Sustainability and overcoming industry issues: A conversation with Appleton Woods
- Can you please give me a brief overview of the company as well as its core missions and values?
Appleton Woods is a family-run business created in 1967. We are a really technical team of life science graduates and we supply life science consumables reagents and equipment. But crucially we focus on customer care and that’s very core to what we do.
In terms of what we offer is market-leading brands such as Corning and Zeiss etc as well as our own high-quality Appleton brands that were developed over the last 10/15 years. In terms of our values; enjoyment, honesty, care, countability, collaboration and growth. These are on the wall of Appleton Woods in our head office in Birmingham, as soon as you come in the door you are greeted with these values but it’s not just something we put on the wall or publish in the market. In fact, we haven’t shared this with the market, we tend to just try and live by them and it’s how we conduct ourselves in our interactions with each other as a business but also with our customers and our suppliers as well. Like evident with our recent award for a great place to work so I think it’s proving to be a useful way to do business with people and how to employ people.
- Great, and in terms of the range of products and services you guys offer can you give a description of them and what they might be?
Yeah of course! Appleton Woods started out providing metal canisters to predominant university laboratories and we quickly became key suppliers to the clinical market because we were the first Sterlin distributors (things like Petri dishes, urine containers etc.) and for the last 56 years, our range has really grown from strength to strength from there. We’ve always kept our customers at the core of that, so we have developed as our customer demands have developed as they developed in line with science.
For example, in 1999 we became Corning distributors and we still to this day are premier Corning distributors in the UK so we are proud to supply their growing range as well and grow with them. More recently, we now supply things like Zeiss microscopes, automated liquid handlers and flow robotics which really complement the rest of the range. We’ve also committed to investing in the support for those and just having access to those ranges and supplying them to the market with the support to make those informed decisions to buy that equipment and to use them as well. We recently invested in some specialists (automation, equipment etc.) These specialists also know the market so it’s not just about the products it’s about setting it up, planning out a lab and support coming out of university.
We’ve also followed our employee guidance as well on the desire to be more sustainable, so the product range has really gone in that direction. We have a 2 and 5-year plan to develop our product range and a part of that is becoming environmentally friendly with those products. In these new product launches, we try to ensure each new product has a sustainable element to it or an improvement on a current product. This might be how it’s manufactured, shipped or packaged but it has to have an element of sustainability for us to bring it on board.
- You mentioned sustainability, and I know that that’s a significant focus for many businesses. What’s one sustainable practice you guys are quite proud of and you guys would tend to push quite a lot in your products or the way you guys operate?
So we have a carbon reduction plan, which will soon be published on our website. So that kind of details the operational changes that we’re making in terms of our vehicles moving to hybrid or charging points at the offices etc.
We also engage with MyGroup. So I was the first MyGroup ambassador. A couple of years ago, the rest of the team followed suit and we have a lot of ambassadors within the Appleton Woods team now. The carbon reduction plan really is geared towards sustainable introductions and I’d say the most impactful one we have is, is our appCYCLE box which is a recycling box for laboratory waste. So that’s been certainly the most anticipated and I say well-received product from the market.
- Regarding the changes in the business landscape, how has your company coped in recent years, with Covid and other sorts of issues going on?
Yeah, it’s been a challenge for everyone involved in science and most markets. But science seemed to be hit because it was a biological issue that was going on globally that had an increased demand on supply of the products that customers needed. So I would challenge you to find any laboratory that wasn’t impacted by shortages over the last few years. It was a perfect, or probably imperfect Storm of Covid, Brexit and Blocked canals and hiked up delivery charges, and shipping charges. It was just a bit of a mess.
To help overcome this, we really invested very heavily in our warehousing. So we added a second floor, a mezzanine level to our warehouse to increase our capacity to hold more products. We had to increase the racking, we had to invest in new forklifts and train our operatives and there was a lot of investment put into just increasing our capacity so we could hold more product for our customers so we let fewer people down. Of course, people got let down, but we tried to minimize that impact on our customers. We also accepted/ placed orders for products in larger quantities. So 40-foot containers were a common site and still are Appleton Woods arriving with lots and lots of product, which had a great impact actually. We’ve managed to keep operating that way because it massively reduced the carbon footprint of our products as well. When you ship a 40-foot container by sea as opposed to smaller shipments by air, it causes a large reduction in the carbon footprint.
But we’ve actually kept that practice and we still order in that way. I believe we still offer excellent service to our customers in terms of supply. I would say we’re hopefully a safe pair of hands. As I said before, obviously there will be exceptions to that, which are unavoidable, but we are very much geared up for if another catastrophe is around the corner. We should be in a much better position to handle that as well.
