sure we've all heard of, especially if you're in London. Eat, Jamie's Italian, Curzon Cinemas Master Chef, and even the Four Seasons. So welcome to the show, Matt. It's a pleasure to have you. Hi.
[00:01:10] Matt Utber: Yeah. Thanks James. It's a pleasure to be here.
[00:01:13] James Gill: Great to be chatting and Matt, I'm sure we all have a lot to learn for you, so I'm excited to dig in. Maybe you want to tell us a little bit about yourself and, and what you're up to.
[00:01:21] Matt Utber: Yeah, so The Plant's been running for about just over 15 years now. And we work predominantly in the art sector and the food sector; hospitality sector. Over the last five years we've tried to move towards building a business model for us that's really firmly directed towards a sustainable future for the planet.
[00:01:40] And that's predominantly involved things like becoming a B corporation, restructuring our process to include sustainability and looking for clients that have a similar attitude and a similar mindset to us. And just trying to roll out as much impact and as much change as we possibly can.
[00:01:58] James Gill: I see. I feel like there's a lot to dig into here. So maybe at starting place would be, why on this journey? What got you onto to this journey? Did you just wake up one day and think this seems like the right thing to do? Or was there any sort of moment that made you think, God, we've gotta really pay attention to this? Or was it an opportunistic thing...?
[00:02:17] Matt Utber: Yeah, it's difficult to pinpoint a moment. I've always been, you know, someone that's understood and tried to believe the science around the climate crisis that we're in at the moment. You know, I'd probably show my age here a little bit, but as a very young man, I went to the, the Rio Summit in 1991; the Eco Summit in Rio.
[00:02:37] And it was kind of an accident. We were just, myself and my girlfriend at the time were touring through South America and we just happened to be in Rio. And it sort of brought home the reality of the challenges that we face. And that was back in 1991. That's, you know, that's over 30 years ago. I was very, very young.
[00:02:53] James Gill: Wow. I mean, that's fascinating. I, so personally I'll admit I haven't heard about this. What was...
[00:02:58] Matt Utber: I think it might have been... I think it was the first, it may well have been the first COP summit. I think it was. And there was this sort of whole series of governments, leaders and, environmental activists gathered in Rio to plot a direction for the future.
[00:03:12] And I guess my own journey is, kind of related to that in the sense that there's been fits and starts. There's been, you know, an underlying passion to make change. The reality of trying to run a business and trying to pay people's wages and that sort of thing, which kind of occasionally supersedes that. So it's realistically, it's been a journey of ups and downs. Probably four years ago at The Plant where we really made an begin to make a really significant effort to really change the business and its model.
[00:03:39] And at that point we hired an environmental consultant.
[00:03:42] James Gill: Oh, really?
[00:03:43] Matt Utber: A woman called Sarah, Sarah Holloway. Yeah. Amazing woman who was recommended to us by a guy called Ed Gillespie who started an agency called Futtera; a really amazing agency and climate change design consultancy.
[00:03:58] And Sarah worked with us for about a year just trying to understand how we could affect the best change. And I think the best thing that we did through that whole process was to register as a B Corp; start that assessment process. And we started that, with Sarah's help, probably about three years ago now.
[00:04:16] It took probably two years to finally reach that assessment, and be accredited, because it is a fairly rigorous process.
[00:04:25] James Gill: Yeah!
[00:04:25] Matt Utber: Then since then, we've been working together to reformat our business model and process to try make sure that sustainability's really embedded in everything that we do.
[00:04:34] James Gill: Sure. There's a lot to unpack here. So, I mean, for a start, you mentioned working with a consultant to help with this. How did that come about? What was the goal there? Was it 'give us a green logo' or was it, how do we truly change everything'?
[00:04:48] Where do you start and stop I guess?
[00:04:49] Matt Utber: It's, it's a tricky one. There's a parallel to what we do. I think, because we're, I guess ultimately we're a consultancy as well. And I think the way that we often express what we do to our clients is, what we do is a form of business therapy. So what we do is we sit and people, well, it's true, we sort of sit people down. We give them a cup of tea. We talk about their past and the challenges they're faced and talk about their aims and their goals and then hopefully push them out the door at the end of the process; optimistically directed into the future.
