Sustainability and the competitive edge
Trudy Heller writes for the Western Mail
We've been talking about 'sustainable development' for 20 years, writes Trudy Heller. But if industry doesn't seize the challenge of climate change there is trouble ahead
BEFORE leaving my home, outside Philadelphia, USA, I had a friendly disagreement with a colleague.
He had just returned from a month of consulting with a UK company, and we were talking about corporate environmental stewardship.
"UK companies are so far behind the US," he said.
I was shocked because I firmly believed it was the other way around.
My impression was formed through a decade of international travel to Greening of Industry Network (GIN) Conferences in Heidelberg, Rome, Bangkok, San Francisco, Canada, Hong Kong, and other places.
So I set out on my journey to the 13th International Greening of Industry Network Conference in Cardiff with a mission to solve this mystery.
How could a colleague with whom I was so like-minded have such a different impression of the environmental capabilities of UK business?
And who was right?
My investigation began right away as I boarded a bus, bound for Cardiff, at Heathrow. The temperature outside was 30C; on board - without air conditioning - it was 33C.
I was not prepared to encounter such heat in Wales. The desk clerk at my, thankfully, air-conditioned hotel said something about climate change.
During my free day before the conference I walked through Bute Park in Cardiff. Well-used and well-cared-for was my impression of this wonderful green space in the city.
Appreciation for the natural environment and awareness of the challenges ahead seemed to be alive in this city.
When former Environment Minister Michael Meacher challenged us in Cardiff City Hall he asked, "Are we going to continue to cheat our children or are we going to live as if we intended to stay here?"
One speaker reminded us that the term, "sustainable development" will be 20 years old in 2007.
Originally appearing in a 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WECD), sustainable development was defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Sustainability has since been adopted by many corporations to define a goal of joining economic development with environmental stewardship and social progress.
But how to achieve this goal? The conference sessions offered us a variety of suggestions.
The hall was filled with business professors, researchers, fellow consultants, and industry and government representatives from across Europe, Asia, and North America. We had gathered to pursue the mission of the International Greening of Industry Network: Accelerating progress toward a sustainable society.
The conference was hosted by the ESRC Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society (BRASS) of Cardiff University.
The Conference theme, Integration and Communication: A Clear Route to Sustainability?, reflected the marketing discipline of lead organiser, Professor Ken Peattie.
Emphasising the gap between information and communication, Solitaire Townsend, of Futura UK, told us that while many UK companies have created sustainability reports, few consumers learned about their contents.
She praised Marks & Spencer's large in-store posters with quotations from their sustainability report as an example of more effective communication.
Oliver Dudok Van Heel, of SustianAbility UK, worried that "sustainability is a sideline activity for corporations" that are pulled between the short term expectations of financial markets and the longer term goals of sustainability.
He recommended staff development, so that employees are clear about what sustainability is and why it matters, so it becomes part of routine decision-making.
Shima Barakat of the University of Manchester said, "Green is a hat that gets taken off when entering the workplace. [Employees] do green at home, but don't expect it at work."
Other sessions focused on technology. Philippe Vergrafft from the United States's Tellus Institute challenged the popular belief that technology can "fix" environmental problems. His research suggests that "science and technology cannot easily be steered toward sustainability".
Consumption, or rather systems of production and consumption, was also considered as a problem for achieving sustainability. We engaged in a lively discussion of the so-called "bottom of the pyramid" - the poorest people on earth.
This market of some 4bn people, largely in developing and emerging economies, is viewed by some businesses as a new, growth market opportunity.
Prabhu Kandachar, of Holland's Delft University, offered a wise revision to the idea that poor people are only concerned with survival, noting that poor people also care about status and the products that bring status. He advocates de-coupling economic growth from resource use and waste generation.
Prof Peattie echoed these comments as he closed the conference, "We need to bring the top of the pyramid down and the bottom up."
If leadership in thought precedes leadership in action, and I believe it does, then I have to conclude that UK business is in a strong position to find competitive advantage in sustainable business practices.
Trudy Heller is the founder and president of Executive Education for the Environment www.execed-environment.com
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