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Meeting sustainability aspirations poses complex challenges for corporations

by mel starrs on February 26, 2007

in Uncategorized

Gristmill have a great post up on how to answer critics who attempt to label those who attempt a greener lifestyle as hypocrites:

The merits of carbon offsets are hotly debated, so erring on the side of caution would mean abjuring all carbon-emitting activities. That rules out all non-self-propelled travel; it means going off-grid and growing all one’s own food and neither participating in nor purchasing the results of any industrial process. Etc. It’s possible to reduce one’s environmental footprint substantially, even to get it close to zero, but it requires extraordinary effort and self-discipline, and a life far, far out of the mainstream in any developed country.

Any attempt to live carbon free is in the widest sense of the word, not sustainable.  Sustainable development definitions commonly refer to the “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars” of sustainable development as economic development, social development, and environmental protection.

sustainable development

By attempting to do a “Tom and Barbara” and withdrawing from society, you ignore the economic and social development pillars.  So whilst carbon free on an individual basis is no doubt an exemplary state, if your sphere of influence does not extend beyond the boundaries of your own home, it cannot said to be contributing to a more sustainable planet.

On the other hand, this is not carte blanche for tearing round the world on private jets attending meetings (“It’s OK – we discussed renewable energy when we got there”) (not that many in the construction industry have private jets, but hey, I’m trying to make a point).  The diagram above shows a sustainable state in the centre.  This is a balancing act – a somewhat precarious one, and no doubt there will be slip-ups along the way. 

Sustainable development is a very complex issue, which includes factors far beyond the normal realm of a corporation (but which are increasingly becoming issues).  We are all now familiar with CSR (corporate social responsibility) but as we delve deeper into this, we will find ourselves becoming involved in politics, economics, social equality – issues which we may not be comfortable with proclaiming a public opinion on, especially as to do so may contradict or compromise longstanding relationships within the industry.

Focussing on carbon produces concrete facts and figures and draws attention away from more intangible or tricky fields of reporting.  The cynic in me fears for many it will be a welcome distraction, and an ideal vehicle in which to to bury bad news.

I believe the challenge which lies ahead for the industry is not how little carbon you have used this year (although that does seem to be flavour of the month at the minute) – but how you align your company activities so they all meet in the centre of the diagram.  In this more critical, political and transparent atmosphere, empty promises and canny marketing ploys will increasingly fail to meet the grade.  The sticky bit comes when deciding how to report this ‘balance’.  In order to report, your position must be stated – on matters which currently are often not made public outside the confines of the company and may very well never have been written down (such as social, economic and political beliefs and models).  There is a further danger that by stating these, rather than merely infering them, companies may alienate staff as well as clients.  Interesting times ahead.