Explaining Sustainability: Back to the Basics
Good communications can get people to do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally. This ad from Norwegian conservation organisation, Eco Agents, shows a dedicated junior TreeHugger standing up against a group of adults and their very un-sustainable actions.
I bumped into one of my blog readers as my son’s school function the other day. He was happy to see me. One, because the function was dragging on for way longer than anyone had expected and any distraction was gladly welcome; and two, because he needed me to explain what exactly it is that ‘sustainability’ is and what I have to do with it. Today’s blog post is therefore dedicated to you Wamai…I hope this makes it clearer.
Sustainability is the act of doing (or not doing!) what we can to ensure the survival of our natural environment. It is a focus on keeping our world in balance by way of preserving our natural resources so that future generations can continue to live in harmony with our planet. Tobias Webb, founder of Innovation Forum, a London-based sustainability events and publishing business, notes that people think of social issues when they hear “CSR,” and environmental issues when they hear “sustainability.” But in fact social and environmental issues are inter-related. “Deforestation is a great example,” he writes. “It looks like an environmental challenge yet many of the solutions are socially related (governance, corruption, institutions, sustainable livelihoods and regulatory enforcement).”
So companies have caught onto something known as “corporate social responsibility,” or CSR. They may have a CSR officer, or maybe a director of corporate citizenship. But at some point, these social and reputational issues merged with the larger question of growth that is sustainable over a long time period, a question fraught with environmental and governance aspects. Investors started asking about “ESG,” environmental, social and governance issues. And companies appointed sustainability directors to make sure all aspects of their operations were on board with new, forward-looking, best practices. Lately, as inter-governmental organisations like the UN tackle big issues like global warming and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), corporations have taken sustainability yet another step forward by helping to lead the discussion and the search for solutions. Companies cooperate in efforts to wipe out corruption and violence in certain areas, using their economic clout. Some are voluntarily cutting carbon emissions and water use.
Above all, there is a growing awareness that companies MUST lead us into a more sustainable future, because no one else will.
Sustainability holds numerous benefits, not only for large organisations, but also for SMEs. Firstly there is the issue of cost. At a time when energy is becoming a scarce resource and costs are rising in many parts of the world, there is a real incentive to increase efficiency. Large corporations are investing considerable efforts in monitoring and reducing their energy usage. However, whatever size your company is, there are savings to be made. For example, by installing LED lighting and automatic sensors. Payback on investment typically takes between one and three years, but thereafter your business should be saving money.
Secondly, at an extreme, there is the prospect of fines. Many governments have been introducing tougher environmental legislation and will penalise companies that flout it. Just as there has been a crackdown on governance and ethics in the banking sector, so governments want to see companies behaving responsibly in terms of the environment. Certainly, no matter where a company operates, it has to be increasingly aware of its environmental impact. Thirdly and more positively, there is a significant business opportunity. Major corporates, who frequently employ CSR departments, are increasingly conscious of the need to ‘green’ their supply chains. They don’t want to do business with any companies, of whatever size, that are environmentally and socially irresponsible. So if you can show that your company places a high value on CSR and sustainability, you could be giving yourself a real advantage. If you are greener than your rival bidder, it could just help tip the balance.
Fourthly, sustainability can enhance your reputation and help in the recruitment war for talent. This applies especially to the younger demographic. So if you are competing for talent against other employers, being a sustainable business can give you a significant head start.
Lastly, no business wants to find itself on the wrong end of a consumer campaign because of an environmental issue. Large companies are more in the firing line here of course. But with social media, issues can grow and spread with bewildering speed. If someone locally (or internally!) takes exception to a wasteful or negligent company practice, you could find yourself with a publicity issue on your hands. This could harm your corporate reputation and also have a serious commercial impact. So making your business sustainable can pay off on many levels. I would encourage the management teams of any company, whatever the size, to carry out a review of the organisation’s environmental policies, energy usage and operational processes. Are there ways in which you can become greener and more efficient? Do you have clear environmental policies that are properly communicated and understood by employees? Are you working with any company that is environmentally negligent and if so can you find an alternative? Companies that take these issues seriously and that integrate them into their way of working will be increasingly better positioned to succeed than their competitors. It really is a win-win situation.
So what does all this mean? As a career marketer, I know that individuals will prioritise sustainability issues if the issues are critical to everyday life. For example, when it comes to climate change: people care about flooding of their cities more than the fate of polar bears in the Arctic or about potential toxins their green vegetables more than international pollution treaties. I work with companies to understand this – and frame sustainability issues so they are relevant and hit home. Good communications can get people to do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally – the results could have far-reaching effects.