THE BLOG

The Urgency and Opportunity of Business Sustainability

08/01/2014 14:51 GMT | Updated 09/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Violent and unpredictable weather patterns are increasing in their frequency and destructiveness - from the storms battering Britain's coast to the 'polar vortex' affecting the USA, there is a growing pantheon of extreme occurrences that many believe are driven by climate change. And if these are caused, at least in part, by just one degree of temperature increase, what will the planet look like if we reach the more extreme doomsday predictions; the realms of five or six degrees?

Governments, businesses and individuals are trying to identify how best to address the fact that current approaches to operations are not only driving this change but may also be fundamentally unsustainable in the long term.

Put simply, 'sustainability' - the buzzword that's sweeping boardrooms and lecture halls - means being able to live at a level that doesn't compromise the chances of future generations to also live at that level. Even if we were able to cut and remove carbon, we still need our planet to be functioning and flourishing. The urgency of the concern is why sustainability strategies have not only been developed by the majority the world's leading businesses, but why some are now embedding this thinking into their core business plans.

Sustainability issues can pose a genuine threat to the long-term viability and security of an enterprise. Issues such as water and mineral availability, agricultural yields, soil quality, biodiversity, infrastructure, employee health and, of course, the climate... these are all subject to change, and businesses that rely on them but do not work to safeguard them, risk failure.

Scaling the issue

The current population of the planet is 7 billion. You may have watched Professor Hans Rosling's TED talks in which he urges us not to panic; the idea being that population increases are slowing down, and people are being lifted out of poverty so we will have a more prosperous world. This is all good news but if we look at the current impact that 7 billion people have on the planet - such as pollution of natural systems and resource use (deforestation, mining, over-fishing) - then we do need to plan for how the planet will cope with more people, operating at a higher demand; not only will the population grow to over 9 billion over the next 50 years, but they will be richer - by 2030, 3 billion will be joining the 2 billion existing global middle class, and richer people place a higher burden. At the moment, half the fossil fuels burnt each year are for the richest one billion. Clearly steps are needed towards more sustainable lifestyles.

How will we feed these people? How will we provide them with enough energy? Approaches such as GM crops and nuclear power must be part of the discussion, which means sustainability solutions can often be complex and challenge our notions of what is right or best for us, presenting their own communications conundrums. Nuclear power produces around 20 tons of waste for 1 GW year, whereas coal can produce around 8,000,000 tons of CO2 for 1 GW year, but disasters like that at the Fukushima plant in Japan mean people are nervous.

The story of plastic pollution in our oceans is one illustration of the burden we already place on the planet. Plastic waste has been found in the stomachs of endangered marine species, such as whales, turtles and porpoises, and the EU Commission estimates the stomachs of 94% of all birds in the North Sea contain plastic. It's also affecting fish stocks and the fishing industry. Around 99 billion plastic bags were placed on the EU market in 2010. Thankfully, the EU has just forward proposals that will result in member states being encouraged to tax or even ban plastic bags.

This is an example of where disposability impacts on sustainability. We can expect to hear much more about the circular economy in the years ahead and it is interesting to note what the Ellen Macarthur Foundation is doing here to drive the agenda forward, as well as global brands such as Kingfisher, which aims to sell 1,000 products with 'closed loop' credentials by 2020. It wouldn't be able to do this without helping to educate consumers to the value of this service.

Communicating the change

I work for a communications agency that specialises in promoting positive social change. We were involved with promoting the recent global launch of a book by the founder of Forum for the Future and former Friends of the Earth Director, Jonathon Porritt. The World We Made looks at what life in 2050 would look like if we started to address some of our major sustainability challenges today. It's an exciting and prosperous world but it requires work to get there.

To position the book to potential readers, we nuanced the messaging according to that market. For Singapore, we talked about technological innovation and air pollution. For the USA, we discussed renewable energy and agriculture, and for the UK, we looked more at transport and food security. To get individuals to act on sustainability, it has to matter to them, but it also has to be placed within the context of an interconnected global issue.

To get businesses to act on sustainability, it is right to appeal to their sense of responsibility, but they also want to know how they can address their shareholders. In What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?, a book by another Friends of the Earth figurehead, Tony Juniper, we explore the financial contribution that natural balanced systems make to our economy. Indeed, accounting for environmental impact by placing monetary value on the natural world could allow corporations to manage resources more sustainably and communicate the value of the approach.

'Sustainable' may be the new word for green but it is not the word itself that excites consumers - they want to see value; to them and the environment. It is the product, plan or action that they buy.

IKEA is an example of a forward-looking business that is providing opportunity for consumers. By 2016, it will stop selling non-LED lights. By going 'all in' they believe they can bring prices down and provide viable sustainable solutions. IKEA's Chief Sustainability Officer Steve Howard points out that consumers want to be more sustainable but they need businesses to show them the way by making it easy, affordable and attractive. He also points to the fact IKEA plans to produce more energy than it uses by 2020 as being great news for the CFO, as much as for the environment.

Just as with any communications challenge there are many audiences that need to be reached on sustainability. There needs to be political action and there needs grassroots pressure but fundamentally there also needs business pioneers. Brands that innovate and lead in this space will build their reputation and customer base and they will be fit for the future. Those that don't, could lose it all.