I met up with Steve Taylor recently and he shared with me the story of his innovative business The Castle Climbing Centre in North London – Sarah Howcroft Rohantime
Steve originally trained as a Civil Engineer and spent 10 years in the construction industry before he started The Castle Climbing Centre. Set in a Victorian building, The Castle is a dedicated indoor climbing centre run by climbers for climbers and has gradually grown to become the biggest indoor climbing centre in the UK. In 2008 Steve announced his intention to make the Castle a sustainable business and in 2009 the company issued its first Sustainability Policy and Action Plan containing some ambitious targets.
Practical commercial experience of turning any business into a sustainable organisation is rare. I was very pleased when Steve agreed to answer some questions on his experiences.
Q. What was the motivation to start you own business and why a Climbing Centre?
I’d wanted to do something of my own for a while and I had some money put by for when the right opportunity came up. It was never just about making money though, I wanted to get out of the rat race and do something that held some meaning for me. As a climber, living in London and using local climbing walls, it was obvious that there was a gaping hole in the market for a big, modern style climbing centre in the capital city. I always hoped that, as the business matured, it would allow me the chance to do more climbing and travelling of my own, as well as earning me a living. So it was a lifestyle choice as much as a an investment and to a large extent it’s worked out that way.
Q. Having made the decision to start the Climbing Centre in 1993 did you have a very clear vision for it or has it evolved over the years?
We started off with this colossal building in the form of The Castle and we were only ever going to be able to develop it in stages so, to start with we opened a relatively modest climbing centre in the most dramatic part of the building. We had a grand plan including a large gymnasium and other facilities but that plan proved impractical once I’d got to grips with what really made the business tick and where our strengths lay. The climbing walls spread organically through the building as money allowed but we had a couple of phases of development where we needed to build new floors, stairs and facilities. The Castle is now four times the size it was when we opened but we still have room to expand. By 2005 I think I knew pretty much what I wanted the finished centre to look like and we’re planning the final stage of development right now, so the project should be more or less complete within a year or two.
Q. When and Why did you decide to take the business down a more sustainable development path?
In Summer 2008 I woke up to climate change. It was a bit of a brutal awakening because I think I’d been in a kind of tunnel for years. Setting up the business and then becoming a parent had meant that I hadn’t really looked at the world around me for ten years. I suspect a lot of people are still in a similar position, so it’s not surprising that so few of them really engage with the issues surrounding sustainability.
I got to the point where I didn’t need to work full time and the kids weren’t keeping me awake half the night, so I’d started reaping the rewards of my toil and I was climbing regularly and really enjoying the freedom. However, that also gave me time to think and look at the world around me. That was when I woke up! It was quite frightening really, especially because the more I looked into it the worse the picture got. As if climate change wasn’t bad enough, the resources our industrial society relies on are running out; Not just Peak Oil but peak everything! I felt a very urgent need to do something to reverse the trends.
I made all the changes I could do easily to my own lifestyle but I realised that was a drop in the ocean. I have several friends who are environmental activists and I wondered if I needed to go down that route. However, after I’d calmed down a bit I realised that, while demonstrations and actions against polluters are necessary, they’re often perceived as very negative and tend to turn people off, unless there’s a positive alternative being proposed. The problem is that there aren’t enough positive examples around to inspire people, so I set out to provide one.
Q. What inspires you to act on sustainability?
My fundamental motivation comes from a sense of responsibility for my children. They’re too young to understand what’s happening or do anything about it but I worry what kind of future they have in store for them if our industrial society simply carries on destroying our environment. I’m constantly being encouraged to provide for my children’s future by purchasing financial products, everything from life insurance to wedding insurance. But what use will money be to them if our biosphere can’t sustain them any more? Sustainability is a catch all word encompassing many things and it means something different to everybody who uses it.
For some it just means long term financial security, but for most it includes living within the constraints of our planet’s ecosystems. For me sustainability has to mean humans living as part of the natural environment and not separate to it, feeding off it! But, because these are global issues we’re tackling the solutions have to be fair for everyone on the planet or they won’t work.
