The global economic meltdown has forced people to drastically rethink their investments. I have heard it said by investment advisors that gold is a safe-haven for investors. Then suddenly its value drops inexplicably and another avenue is mooted as the place to invest at this time. CEOs are having to consider very carefully what they choose to invest their money in right now. Investing in intangibles is viewed with understandable skepticism.
In all the interactions I have with people at all levels of industry, there is a common phenomenon: everyone seems to know intuitively that sustainability is a good thing and that the way we are living on earth is not sustainable. Yet we keep on doing things the same way, despite regular ‘warning signs’ about global warming, climate change, water crises, waste crises, legislation, etc., and despite much evidence that the ‘green’ consumer is a very fast growing trend, even if South Africa is some years behind Western countries.
There appears to be 3 reasons why companies might decide to go green:
- it’s the right thing to do
- it increases efficiencies and profitability
- it creates innovation and increases turnover and market share.
Unfortunately the first reason does not dominate business decisions and neither does the third. They say what cannot be measured cannot be managed. Unless it is commercially consumable and has application value no investment is going to be looked at favourably. Some organisations are doing something to appease their corporate consciences.
ISO 14000, carbon sequestration, recycling, water or energy saving campaigns.
No doubt these initiatives make some difference, but is this difference significant enough to counteract the huge collective impact that humankind is having on the planet? There is a danger of greenwashing: doing a little bit to make it look and feel like we are doing something to save the planet. Yet that little bit is actually inconsequential or contradictory in the grand scheme of things. Unless we come to terms with the real consequences that our current lifestyles will have upon the planet, and conceptualize what an alternative might look like, we are going to continue to do more of the same, all the while waiting for legislation, competitors or consumers to stimulate the need to change.
Some fundamental paradigm shifts which are needed:
- a commitment to a triple bottom line measure of success (profit, people and planet) needs to be made by senior management before everyone can be expected to buy-in to this new approach
- an acceptance that a Zero Ecological Footprint is what we should be collectively striving towards and that this is a long-term commitment
- a recognition that the linear flow of material, which we engage in today (extract, manufacture, consume and throw away) is undesirable and unsustainable.
The challenge is how to provide a compelling business case for this transformation?
A commitment by the leadership of an organisation to the following 4 concepts is key:
- An independent electronic measure of an organisation’s ecological footprint would provide a good sense of where the company is and quantify the gap which exists to get to zero.
- An essential component would be an education programme, which conscientizes the entire workforce and aligns their thinking around science-based ecological principles applicable on a day-to-day basis.
- A roadmapping exercise, to identify low-hanging fruits and envision what each of these aspects would look like with a zero ecological footprint, provides the destination.
- Then a strategy can be developed to ensure that people, systems, structures and accountability is in place to begin the journey in a structured and systematic manner to achieve these aims.
There are companies that make things happen. There are companies that watch things happen. There are companies that wonder what happened.
There is little doubt that eventually all companies will be compelled to become ‘green,’ whether the drivers are due to resource shortages, customer demands, legislation, competitors, or as it is right now – because of efficiencies and productivity requirements. After all there is a direct link between efficiencies and the reduced consumption of natural resources and generation of waste. Each time there has been an economic downturn, visionary organisations have taken advantage of this to reinvent themselves.
When the recession recovered, they were ideally placed to capitalize and become leaders. This time could represent such an opportunity. Successful organisations in the future will be those who learn to do well by doing good, to provide products/services and earn money in a smart way, doing no harm. This is a perfect time for company executives to demonstrate their leadership, bring about the change so urgently needed and leave a legacy of corporate citizenship, which takes into account the needs of future generations.
By Stephen Jacobs
Stephen is a Sustainability Advisor & Director of Operations at Living Wealth.