[00:05:19] And I think it's like any form of therapy. You can't do that for yourself. You need someone externally to take a view on where you are and and where you need to go. And I think that was how we felt about how we were approaching our sustainability and environmental credibility. .
[00:05:35] So, so I just felt that we needed to sort of reach out to someone to get a view on what we were doing, and have them help us and guide us through that. And I'd certainly recommend that to anyone you know, who's considering either becoming a B Corp or changing their business model to hire someone or at least find someone who can give you some advice.
[00:05:56] James Gill: Yeah!
[00:05:57] Matt Utber: Because I think, you know, the day to day, it just keeps you honest as well. So we still speak to Sarah a lot. Sarah's become a really important part of our business. So we have, I think, fortnightly calls with Sarah and I think what happens in those fortnightly calls is even if over the last two weeks we've done relatively little, it's sort of just keeps us honest. And you know, she asks really important and often difficult questions about the trajectory of the business and whether we're actually doing the right thing. So it's just, I think it's just really important to have that. What do they... what do the mafia call them?
[00:06:31] Like the 'capo dei capi'? Like the 'consigliere',
[00:06:34] James Gill: Oh yeah.
[00:06:35] Matt Utber: It's the Godfather thing. It's someone just to give you advice all the time and keep you honest.
[00:06:40] James Gill: Not a tap on the shoulder or...
[00:06:43] Matt Utber: Well, not, not quite, no concrete boots yet, but...
[00:06:51] James Gill: I actually love your analogy. There's that being a bit like therapy for a business. I feel like there's so many parallels. It's actually quite fascinating. One of the things I said to you, Matt, before the show, that I wouldn't challenge you too much, but one thing I would challenge there though is having run a business for a long time myself.
[00:07:09] How does one justify spending money. I'm sure was it Sarah is, is not free. You know, when you can spend money on bringing a new business directly, maybe a new marketing person, maybe advice on all sorts of other more tangible things. Were there any challenges for you? I don't know if you've got that many stakeholders in the business that might have had conflicting views on that.
[00:07:31] Was there any controversy around, you know, we're gonna commit to bringing on someone who's gonna help us be more climate focused and climate conscious
[00:07:39] Matt Utber: I see what you're saying. Look, I just think, I think it was a really easy decision to make for us. We, across the business, we have a really consistent commitment to making a difference and to making change. And I think everyone really bought into it really early and there really wasn't any questioning about whether we should spend the money on Sarah. And I think it's, you know, as the percentage of our turnover, it was, it was a fairly small amount of money to spend for a fairly big impact, to be honest with you. And I think there are business benefits to being sustainable, to having a sustainability strategy.
[00:08:11] And I think, you know, being a B Corp and having that, that really. I get a quite famous quote mark, on every email that you send on your website on, and every time you talk to someone. It actually is a really powerful message to send to people and, and it actually is beneficial to the business in all sorts of respects financially as well.
[00:08:33] So, you know, there is a business case to be presented.
[00:08:39] And a lot of people and a lot of our clients who you wouldn't normally suspect of being positive in that sort of respect were, were really, actually really positive that we had made the plans with our sort of sustainability strategy.
[00:08:54] So yeah, there, there wasn't any sort of pushback at all. And I would suggest and recommend to everyone that's listening out to do it, you know, because it'll, it'll change the way that you think about your own business and it will change the way you think about business generally, and the impact that businesses can have on the world.
[00:09:11] James Gill: Is it as in specifically the B corp process?
[00:09:13] Matt Utber: I think , the bigger process is, is it kind of holds-up a mirror to your understanding of what your business is. And ask some really profound questions and things that, particularly as a small business, and I'm sure you are the same, you'll never ever ask; you've never even contemplated.
[00:09:30] It's a, it's a really rigorous process. It asks you questions, I think in six different categories, including things like governance and supply. It's really intense. I don't know how many, it depends on your business, but there's a, I think there's upwards of a hundred questions and they need a lot of work to answer
[00:09:46] James Gill: Right, right. On the surface, a hundred questions doesn't sound too bad. I mean, I've done some exams in the past and they've had a lot of questions, but if each one requires really deep, deep introspection at every level of the company, then yeah, there's...
