Sustainability is a hot topic, but what is it? How can it help us navigate the major problems we face as a global community and what opportunities does it have for businesses? In the course of this blog, we will address these topics and hopefully get a feel for how sustainable development can help us work towards a cleaner, more efficient future.
We are living in a period of enormous upheaval and change. Climate change, resource conservation and advancements in technology are the dominant factors shaping our future. While we struggle to provide for a growing, urbanising population, the limitations of the natural world can no longer be ignored. The need to balance our economic development with environmental protection has brought the Sustainability Business Model into the mainstream.
Sustainability is the concept of ‘meeting the needs of today without compromising the future generations’ abilities to meet their own needs’. It is a whole systems approach to planning a model that can continue indefinitely, involving Environmental, Economic & Social facets. Where no one factor should be considered separate or independent.
Human activity is the dominant influence on the natural environment. Through deforestation, farming, drilling, mining, landfills, dam-building and coastal reclamation we have altered 50% of the face of the planet. Our impact has been so immense that the current geological era is known as
The Age of Man (Anthropocene). Our mark on the globe is undeniable and irreversible.
Over the next two decades, the population is expected to reach nine billion people. We will need more energy, food, and water, to meet their basic needs, but we are already consuming resources and generating waste far beyond the Earth’s capacity to maintain a healthy, regenerative biosphere.
Resource restrictions are created by our mass consumption of raw materials and a heavy reliance on non-renewable energy, this is exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Changing weather is producing lower yields of crops. Higher temperatures and flash storms are limiting our access to fresh water.
As the population grows another 1 billion people are expected to enter the middle classes, while this is progress towards income equality, it will create a drive for more products, commodities, cars, and homes. To survive any further strain on already limited supplies we will have to make more with less, design out waste, move towards a circular economy and implement sustainable building & development practices.
Here’s where things begin to change for businesses, we can not continue with the same old ‘business as usual’ approach. Scarcity will drive up the prices of commodities and force businesses to reduce their energy consumption, water use, and reliance on non-renewable materials.
There is a growing pressure for businesses to factor the value of natural commodities into the price of producing and packaging their products. Considering the ‘cost to the environment’ will bring us closer to the true cost of a product. Successful businesses will be those that lead us away from the ‘take, make, dispose’ method. Instead, we need to adopt business models that strive to keep resources in the value chain by reusing and recycling components at the product’s end of life.
Turning waste into wealth presents massive opportunities for those willing to shift to an innovative business model. According to ‘Accenture’ the transition from a linear to circular economy presents a multi-trillion dollar opportunity.
Sustainability success requires a shift in normal business thinking, trading our short-term goals for long-term strategies. It also requires participation and collaboration on a large scale, acknowledging that we have a shared future and agreeing to work together to protect it.
The Paris Agreement is an example of a collective response to a global problem. Over 150 Nations have committed to long-term strategic measures to reduce global carbon emissions. The agreement offers a framework for achieving climate action goals. It defines ongoing mitigation strategies, highlights methods to minimise costs, and discusses financial schemes. It includes plans for energy, waste, transport, industry, forestry, and agriculture. This is the kind of whole systems approach that underlies the very ethos of sustainability, where all aspects must be considered together.
We are seeing a steady increase in businesses committing to 100% renewable energy (wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal) as a result of the Agreement. Developments in photovoltaic light to energy technology and improved battery storage are also accelerating the shift towards electric cars and integrated public transport solutions. With these factors combined, it appears that we are on the cusp of a clean energy revolution.
With the move towards zero carbon emissions, sustainability initiatives are on the rise. The International Trade Centre lists some 230 ‘Sustainability Standards Initiatives’ in areas such as business ethics, economic development, workers rights, and food safety. What was once a niche area now presents us with massive potential for growth and development.
American retail giant Walmart has become market leaders in Sustainable initiatives. Their aim was to reduce waste, cut emissions, and sustain the environment while remaining affordable. Keeping prices low was essential. Knowing that their customers could not afford the high prices of sustainable products they worked with their suppliers to create changes.
Logically speaking, it is far more efficient to tackle a problem at source, especially when it comes to waste reduction. The less you send into the market, the less you are relying on a wide group of individuals to dispose of their waste responsibly.
Walmart’s efforts to green their supply chain has had a positive knock-on effect, influencing the thousands of other businesses they deal with. The more they promote sustainability the more affordable it becomes. So far they have succeeded in reducing their waste to landfill
by 80 %. They continue working towards a ‘zero waste’ goal. They have also committed to renewable energy, reducing their emissions by 20 million metric tonnes. This kind of social and environmental performance builds consumer trust, improves customer relations, garners public respect, and strengthens the brand’s image.
As one big company moves towards sustainable goals, it demands the same standard of conduct and transparency from its competitors. Customer demand will increase with the growing public awareness of the benefits of sustainable products. As people begin to vote with their wallets businesses will be required to meet certain standards in order to retain their customers.
In his book, ‘The Big Pivot’ Andrew S. Winston describes technology-driven demands for transparency as one of the major problems that modern businesses are facing. Every action can be traced and analysed. With the accelerated use of social media, the customer has the power to condone or condemn a business and to hold it accountable when it doesn’t meet expectations. Winston suggests turning this into an opportunity to create trust among your customer base, using the feedback to give you an understanding of what your customers’ needs really are.
Technology is not only driving transparency, it is changing the way we work and the type of work we do. Industrial automation has greatly reduced the need for human manual labour with robot technology becoming increasingly popular in the manufacturing field and presenting interesting opportunities for global clean up projects.
As technology continues to create massive change, we are left questioning the future of our work, what will the general worker’s role be in a sustainable future.
We are already experiencing a generational shift in attitudes, the millennial workforce is seeking out more purposeful work. If employers want to hook the big talent they need to acknowledge the values that are important to the upcoming workforce and align themselves accordingly. They need to prove that they care about more than the bottom line.
John Mackey , Co-CEO of Wholefoods, expounds the virtues of finding your businesses higher purpose. He suggests that business can have a positive impact on the world at large. In his book ‘Conscious Capitalism’ he describes a win/win/win approach, where being profitable doesn’t have to come at the stakeholders’ expense. Investors, suppliers, team members, customers and the environment can all win. In a conscious business, social responsibility is an integral part of the business structure, not an add-on. He feels that business has the power to drive humanity upwards.
Good business requires good leadership and strong foundations are imperative. New companies should set up as though they plan to continue and to treat the environment accordingly. Treating the planet, and each other as though we plan to stay, is a core value of sustainability.
Sustainable practices are endeavors that work to neutralise our negative impact on the planet or help us work towards a cleaner, more efficient future.
Commitments to sustainability help us navigate the problems of our changing social and economic environment. The benefits are manifold. Reducing risks, costs, and waste. Lowering your carbon footprint. While building trust with stakeholders and increasing brand value. Becoming a company that people respect and want to work for. All this and the global benefits of a stable climate, fresh air, and a healthy environment.
The positive take away here is that tide is already beginning to turn, sustainability is set to become the norm. The real question is how quickly businesses choose to get on board. The growing market and the opportunities it presents are wide open to us as soon as we acknowledge that we can not continue as we always have.
Kindly written for us by Claire Tobin @greenheartgreenearth