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Using business for good

Amelia Caddy
Published 27 Jan 2022 by Amelia Caddy

When Climbing Anchors CEO Steve Hawkshaw decided to do his honours thesis on rock climbing anchors, it’s safe to say he never imagined it would lead him down a path to founding a climbing gear shop.

Climbing Anchors was a side hustle that he originally operated with a mate, Trent Lee, for a short while, and then with his partner Cath. It started with bolts manufactured in backyard sheds in Newcastle and Sydney. Through a lot of hard work and patience the business thrived, growing into an online store, and eventually brick and mortar stores across Australia. This unexpected growth led Steve and Cath to consider what kind of business they wanted to run.

This year, Climbing Anchors launched a series of environmental and social initiatives designed to give back to the community and help protect our ecosystems. Bush Heritage has been one of the beneficiaries of that program, so we sat down with Steve to learn more about his thoughts on responsible business and leading by example.

At what point in your journey did you start thinking about what you wanted to give back to the community through Climbing Anchors?

The climbing community has always been important to us. Our initial aim was to supply climbers with reliable climbing hardware. When we opened our first bricks and mortar store we had more staff, more visibility, and our presence in the market was suddenly a lot larger. We’ve grown considerably since then, but we didn't realise that the community listened to us until it was pointed out to us; we just saw ourselves as a very small business doing its own thing. Once we acknowledged our influence, we thought, 'okay, well, lets see if we can do some good with it.'

Personally, accessibility in climbing is important to us. We want everyone to have the opportunity to take part in the sport we love so much. As the company has grown, we’ve been able to invest back into the community and we're finding ways to make the sport more socially and financially accessible.

How would you summarise your business philosophy today?

It's constantly evolving in all honesty. I'm definitely not a natural born leader or salesperson. I did a Civil Engineering degree at uni which taught me to think analytically but not necessarily how to run a business. It’s an ongoing challenge for me to understand how to grow a business that works for our customers, but also for our employees and the community that we're looking after.

Essentially, we want Climbing Anchors to be supporting our community rather than just taking from it, and I’m not just talking about the climbing community - we see ourselves as a corporate citizen in the countrywide community so we want our business to be involved in wider community initiatives. We want people to come to us knowing that, by supporting us, they’re also supporting the community.

Why is it important to you that Climbing Anchors does more than just sell climbing gear?

I think it's important that businesses use their resources to be part of the change; whether it’s in the way they operate, by supporting local communities, or through being an advocate for doing things better. We have the capacity to reach a lot of people through our social media channels alone. We could choose to do nothing with that reach, which is certainly how we operated for a while, or we can choose to use our resources and voice to support those doing good things. This year we restructured our business and brought in new staff to give us more resources and to reach more people.

Our preference is to let our actions speak for us wherever possible by showing people how things can be done differently. That applies not just to the groups that we support, but also to the way in which we operate our business: the way we approach inclusivity, diversity and our own environmental impact.

We aren’t perfect though, we don't always get it right, and we still have more to do, that's for sure.

Do you want to take me through what your social and environmental initiatives look like today?

Climbing is by no means an environmentally friendly sport - lots of petrochemicals are used in all the nylon ropes and products we use and sell. We’re doing what we can inside our business to reduce our impact. We’ve switched all of our electricity to green energy, so it's fully renewable. We moved all our packaging to biodegradable packaging. We use cardboard and paper tape where possible, though we still do have to use some plastic tape. We reuse and recycle our soft plastics, which reduces waste, but we still have more to do.

This year we’ve started to support the work of some great environmental groups. Bush Heritage is one of those, as well as the Yarra Riverkeepers, and Seed Mob. We also support lots of social initiatives and events that bring people into climbing and make them feel part of the community.

From a financial perspective, how do you balance all these initiatives while still ensuring you’re operating a sustainable business?

This year we've spent a lot more money than we have in previous years. We have a dedicated staff member looking after our environmental and social commitments now, and we’re supporting more charities and community groups than ever before.

Figuring out how much money we put into that side of the business is another ongoing process, but we’ve been using Patagonia’s 1% for the planet program as a starting point. We don't have the resources that Patagonia does but this work is a priority so we're willing to make that commitment. Instead of saying ‘1% for the planet’ though, we’re calling it ‘1% for the community’. That means we can spend it on a few different things – social and environmental.

It’s hard, maybe even impossible, to quantify the financial return of these initiatives. None of what we’re doing is for financial gain, but even if you were looking at it purely from a profit-driven standpoint, I think being a good corporate citizen is generally a good idea because that’s what people are wanting more and more of from their organisations.

Where would you like to see Climbing Anchors go with its environmental and social commitments? Do you have a bit of a vision for what this program will look like in the future?

We'll definitely expand our commitments this year but we haven’t quite worked out what that looks like yet. One of the things we’ll be looking at is our supply chain. We're a small link in the global supply chain but every time we have a sales meeting with one of the brands that we import from directly, the environment is part of that conversation. Big brands are certainly more and more mindful of their environmental footprint, but we’re always trying to elevate that conversation to give our Australian customers more environmentally friendly gear options.

We would ultimately like to become a carbon neutral business. It's tricky for a business like us to actually calculate its carbon footprint and figure out how to offset it. We have looked at it before, and we’ll probably revisit that again this year.

Where does your personal interest in the environment come from?

I think it's from my parents. They were certainly not activists by any means. But, growing up in the country as I did, we were always doing things outdoors and they supported a bunch of environmental causes.

When you spend so much of your time outdoors, it becomes pretty obvious that the environment needs protection. Now that I have a business, I have a bit more influence, and can make a bit more of an impact beyond just the personal level.

Rock climbing in the Grampians, Victoria. Photo by Amelia Caddy

Steve and his partner Cath in the Climbing Anchors warehouse.

Climbing Anchors CEO Steve Hawkshaw.

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