For my business though, solutions have to be economically sustainable otherwise it’ll go bust. What I find inspiring is other people who are taking positive action. It’s easy to feel isolated and get the impression that nobody cares about the fate of our planet or our children, so I need to spend time with other people who are taking an interest, making an effort, sharing ideas and ultimately making a difference. It makes me feel that we can make a better world if we work together.
Q. I know you have a café and a shop within the climbing centre how did these two areas of your business convert to a more sustainable model?
The cafe has been a useful showcase for our policy because the changes are much more apparent to customers than most of the things we do behind the scenes in the climbing centre. We’re aiming to be organic and ultimately vegan with as much food grown in our own garden as possible, but it’s hard to change everything overnight without reducing the quality of the service. We’ve made changes slowly so we have time to research each new product we bring in and phase out it’s unsustainable equivalent at the same time. It’s not easy because we’re trying to tackle lots of different issues at the same time.
We’re sourcing products that are:
Packaged sensibly so that the packaging can be reused or recycled.
Tasty and appealing to customers.
Not so expensive that customers won’t buy them.
That represents a very tall order when we’re used to cheap packaged food with a carbon footprint a mile wide. There are inevitably compromises to be made. Apart from fresh vegetables, few of our supplies can be found locally. Also, ethical products can come from disparate sources so we end up with a lot of different deliveries which isn’t great for food miles. It’s something of a juggling act and there’s no simple solution. We’re still working on it.
Tackling waste has been one of our success stories and a lot of that is down to the products we source for the cafe. A lot of products now come in containers that get returned to the suppliers for reuse. Composting food waste in the garden has eliminated that waste stream completely, although we needed professional advice to get that working properly.
We’ve virtually eliminated waste to landfill from The Castle but we’re not going to stop there. We need to reduce the amount of packaging that goes for recycling still further. Ultimately, the best solution is using food grown on site or very locally and we’ve committed a lot of effort to doing that through our growing project in the garden.
We also work with local sustainable growers to get the most sustainable food we can. However, to fully utilise local produce you have to be able to prepare the food yourself and use seasonal produce. Our kitchen used to be very basic because we have more demand for snacks than proper meals but we’ve built a proper kitchen now so we can start making the most of local, unpackaged ingredients and also start preserving some of the surplus produce from our garden. With the menu changing every day depending on what’s available, we need staff who can really cook rather than just people preparing food to a set menu so we’ve brought in more skilled staff too. Of course there are cost implications to all of this and we’ve had to put the prices up but there are mitigating factors.
The fresh local food, especially what we grow ourselves, is very good value, making snacks ourselves rather than buying them in saves money and we’re able to provide healthy, tasty food that justifies the price rise. The shop is a fairly recent project for us because we always used to rent out the shop to specialist retailers. However, we couldn’t find anyone who was prepared to work with us on the sustainability front so we decided to do it ourselves. Initially, we’ve concentrated on getting good staff in and learning the retail business.
As with the cafe we need to take the move to sustainability one step at a time. We’re trying to concentrate on products from suppliers who also have a good environmental policy but we’re wary of discontinuing popular lines until we can find a more sustainable one that will be equally valued by customers. We’re aiming to produce labelling that tells customers about each product’s sustainability credentials so that they can decide for themselves what’s important. Next we want to start talking to our suppliers about how we can work together to improve the environmental footprint of their products. We don’t have a big enough turnover to have huge buying power but, as the busiest climbing centre in the UK, we are a very prominent showcase.
For a start, we want to talk to hardware manufacturers about supplying non-anodised equipment in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of the production processes. One little success we’ve had so far is building a ventilated drying cupboard to store our hire equipment in, to avoid the need for antimicrobial sprays. Most hire equipment in sports facilities is sprayed with some fairly unpleasant chemicals from an aerosol to keep the equipment hygienic. However, rapid drying is a more effective and more sustainable way of controlling microbes and their attendant odours. So far this experiment is working well. Ultimately, we would like to provide a way that customers can get clothing and equipment repaired or refurbished rather than throwing it away or recycling it. That’s likely to be less profitable than selling new products so I can’t see it taking off in high street stores, but we see our shop and cafe as a part of the jigsaw puzzle we’re trying to piece together to make the overall business sustainable rather than just a profit centre.