[00:10:01] Matt Utber: Well it's kind of more than that. So you need to rewrite environmental systems, you, you know, around employment structures and, and how the business is actually managed. You know, we had to completely rewrite our code of ethics, completely rewrite our employee handbook. It took, it took a long, long time. I think the most telling thing for us was, the fact that we had to change our articles of association and resubmit them. And that the, the articles of association; within that you need to change the focus of the business from a shareholder focus business to a stakeholder focus business.
[00:10:34] And that doesn't sound like much, you know, it's only a couple of letters. But it makes a huge difference because what you're actually saying and what you are legally obliging the business to do is to make decisions , and particularly the bigger decisions that the business makes, for the benefit of all of the stakeholders of the business.
[00:10:52] And that includes not only the shareholders, but the employees of the business, but also all of your suppliers. And also perhaps your local community as well. Everyone that will be affected by the decisions that you make need to be considered and consulted in making those decisions.
[00:11:09] And I think that, I mean, it's kind of annoying in a lot of ways. As a shareholder, as the person that's driving the business. I guess your understanding is that you make the decisions for the benefit of you, but that, that completely changes the way you feel about the business and changes the way you feel about business generally, because you begin to understand the impact that the business can potentially have on society, but also on the environment.
[00:11:35] And I think that's a really important thing. In all business owners, in all corporate management structures to understand the business not only is there to support the shareholders, but it's there to support everyone around it. And it's there to understand the impact that it could potentially have, particularly on the environment that it supports.
[00:11:57] James Gill: That it is actually fascinating
[00:11:59] Matt Utber: Just, just a little story about,
[00:12:01] James Gill: yeah, yeah. Please do!
[00:12:03] Matt Utber: Just a little story about the actual impact that, that can have.
[00:12:07] About two months after we'd accredited as a B corporation. The project manager that had helped me through that whole process, resigned. And he resigned because he had found , he was a gamer, and he found a job in the gaming industry as a project manager for a game development company. Which was actually perfect for him. And normally as a business owner, when someone leaves you, you kind of feel a bit annoyed, a bit frustrated that you've helped them to grow. But honestly it was the first time in my career as a business owner that I actually felt an element of joy. That this person had actually grown and evolved and was moving onto something better and more appropriate for them. And I think that was because, you know, I'd begun to view The Plant as a stakeholder focused business rather than a shareholder focused business. So the aim of the business was to help people grow and evolve into something better for them, you know?
[00:13:08] So, yeah, so that's just a little story about how that has impacted who we are.
[00:13:13] James Gill: That is interesting. Because as you say, you're literally changing a couple of letters in one word there, but the ramifications of that are phenomenal. And, I mean, hearing you talk it through there, it's kind of fascinating.
[00:13:24] The default for business is to not be more like that. In some ways you could argue; why? Why is the default for businesses to not value any of those other aspects? How have we gotten so focused on shareholder value at all costs? And how is that the default? And that while there is a growing number of B Corps around, it's an infinitesimally small percentage of all of the total businesses in the world.
[00:13:49] And, that way of thinking is still relatively nascent, I guess.
[00:13:54] Matt Utber: I think it's a really good point. I think a lot of us, I don't know how you feel about your business, but I think there is a real sense of despair in our society and in our community generally around how we actually tackle and challenge the climate crisis. And I think a lot of us feel like we're trapped in this system. And that sort of shareholder focus on a business is a really good representation of the system that we feel that we're trapped in. You know, profit at all costs is just not... You know, I just don't feel that it's going to represent a way out of the climate crisis,
[00:14:29] James Gill: yeah!
[00:14:30] Matt Utber: I I certainly personally feel a sense of despair at the moment, you know, around COP 27 and whether actually it is possible for us to make a difference because changing the system is the only way I think we have a realistic chance to, to get out of this alive. Don't mean to be dramatic or melodramatic, but...
[00:14:49] James Gill: Yeah. I think there's also something, I think from my perspective, honestly we've been coming through this journey only over really the course of this year. Going from always just trying to do the right thing. But it really, in the last sort of three to six months, building our understanding of the world of the climate side of things and bringing that into the business more.