We’ve also rolled out projects like the biotech purchasing program, which enables customers to buy on standing orders, which means we actually have the stock in our warehouse. But there are two benefits to this. The customer is not going to be without it because we have it in our warehouse ready to ship. So if there is another Covid their stock is protected but it also means that they don’t have to store it on site. So a lot of our customers tend to be spun out from universities or new biotech which don’t have a lot of storage space and need us to sort of shoulder that burden, in terms of the storage as well. So some great impacts came from what was this very difficult time.
- I understand that you have a recycling program, can you share some details? specifically about that program, you guys have?
So our appCYCLE as we’ve deemed it is the flagship in our sustainable product range. It’s a recycling box which can accept plastic from any manufacturer or of any type. Providing for the non-hazards the crucial bit. But actually recycling probably should be the last resort. So better to use products which use less plastic or we can reuse them, those kinds of things.
As I said the flagship is the appCYCLE, but actually we’ve made some really strong developments in other areas, which means we’re actually putting less plastic into that recycling box. For example, our tip boxes use 10% less plastic than other brands that we’ve measured against. But we can actually go a stage further than that, our next generation of tips will go away with the plastic box entirely. We’ll actually have a fully cardboard-racked tip box, which is quite novel in the industry and it means you can actually just flatten the tip box, put that in your cardboard recycling and there is no plastic waste or very little plastic waste that needs to go into the upcycle. As I said, we offer recycling as a last resort.
What sets us apart here in terms of this upcycle box compared to other services that customers have seen on the market is the flexibility. We can accept plastic from any manufacturer. We’re not limited to just our products. It can be from any of the brands on the market. But we can also accept a wide variety of products as well. So any laboratory plastic provider that is non-hazardous. There’s even an option to buy back the recycled plastic once it’s recycled by our partner in MyGroup, in the form of laboratory furniture or chairs we’ve seen for hospitals, for children. Or board tables for biotech’s, whatever it may be. We’ve talked to one university about chairs and benches for campus which would be quite nice. You could actually say this plastic was used in the lab and it’s come back here as a useful product. So, there’s full transparency in the actual recycling process. And as I say, MyGroup has got some brilliant videos showing exactly what happens to your plastic. We have also developed the range further so we have a hundred-litre box, which sits in the laboratory and a thousand-litre box for high throughput laboratories where perhaps a hundred-litre box will fill too quickly. So hopefully as the sort of system develops, we’re helping a lot of laboratories to help reduce, their carbon footprint.
- Are there any hurdles you have encountered when trying to implement your sustainability and recycling initiatives?
The major hurdle for an SME like Appleton Woods is probably awareness. we are a small family-run business, we don’t necessarily get that communicated to the market. So it’s great to have this sort of platform to tell people about it. In the past we’ve had products that we’ve entered into lab awards, and we’ve won two awards on consecutive years for initiatives that we’ve brought in that reduce the amount of plastic usage. So it’s great to have lab innovations to showcase this kind of thing because I think awareness is the key for us. We need to tell more people that this is available and not everyone else is going to be able to incorporate it, a lot of the laboratories can’t actually use the appCYCLE because the majority of their waste is hazardous.
That’s probably the second hurdle is actually dealing with hazardous waste which by the very nature of science, a lot of the waste produced in laboratories is hazardous in one way or another biologically or chemically. So we are working with MyGroup to try and come up with a system which neutralizes that hazard. It can actually mean that all the waste from laboratories can go into the appCYCLE and when we come up with that solution that will be an absolute game changer for scientists who are concerned about the carbon footprint of their lab. But also the health and safety of implementing something like the appCYCLE has got to be first and foremost our consideration, as we don’t want to endanger anybody in the supply chain. We want to make sure that the waste we collect is safe, first and foremost. Those are the two challenges; awareness of as many people as we can about it, but also dealing with this issue of hazardous work.
- And finally, for other businesses which are kind of interested in improving or implementing their own similar sustainability program, what advice or lesson would you give them or pointers for them when trying to build up this sustainability approach?
Yeah, I think the key is to just start. The sooner you can start, the better. We started the appCYCLE process three or four years ago, and we’re still developing it. It’s a slow burner trying to come up with first and foremost an idea, but actually realizing that idea and some actual product that has an impact on customers. And as I said, getting the awareness out there that it actually gets implemented mainstream. Start as soon as you can. the sooner you come up with the idea of a cardboard tip box, the sooner you can get manufacturers on board and might make it and then get the stock into the UK and supply customers and we actually see the impact in laboratories.
Great. Thank you for your answers. It was very insightful.
Thank you for your time Luke, your interview was very insightful into the Appleton Woods company! If you would like to hear more about their company, you can visit them on stand E72 at Lab Innovations this year!
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