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Rachel Brown - Sustainable Business Network CEO


Rachel Brown is one of the most influential people in New Zealand’s business community. Having started the Sustainable Business Network in 2002, Rachel works hard to help make New Zealand a model for sustainability. In early 2018 she was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for years of service to sustainable business.

Q: What influenced you to get into sustainable business?

A: I had activist parents, but we grew up in Howick, which was going through massive development in the late 60s and 70s. It was going from a rural part of Auckland to a high end, expensive suburb. A lot of the people who lived around us in our neighbourhood were MDs of global corporations and my parents were lovingly called the Hippies of Howick.

My parents were very values based and when we were little we used to get taken out to stop roading developments through mangrove swamps. My Mum was a scientist, so she would be looking at sediment samples and showing them to us kids, talking about vertebrates and fish life.

All the while the next door neighbours’ parents were involved in car companies. So, I was able to see both sides and I could see the value of both.

I saw that business is really opportunity focused, they can see things really well and they make things happen fast, whereas on the negative side of the social movements tend to be the ‘no, no, no’ type, which is not very helpful. I wanted to look at how we could change things, rather than just say that we can’t do things.

Q: Why did you decide to start the SBN?

A: I started working in sustainable business just before 2000. Before I was running the environmental business network, I was working in sustainable business for [ex-Waitakere City Mayor] Bob Harvey, where I realised really quickly that the business community were wary of government agencies, who were seen as stopping progress.

At the time, I was trying to say “there is a brighter way of doing business that looks after people, and the environment, while doing well, so let’s work that piece out.” They used to always look at me and say “that’s really interesting, now look, there is a roading sign on the road, which is in the wrong place, can you get that moved.” That’s what they wanted to talk to me about. What I realised was that if business was going to follow anyone, they were going to follow each other, so I started an organisation of businesses that were doing this stuff. That was my part time… hobby… and then it eventually took over my life, so SBN was started in 2002 and it was a coming together of a bunch of different organisations. Businesses leading the charge was my mission.

Q: What does sustainability mean to you?

A: For me sustainable really is about the intergenerational and long-term. For that to work well you have to be able to live well, make money well, while looking after each other and the planet.

Q: What does SBN do?

A: We do a lot around connecting businesses and do a lot of events. Simply putting them in the same room, they can often find great things to do. They are like-minded, so they don’t have to explain where they are coming from because they are already on the same page.

We also inspire people, because in business there are very few companies out there who genuinely lead. Initially some-body’s example in one place, you may not think relates to you, but when you look at it, you think “we could take this part here, change it this way and use it”. Our awards (NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards) are also part of how we inspire businesses every year.

We have a big piece around “act” — encouraging our members to do things themselves. We pull them together to collaborate, from making resources together, creating best practice guidelines, to big systemic projects, like our Million Metres Streams project or the Circular Economy. This is the opposite of the Linear Economy, “Take, Make, Waste”. Take it out of the ground, make it into waste. The Circular Economy looks at how we can make it so it never goes into waste.

We also advise companies, so if they have no idea what they can do, we help them start.

Q: How many people work for SBN?

A: We have around 20 people working for us and we also have business connectors around the country who are not staff but affiliates.

Q: How do you fund it all?

A: We have an innovate funding stream. Membership is still the main funding for our work, but then we pull collaborations together, which are co-funded. The Million Metres Streams project is largely funded through crowdsourcing, which is working really well. Interestingly, we do get a lot of individuals, but the biggest source of funding for that is coming from business, not from individuals.

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