Championing the best businesses practicing sustainability

The Irish Business Design Challenge showcases the best businesses practicing sustainability while highlighting best practices for others to follow

Tom Watts, Head of design, DCCI, Roisin Pierce, Fashion designer, Minister Peter Burke, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Rosemary Steen, DCCI CEO, Sonny Drummond, Model and Peter Hynes, DCCI Chair

Run by Design & Crafts Council Ireland (DCCI), the Irish Business Design Challenge looks to reward and promote sustainable Irish businesses.

The competition is open to micro, small, and medium businesses that have designed products, services, or strategies that make the world a better place. This doesn’t just mean creating new products but also reimagining existing products or transforming current processes to benefit the environment and society.

With a prize fund of €50,000 for the winners, funded by the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment through Enterprise Ireland, there’s a significant opportunity for businesses to showcase their efforts across the board. It also shines a light on the contribution of design to the Irish economy and reaching our 2030 carbon targets.

The challenge started out broad in 2022, but after an event on circularity was a hit, its focus was adjusted.

“The competition originally began as a general design challenge, but we changed it to whether businesses used circular design and sustainable principles to improve their levels of business,” explained Tom Watts of Design & Crafts Council Ireland.

“That is the holy grail for businesses at the moment, as with more regulations and requirements on sustainability coming down the road, it can be hard to see the upside.”

“A positive outcome of the change was that more than a hundred businesses applied, highlighting their confidence in being sustainable and innovating in the space. The application requires organisations to state the challenges faced, the strategies applied, and the solutions developed. It prevents businesses from claiming they’re sustainable without showing credentials, thanks to a robust judging process and the growing sophistication of customers.

The real key to this competition is that we wanted them to be rigorously evaluated,” said Watts. “So we got three of the leading authorities in circular in the country as judges…the objective was not only to evaluate business, but also give authenticity to businesses that were doing it right.”

These stories are really powerful and inspire other businesses to put themselves forward because having an award that legitimises your work in sustainability and circular principles is a really good advantage and puts them ahead of the curve

“Watts mentioned that there are a few objectives behind the challenge. One was to showcase businesses that employ the best practices for circularity and sustainability. The other was the educational element for businesses that entered, giving them feedback on what they were doing right and suggestions on where they could further optimise, steering them towards further success.

The mechanic of the programme, particularly with the Awards and public voting element, alongside the wider marketing and PR, draws a lot of much valued awareness and promotion for the businesses.

The result of the 2023 challenge was picking three winners, three runner-ups and two for highly commended from all three categories. All the businesses show not just best practices but approachable ways for companies to take inspiration and improve their sustainability.

“’We’ve eight incredible stories of businesses leveraging sustainability that positively affects their bottom line,” he said. “It’s fantastic to platform those businesses, but it’s a super way to encourage other businesses to enter through the storytelling of circularity.”

“We're educating people about circularity because there’s a massive amount of confusion around it. These stories are really powerful and inspire other businesses to put themselves forward because having an award that legitimises your work in sustainability and circular principles is a really good advantage and puts them ahead of the curve.”

It’s an endorsement from DCCI saying this business is properly engaging with the circular economy and is innovating in that space,” he added.

Of those companies, Westcountry Willows, which makes willow coffins, won the Micro category. The small category winner was The Factory, Ireland’s leading eco-friendly printer and graphic design studio. 64 per cent of its energy needs are generated from wind and solar.

The medium category winner was Farrell Furniture, which sources eco-friendly materials, recycles, and reduces its carbon footprint.

The runner-up for that category was Wren Urban Nest Hotel, the first zero-carbon hotel in Ireland. These companies follow the same principle: sustainability is baked into how they approach business.

“It’s a mindset,” said Watts. It is something that we all need to adopt but also, we need to move beyond talk about sustainability, it should be a given that businesses are doing things in the most sustainable way possible and trying to limit their carbon footprint.

You do that through conscious design, by thinking deeply about your supply lines, your process, anywhere you get an opportunity to source a more sustainable option, you should be going for it.”

Watts brings it back to storytelling, where sustainability isn’t just a marketing strategy; it’s a way of having people connect with your business. One example he gave was with The Factory, where its re-wilding efforts have led to it setting up beehives and owl nesting boxes, which are now home to two owls and numerous owlets.

This story is born from their sustainability efforts and gives new customers ways to engage with the business.

“On the one hand, there are a lot of logical things that businesses can do to be sustainable, but there’s also lots of unpredictable approaches to marketing that can be done.," he said. "It doesn’t always have to stick to a linear story.”

The entry deadline for DCCI’s Irish Business Design Challenge is Sunday, 14th July. For more information, visit dcci.ie