It may seem to negate the point of a retail business to encourage people not to buy, but it depends on how you look at it. Several responsible manufacturers and retailers give a proportion of their sales to environmental charities. An alternative would be to accept a reduced income from refurbished products instead. We’re still testing out a lot of these ideas, so if you wait a couple of years you might see some interesting variations on the traditional retail model developing at The Castle.
Q. Did your members support your policy for change from the start?
We’ve had a lot of very positive feedback from customers and some offering help and advice too. I think the majority are happy that we’re doing the right thing as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them too much, but I suspect that some of it rubs off and they’re more likely to make little changes in the own lives when they’ve seen a positive example at The Castle. It’s certainly got people talking about the issues. There are one or two grumbles in the background about us sticking to being a climbing centre and not preaching to people, but they’re not so loud because I think they know they’re outnumbered.
Q. What is the biggest driver for change in your company?
Our staff are the main driver for change because they really want to see this happen. The move to a sustainable business strategy came from me initially and it’s fully supported by the board of directors. However, we couldn’t do it if we didn’t have the commitment of most of our senior managers. I didn’t know how many of our team had strong feelings about environmental issues until I gave them an opportunity to contribute. We seem to have a critical mass of staff on our team, and not just senior managers, who care passionately about what we’re doing and they keep the whole project moving forwards. I keep an eye on how things are progressing and try to keep things in line with our strategy but the vast majority of the initiatives and hard work comes from committed individuals within the organisation. We have some very talented people working at The Castle and some of them only work for us because of our commitment to sustainability. Others would have moved on by now but now can’t imagine working anywhere else.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you face professionally?
The hardest thing to do in any business or community is to change the culture, but that’s exactly what we need to do to move to a more sustainable way of living. Although we have some very committed people in our team, it’s inevitable that the majority of staff and customers just go with the flow. They’re happy that we’re doing the right thing but they don’t see the bigger picture. Our key strategies for managing the change have been to involve people and communicate everything we’re trying to achieve effectively. We want to involve them by ask for their ideas then supporting them to implement them. We also aim to communicate what’s happening on all fronts so everyone can see how they fit into the bigger picture. However, if I’m honest, I don’t think we’ve done either of these things as well as we could and they’re the two areas we still need to work hard on. In any case changing a culture takes time and it will be a while yet before we know if our efforts have been successful.
Q. What is the one piece of advice you would offer to others seeking to create change?
Tell your team what you think the problem is and ask them how they think you can solve it together. Listen to their ideas even if they don’t match your own and let them take ownership of the project. You need a coherent strategy and a way of communicating it effectively but don’t wait till that’s in place to get started. Just make a start, let the ideas flow and develop some enthusiasm for a long but exciting journey. You need to be prepared to make mistakes, accept them and move on because no-one can draw you a map. Everybody’s journey will be different but there are other companies and organisations out there making the same commitment and they’re always ready to give support and share ideas.
Q. In your own words Zero Waste, Water Neutral, Carbon Neutral by 2015. Are you going to do it?
Probably not! The important thing is to see how close we can get. The gap that’s left when we’ve done our level best is where governments need to apply their efforts to bridge the gap. I think we can get quite close though. We’ve pretty much hit the zero waste target already, which surprised a lot of people. The water target has been revised because I discovered that purifying our own water is far less energy efficient than using the mains supply. However, we do expect to halve our mains water demand at the same time as irrigating an acre of horticultural land. If everyone in the UK could do that then our water supply in the UK would be sustainable. The problematic one is always going to be carbon emissions. We can probably more than halve our energy consumption but we can’t eliminate it. The only solutions are:- Micro generation on our site, which is problematic for all sorts of reasons – Offsetting, which I don’t believe can be done genuinely, but I’m still researching some of the better ideas – A zero carbon electricity grid, which may happen, but not by 2015, if at all. I think this knowledge can inform the debate about what the government needs to do if it’s serious about creating Zero Carbon Britain. That said, I’m not going to admit defeat until 2015. I’ve learned a lot in the last two and a half years and I’m going to learn a lot more in the next four so we’ll just have to see.
The Castle Climbing Centre – Green Lanes, London, N4 2HA