Busy doing nothing?

How do you eat an elephant? That's right: one slice at a time. Whilst there are compelling reasons to work towards sustainability, relatively few companies in reality are doing so. There must, therefore, be reasons why not. Dr Martin Gibson, principal consultant for AEA Technology Environment, offers a few serving suggestions.

Sustainability is the ability to keep going continuously. Governments tend to apply this concept to the environment as ‘sustainable development’. Perhaps the most common definition of sustainable development is the ‘Bruntland Definition’: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In early 1999, the Institute of Directors in the UK surveyed some of its members in response to government initiatives on sustainability. The survey primarily asked about energy and water use, and asked if companies had policies on energy and water efficiency and whether they had taken any action. Those that hadn’t taken action were asked why not. A large proportion – 49% – of respondents indicated that they had taken some action. On being asked about the obstacles to taking action, the following reasons were given:

  • 69% were busy with other issues;
  • 43% cited a lack of authoritative information;
  • 41% were put off by the cost of implementing new measures; and
  • 8% said there was too much information available to select the best choices.

The reasons for not taking action will not come as a surprise to many people. However, there is a lot of evidence that one of the largest obstacles to action by middle managers and other staff is a lack of commitment from senior management. The senior managers who responded to the Institute of Directors’ survey obviously did not express this. This highlights a problem: that senior management seem to feel that they are committed to environmental improvement when, in reality, their lack of action shows that they are not.

Tangible steps

Lack of management commitment may be real or simply perceived. Some senior managers will not be committed to environmental improvement while others will feel that they are. In order to address a problem, however, you have to know that it exists. Some managers feel that they are already committed to environmental improvement and are unaware that other staff do not recognise this commitment. If this is the case, one approach to overcoming it is to demonstrate to senior managers that staff are not aware of their commitment. A simple anonymous survey of staff asking two or three questions about environmental issues, including awareness of management commitment to environmental improvement, may provide the evidence you need to gain the attention of senior management.

If you can demonstrate that staff are not aware of management commitment to environmental improvement, you can then suggest tangible steps that can help to demonstrate commitment, for example writing and displaying a company environmental policy and appointing someone to act as environmental manager. Make sure that senior management also allocate the environmental manager time to do the role and, if possible, a budget for expenditure. An increasingly common way of funding wider environmental improvements is to use the savings gained from waste and energy minimisation activities.

Alternatively, it may not be necessary to gain recognition of the problem if you can simply gain tangible commitment. If senior managers already feel that they are committed to environmental improvement, they may agree to displaying an environmental policy or to be seen to allocate resources to an environmental programme.

Commitment is best demonstrated by action. When environmental improvement and working towards sustainability become part of normal business practices within your company, you will be meaningfully committed to action. Ideally, a board member will have responsibility for sustainability.

Few companies, even large ones, have the luxury of having spare capacity that can be applied to a new initiative. The normal pressures of staying in business already often take up more time than is reasonably available. Therefore, to start a new initiative that involves a difficult and unfamiliar concept will rarely get support in most organisations. This is a difficult barrier to overcome.

An incremental approach may help to get started. Instead of laying out a long term plan from the start, it may be better to allocate a few days of time simply to investigate the current position and assess what opportunities are easily identifiable and what benefits are likely to arise from different levels of input. For example, it may be that a waste minimisation initiative in a small section of the company could bring quick returns. This would build confidence for the future and would be relatively low risk.

Financial benefits

Resources are usually assigned to activities that will bring the best returns; assessing the possible financial benefits for working towards sustainability will help to show how it compares with other uses of internal resources. Waste minimisation may improve profits more cost effectively than increased sales in some companies. Similarly, changing design practices may bring savings many times greater than the cost of implementing the changes.

Using the above approaches will require some estimates of the cost savings or other benefits that will accrue for the activity. There are many examples of the cost benefits of waste minimisation, but few for improved design or more advanced measures to improve sustainability. This will make it difficult to substantiate any estimates of future benefits and you should not try to hide the fact that there are some risks involved. The evidence available so far indicates that you will not lose out from a well implemented waste minimisation programme or from incorporating environment into the design process. Also, the few companies that have produced sustainability reports are very successful. We should, therefore, ask why they do it: they must consider it a key business issue. Many waste minimisation initiatives falter because of problems arising from lack of commitment, indicating how critical this issue is for success.

There is little doubt that with our current state of knowledge, it is difficult to find guidance on many aspects of sustainability. There is no simple way to overcome this barrier at present. There is considerable information available from researchers, but less that can provide information on practical issues, although a few consultants have built up expertise in the area and may be able to provide practical advice. Information is also available from various government bodies. However, there are likely to be issues specific to your company where you will be the first to come up with an approach or solution.

Companies will often find that some of their personnel have the capability to address environmental issues if they are given sufficient training and time to do so. This is particularly true for process specific issues. Staff working on a process will usually have a very good understanding of it and be able to come up with new approaches.

Until relatively recently, environmental improvements were almost invariably linked to investment in end-of-pipe technologies. Consequently, companies felt that improved environmental performance always cost money. Now that more companies are reducing waste at source, this widely held view is beginning to change. However, not everybody recognises the chance for reducing cost and, of course, some environmental improvements will still require costly investment. Improvements associated with improving sustainability are more likely to be cost beneficial in the long run as they will help to ensure the most efficient use of resources.

The costs of moving towards sustainability will be difficult to predict but there is evidence that they will be more than offset by the savings that can be made. In the early stages, the main cost is likely to be people’s time – either that of company staff or of consultants. Other increased costs may arise from increased material prices or transport costs, but these are just as likely to be cost neutral or to save money over time.

Fundamental barrier

Sustainability is a relatively new concept and many people simply do not know about it or do not fully understand it. This is a fundamental barrier to getting started and one that is often overlooked. People who do understand sustainability will argue that it is relevant to every company and to every individual. While this is true, few people in business will yet see the relevance of sustainability in their day-to-day business situations. The most powerful message often comes from other companies of the same type that have already benefited. Unfortunately, there are few case studies about companies working towards sustainability, and it may be some years before such examples become available. If you start now, your company may be one of them and may gain competitive advantage from being one of the first to make progress towards sustainability.

This article is taken from Martin Gibson’s recently published book, Environmental Sustainability: A Framework for Action, available from Chandos, telephone 01865 882727, e-mail: sales@chandospublishing.com.

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