Ways in which local businesses, organisations and individuals can take action for a more sustainable future were highlighted at a conference run jointly by Reaseheath College and Cheshire East Council.

The ‘Achieving Net Zero’ conference, held at Reaseheath’s Nantwich campus, illustrated how the borough can achieve its net zero target – currently set for 2045 – through a collaborative commitment to lowering carbon emissions and driving sustainability while still maintaining growth.

The sell out event attracted over 100 attendees including leaders of significant multi-international companies, small and medium (SME) businesses and community groups and included a ‘field to fork’ networking lunch.

Messages for positive change were put forward by an inspirational panel including Sarah Mukherjee MBE, former BBC environmental correspondent and now CEO of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), the professional organisation at the centre of the sustainability agenda and influencer of public policy.

She told the conference: “SMEs are the engine of the UK economy. While it’s sometimes difficult to find the time, we must all think hard about our business’s path to sustainability.”

She also reminded delegates that a sustainability audit was becoming essential for tendering processes and for potential investors, and that there was increasing demand for employees with sustainability skills.

Councillor Sam Corcoran, Leader of Cheshire East Council, outlined local projects which have already made a significant difference to the borough’s carbon emissions including the conversion of large fleet vehicles to green hydrogen, energy efficient street lighting, and a long term modernisation project to deliver green energy to council owned properties through solar panels and low carbon heat pumps.

Iain Clarke, Reaseheath’s Assistant Principal (Land based and sustainability) said that the college’s sustainability strategy to achieve carbon net zero by 2035 had resulted in many positive projects which were well supported by students.

These included a ‘Field to Fork’ programme linking local school children with the production of locally produced healthy food, the reduction of single use plastic in college food outlets and investment into precision farming, robotics and data collection on the campus farm.

Reaseheath was already using energy from green sources and was advancing plans to install solar panels on buildings and to decarbonise its transport fleet.

Jeremy Herbert, Community Co-ordinator for Sustainable Nantwich, described local community schemes including a very successful bid to reduce plastic waste. He also spoke of the launch of a community garden on the Brookfield allotments and the progress of the Nantwich Mill Community Energy Company, which is working with CEC colleagues to generate hydro energy from the weir on Mill Island in the town centre and at another site which would benefit Reaseheath College.

Catherine Barton, Chester Zoo’s Field Conservation Manager, described how Chester had become the world’s first sustainable palm oil city in 2019 by influencing behaviour change within its local community and collaboration through supply chains.

She said: “Sustainability is a journey we’re all on. We can only get there through collaboration.”

Local companies illustrated their individual journeys towards sustainability. These included increased use of renewable energy, elimination of waste, use of locally sourced products and a switch to electric fleet vehicles.

Andrew Peters, Managing Director of Siemens Congleton, said that the manufacturing company had made many improvements over its site and that it was working on a redesign which would enable products to be more easily reused, repaired and recycled.

Jon Hopkins, Sales Director of Weetwood Ales in Kelsall, described his company’s payback from investment into solar power and more efficient fleet management. He also told delegates about a successful project which invited the local community to supply freshly picked ingredients to flavour gin.

Ben Waite, a graduate engineer from civil engineers Ringway Jacobs, outlined his company’s efforts to decarbonise within the construction industry and there was practical advice from Dave Green, Development Manager of Sharenergy Co-op, on the installation of solar arrays and hydro systems.

Support, advice and illustrations of the benefits of decarbonisation for SME businesses were supplied by Greville Kelly, Director of Groundwork,  Stephen Henry, Founding Partner of Positive Planet and  Paul Chapman, Growth Hub Manager at Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership.

Commenting after the event, Iain Clarke said: “This conference has been a huge success with many superb comments and feedback. Today we delivered inspiration, leading edge and innovation and I am immensely proud of how Reaseheath teams pulled together to deliver such an outstanding and meaningful sustainability forum.”

You can watch the conference here.