Can sustainability professionals lead a ‘social movement’ to drive the green economy?

Environment and sustainability professionals can become the leaders of a new social movement that paves the way for a low-carbon, resource efficient future where fossil fuel consumption and air pollution are eradicated from human activities.

That’s the view of SecondNature co-founder and global sustainability specialist Charles Perry, who suggests that green business leaders have the ability to front a global sustainability mission in a similar manner to the heads of the civil rights movement and anti-apartheid struggle. 

Having gained vast experience in the corporate and political worlds over the past 15 years, Perry has founded Move for Europe – a new grassroots campaign which puts the environment front and centre of the UK’s position in a post-Brexit Europe.  

Speaking about his bold vision for the green economy, Perry said: “It’s a social movement to drive change for a sustainable future. My next step is to mobilise the business pillar as that’s the world I know best. The other two parts of the triangle – people and policymakers – need the most heavy lifting. Without sustainability professionals, we can’t deliver change, as they are the ones that have the power to deliver.  

“What we really need is a social movement. People can’t be dictated to, they actually have to behave sustainably. It’s unlikely that fossil fuels are going to be banned overnight, so we all have to take responsibility and we all have to mobilise.

“Business people like Joanna Yarrow and Steve Howard at Ikea and Mike Barry at Marks & Spencer; these people are still individuals. As individuals, they need to be part of a social movement. When Mike, for example, does his job as sustainability leader of Plan A, he is still an individual with a family, who can be be activists in a social movement.”

Behaviour change

Perry notes the power of businesses to deliver sustainable solutions through services and technologies such as electric vehicles (EVs), infrastructure, and renewable energy assets. However, he concedes that a business cannot drive the low-carbon transition without a fundamental behaviour change within its workforce.

According to Perry, it is the role of sustainability professionals that can influence commercial operations and therefore bring about a cultural shift away from unsustainable behaviours and attitudes to ensure environmental issues become an integral part of business decision-making. 

“We have those technologies now, but what we don’t have is the social acceptability,” he said. “Smoking started to become socially unacceptable, now we’ve got to make unsustainable behaviour socially unacceptable, so people don’t just pollute because they think it’s the only way of living. They need to start wanting to eradicate any kind of polluting behaviour from their daily existence. 

“It’s a ‘people mobilisation’ change. Increasingly, people complain about microbeads in skincare products, or plastic bag waste or lung disease through pollution in London. Policymakers are only starting to clamp down after people say these things are unacceptable.”  

Power to the people

Perry’s view that businesses are better-placed than policymakers to drive the green economy echoes the position of leading environmental Jonathon Porritt. Much like Porritt – who spoke exclusively to edie last week – Move for Europe founder Perry possesses a healthy amount of scepticism over the willingness of MPs to bring the sustainability agenda to the forefront of British politics.

Perry stresses the importance of individuals holding policymakers to account to ensure that sustainability concerns are heard loud and clear. “The Conservative Government has been on about the Greenest Government ever since 2010, and actually we’ve made very little progress,” he said.

“Prime Minister Theresa May is not known for being green and in fact her voting record shows this. So in fact I’m quite cynical about her ability to come up with very innovative green policy. Indeed, getting rid of the words ‘climate change’ from the new department [BEIS] was not a good start.

“If politicians aren’t going to deliver change then the people have to act and say enough is enough. People vote, people have money in their pockets and people are employed. In all of those ways, people need to drive the change.”

George Ogleby

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