David Alpert is the CEO of iiaa (International Institute for Anti-Ageing). He is also an intrepid marine photographer and a fierce advocate for sustainable business practices.
David speaks to BLM about his background, his photography, and how he keeps sustainability at the core of his own business. He also shares some incredible images from his expeditions to the Arctic.
What was your background before founding the iiaa?
My wife and I came over from South Africa when we finished university as penniless students. We both started businesses – she started this one and I started one in the infant nursery industry. I sold that company then joined her in 1999. We grew it from there.
Has the business model stayed the same?
Yes, pretty much. We supply skincare products to skincare professionals and our mission is to empower skincare professionals to deliver the best results for their clients. So much that happens in this industry is based on hype, with very little substance underpinning it. What we wanted to do was turn that on its head and be evidence-based in order to create long-term solutions.
How has your experience been of co-founding a company with your partner? Do you have any advice for others going into business with their significant other?
For Tracy and I, it’s been brilliant. We are very much aligned in our thinking at work (though perhaps not everything else). But we complement each other in a business environment. I do know other couples who work together and spend all day arguing, so it’s not necessarily for everyone.
Moving from another country, starting afresh, and having no resources to do so – you learn a certain grit and determination, and you go through that together. You either build resilience and develop as a couple or the business drives you apart. It’s almost as binary as that.
Have you always taken an environmentalist approach? What first inspired you to put sustainability at the forefront of your business?
Our interest in the environment is not something that has suddenly been piqued by the current media coverage. It goes back to when we were kids and students – Tracy formed an organization at the University of Cape Town called Action For Animals. At the time, apartheid was massively on the agenda and to try and raise awareness of anything else was difficult. One would come under pressure because people felt that we shouldn’t be concerned about animals when apartheid was ongoing, but of course you can care about both society and animals. They needn’t be mutually exclusive.
In those days, too, it was highly illegal to demonstrate in South Africa. It was considered a state of emergency. We had to stick our necks out. So the roots run deep, and we’ve run our lives according to those principles.
The problem in business is that when you’re starting off, irrespective of what the business management books tell you about mission statements and so on, your focus is survival. It’s very difficult to have lofty ideals. Once you break through that into a more resource-rich environment, you can decide what you want to stand for and put your money where your mouth is.
Can you tell me a bit about greenwashing?
Greenwashing is basically pretending to be green. It’s touting very top-level stuff, but not actually making meaningful change. Historically, businesses might make a donation – which is great, and I don’t want that to stop – but it would be as a way to quell the conscience because of everything else they were doing.
That transformed into the CSR (corporate social responsibility) monster. CSR reporting typically falls in the remit of the marketing department. That absolutely plays into greenwashing. It formalizes the process of producing tons of reports that have very little actual meaning.
What are your tips for sustainable business practices?
First is shared value. Compare, for example, Farm Drop to Occado. Farm Drop is built around environmental practices, using local producers, and so on, whereas Occado is a grocery delivery model which might throw in a nod to green practice but it’s not the core. Shared value is about bringing the social and physical environment into your business and making it part of what you do.
That plays into the second point – to stop greenwashing.
The third point is to make sustainability part of your everyday life.
What kind of measures have you taken to improve your own practices?
Our industry is particularly bad for sustainability. Originally we used plastic pots for the products from our own line. Then we moved to plastic pouches, which was 90% less plastic. Then we made a million pound investment to put in a plant which allowed us to use cardboard tubs.
Now we provide something that is totally recyclable – but that’s not our measure of success. The trouble is, recycling means different things to different people and areas. So our measure is: what happens if this falls in the sea? And our packaging would disintegrate.
We set this target because of what I saw in the North Pole. The place was littered with plastic – you didn’t see another human but there was plastic all over the show. It collected on the beaches, and a lot of it was recyclable – so what is the point of something being recyclable if it then lands in the sea and doesn’t degrade?
We also source our packaging from the UK, print with vegetable inks, and so on. We go through 2,500 milk bottles a year so we get our milk delivered in glass bottles. We’re swapping out our petrol fleet with electric vehicles.
Firms need to understand the market of the future. Consumers are demanding something more from businesses than profit, and they will punish companies which fail to deliver.
Can you tell me about your marine photography?
I am in a very fortunate position, in that I’ve travelled to many diverse, wild and unusual places in the world to photograph things underwater. I’ve been lucky enough to win competitions on both sides of the Atlantic, and to have editors from National Geographic recognize some of my pictures. I’m extremely fortunate as I am an amateur, and there are many professional marine photographers who are very talented.
Everywhere I go, however, I see the same thing. You can’t escape it. And that is how much we are screwing up the environment with things like pollution and unsustainable fishing practices. The waste is enormous.
How did you get into that? Do you find there is any overlap in the skill sets between business and photography?
I was 19 when I got my first underwater camera, but I then had kids and went through the process of building a business from scratch, so there were many years when I unfortunately didn’t have the time. I started up again about five years ago, once my kids were a bit older and I had more resources. It’s amazing to see how much technology has moved on from the old film stuff we were using compared to now. It’s fantastic.
In terms of skillset, there are both enormous technical and creative sides to photography. It’s very left and right brain, and you’re multitasking. So those are skills and ways of thinking that can be used in a business environment.
Can you tell me about your Arctic expeditions?
The first time I went up was to photograph orcas. Orcas are fascinating because they have speciation – different groups have different physiology, behavior, diets, and languages. I went to free dive and photograph a group of resident orcas in the fjords of Norway.
More recently, I took my family with me and we went much further north with a scientific expedition. They were studying plastic pollution. We walked on beaches which may never have been stepped on by humans before, and yet they were covered in plastic.
There are several examples of entrepreneurs that also take part in expeditions and adventure sports. Why do you think that might be? Do you think they attract a similar temperament?
It’s about pushing yourself to do things that are out of the ordinary; to leave your comfort zone. That 100% mindset tends to fit well with the psyche of business leaders and entrepreneurs.
It’s only in recent years, though, that we’ve shifted away from 18 hour days and it’s become socially acceptable for business leaders to do these things. The tendency has probably always been there – one famous example is Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, who climbs mountains while running a business – but it’s become much more accepted in the business culture for people to take time out.