[00:15:08] And I just, I've found it fascinating... I think there's often this assumption that there's businesses and they make profit, and then there's the charitable sector which does all the good stuff and there's this divide. And it's almost like if charity tries to go too far into anything business it's criticized. And if business goes too far into charitable, it's like, 'Why are you doing that, what's the point'? Why are you wasting , money on things that could be profit. And I guess things like B Corp and just the growing despair which a lot of people I think it are facing, is waking people up that 'actually business can do good'. And if anything, I think I view some of the opportunities we have as a business to have a tremendously outsized impact compared to the number of people that work here. And when you combine that business acumen, that attitude to running a business and some of the things you learn about building a business and apply it to good causes. I think there can be some real magic that is unlocked.
[00:16:10] Matt Utber: Oh, you're absolutely right. I mean, it's probably worth talking to you a little bit about... , we set aside a significant part of our time, for I guess what you'd call side hustles. So over the course of absolutely over the course of the last 10 or 15 years, because The Plant as a branding agency is a fantastic vehicle to create and launch interesting concepts, well in all sorts of ways. So over the last 10 or 15 years, we've created a street food festival called Feast with a number of partners that was really successful that we then sold. I started a a, a bike cafe, a cycling cafe down in Putney, and then one in Balham called Dynamo with a number of partners as well.
[00:16:51] And through that we are creating the concepts, putting together a business model, building a little brand, and then launching it. But over the last sort of five years, we've swung that, all of that time and effort and energy into creating things not for profit. That support, you know, the challenges that we have around the climate crisis. So over the last probably three or four years we've been building something called the Oxygen Film Festival, which is a sustainable film festival. And I've gathered a team of other sort of businesses and partners, and we had a proof of concept this year. And the idea is to harness the emotional power... to get people to act on issues of sustainability. ,
[00:17:32] James Gill: Interesting.
[00:17:33] Matt Utber: And so we did a proof of concept this year. At Curzon Hoxton and I guess the elevator pitch for it would be secret Cinema for Good. So you build an immersive experience, you build an immersive experience around a film, and then at the end of the film, you get people to act on issues of sustainability or, you know, the STGs; the sustainable development goals, any one of them.
[00:17:56] So, and that's proved to be really interesting. And it's a really great way of spending any downtime we have in the studio on things that can make an impact, you know?
[00:18:06] James Gill: That's actually amazing! I'm fascinated. What were the actions people were taking off the back of that then? What did people do?
[00:18:13] Matt Utber: What's really interesting, it's kind of hard to explain. The film itself was a film called Nine Days. And the essence of the film was a really quite emotional film. But the essence of the film was; there's a whole series of people that had the potential to become human.
[00:18:30] And they were basically going through this interview process to become a human being. It's a really fascinating, quite beautiful film. A very emotional film. And there's a whole series of things that happen in the film. So the people get these Polaroids taken of them, you know, the characters within the film have a Polaroid taken of them, and then their profile mapped out.
[00:18:50] So we took photos, Polaroids of people as they came into the cinema. So they would carry their Polaroids around with them. And then once the, the screening had finished, they came out of the cinema, we'd set up a whole series of boards with actions that they could take that they had to then pin their Polaroid to.
[00:19:07] So it made it a very personal thing. So actually, they were pinning their own identity and committing to this action. And they're all sort of fairly loose actions around climate change. So it was: green transport, eating less meat. They're fairly basic at the moment because it was just a proof of concept, but seemed to work really well.
[00:19:26] So we're just looking now to sort of grow that. Yeah. So we are looking to grow that and actually we need funding for it. Because what we'd like to do is to employ people to run the festival now and sort of take it to the next stage.
[00:19:37] James Gill: Sure. Well we'll make sure we, I'm assuming there's a website or something that we'll definitely link that. I wanna go!
[00:19:43] Matt Utber: Yeah. They're great. Actually. The response that we had from, from people that attended was really, was really profound actually. Because you know, it's one of those things, you take a punt, don't you, on these concepts. You really do. And it's... it's quite nerve wracking! And watching people come out of the cinema, you think there's that point where you think, is this going know, and they came out of the cinema like, 'oh yeah, God,' these people... and people were really shaken by the whole experience, you know?'
[00:20:09] James Gill: Yeah. I mean it sounds like you're really put your neck out on the line and an event like that where you've never done it before. I could imagine would be nerve-wracking! You know, is everyone gonna come away and think, 'God, I'll never do that again!'
[00:20:21] Matt Utber: Oh yeah!
[00:20:22] James Gill: Or be in, in love with it. So
[00:20:24] Matt Utber: Totally. Sh*t scared I was. It was. So there's a whole series and in addition to that, we've got, you know, we mentor a small charity in South London called Blackfriars Settlement. And within that they have a mental health and wellbeing unit, and within that they have a small graphic design studio that's all staffed by people who've experienced mental health problems.
[00:20:45] So for about the last four or five years, we've helped to mentor and support them. Their director comes and sits in our studio a day a week. So we support them through all their projects. And when we fundraise for them as well, we're actually , if anyone's listening, we have a crowdfunder running at the moment and it's called 'Create Space'.
[00:21:03] And we're trying to raise money for them, just to support them and we're trying to raise 50,000 pounds for them to, to employ a manager for the business so that they can grow the business and support more people that are experiencing mental health. Because the statistics around mental health within the creative industry is actually pretty telling.
[00:21:23] James Gill: Really?
[00:21:23] Matt Utber: Yeah. A lot of people that work within the creative industry experience real issues with their mental health; you know, suicidal thoughts and all sorts of things. So we try and support them as well.
[00:21:32] James Gill: Yeah. Sure. Well, we'll definitely, yeah, we'll link to that as well. And get the word out as best we can. Sure.
[00:21:38] Matt Utber: So it's, it's interesting you say... I, I think that analogy between businesses and charities and having this sort of dividing line between them is really important. Because most businesses should be a fusion of trying to make profit. But also trying to help support your community and tackle the challenges we face.
[00:21:57] So it's interesting. I've never really thought about it like that, but it is an interesting way of thinking about it.
[00:22:03] James Gill: Yeah! Hopefully more. . well I guess more businesses will think more like that and more charities can think more about how they can bring some business concepts into their, their world too. Yeah. I know we're almost at time; often on these episodes we try and, see if anyone's got any advice for others.
[00:22:21] So I didn't know if you, I mean, you've already given a lot of advice, I I'm taking from all what you've been saying, but is there any specific nuggets of wisdom to leave?
[00:22:32] Matt Utber: I'm not sure if I have any wisdom advice. I try not to give advice. I just think... I don't know. I just think be honest with yourself and what you're trying to achieve. I think that's a really important thing. I think a lot of the time we try and kid ourselves that we're trying to do something or achieve something for ourselves when in reality, you know, we're not.
[00:22:48] But be honest with yourself. Be honest with your clients and the people that work for you. I think this idea, this kind of contemporary idea of transparency is really important. Let the light shine through kind of thing.
[00:23:00] James Gill: Absolutely. I mean, it's incredibly profound that. Thank you for that, I couldn't agree more though. I think it's too hard to not be transparent these days.
[00:23:08] Matt Utber: Yeah.
[00:23:09] James Gill: It's a lot easier when you just start, you are at one with what you believe and what you say. I think you'll get found out soon enough if you're not!
[00:23:16] Yeah, thank you so much, Matt. I honestly feel like I would love for this show to go on for another hour, but I know you've got a busy day ahead. So I would love to thank you for a lot of fascinating stories and wisdom there. I mean, I'd love to pick you up on some more things on, on another show, maybe in the future if we do another one of these.
[00:23:35] But I guess for now, if there's anywhere people want to go to find out more about you or The Plant or any of those projects; any specific places you would send them to go find out more?
[00:23:45] Matt Utber: Yeah, I think most of what we've talked about is on our website; just at theplant.co.uk, but then I guess if you can, there's also the Oxygen Film Festival and the Create Space crowdfund would also be great for you to link to in your podcast.
[00:23:57] James Gill: We absolutely will. Matt, thank you very much. Thank you so much for joining us, Matt. I hope everyone's enjoyed the show. We love doing this and hopefully you're enjoying this listening along. You can get the episode on all major podcast platforms. If you've enjoyed the show, please do let us know about it by leaving a rating on any of the podcast players out there. It really helps get more exposure to the show. If you have any future guest suggestions, we'd love to you in touch. Once again, I'd thank you Matt. Thanks very much and hopefully speak again soon.
[00:24:29] Matt Utber: Thanks, James. Take care.

Creators and Guests

Matt Utber
Matt Utber
Head Honcho at The Plant, and partner of The Dynamo @wearethedynamo
#5: Creating a Sustainable Brand, with ThePlant
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