Challenging business as usual: making sustainability the new norm

2016 was a strange, and in some ways, dispiriting year to live through, particularly for those working in sustainability. 2017 appears to be continuing in much the same vein. In the past 12 months alone, we've seen Trump inaugurated, Brexit stumble onward and Hinckley get the go ahead despite common sense suggesting renewables were the better option.

Challenging business as usual: making sustainability the new norm

So, where do we go from here? How do we build upon the successes of the SDG’s and Paris? How do we engage with sceptics to challenge norms, convince them that they should put sustainability at the heart of what they do and demonstrate that ‘business as usual’ (BAU) cannot go on indefinitely?

Ultimately, greed and political agendas aside, progress is slow because “change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better”. Change, however, is imperative so we need to address that inconvenience.

As Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business at M&S, recently put it: “static, conservative sectors, locked into unsustainable models of consumption and production for decades must try something new, fast”.

Whilst there’s a wealth of research on engagement techniques, there’s no definitive roadmap to driving change, so here are five lessons I’ve learned from trying to challenge norms and supporting others to drive change:

1) Education through demonstration

To many, sustainability is an abstract concept. The global systems in which we operate are complex. The sheer scale of the issue at hand and the volume of information we’re all bombarded with makes it difficult to understand why, for example, the agricultural policy of one nation impacts the soil quality of a village thousands of miles away.

Yet on a basic level, sustainability is a simple concept: we live in a finite system and using resources without replenishing them, degrades and diminishes that system – a trend which ultimately leads to system collapse. Relating this to a specific individual or business by explaining why the way in which they specifically operate isn’t sustainable in the medium to long term, and highlighting the likely consequences, can bring the message home.

There’s a disconnect between peoples’ understanding of climate change and appreciation of its consequences, because many of the most devastating impacts are occurring thousands of miles away. People feel more motivated to take action when they perceive a problem to directly affect them, and that’s where the disconnect becomes problematic.

The theory follows that “information generates knowledge, which shapes attitudes, which leads to behaviour change”. Of course, the provision of information alone is not enough to change behaviours. I do believe, however, that a lack of knowledge is enough to hinder sustainable development, so education is a good starting point for engagement.

2) Understand local context and tailor your response

There isn’t a one size fits all approach to sustainability. From basic linguistic differences to the intricate cultural variances of each community, care must be given to understanding local context and developing a bespoke solution particularly when working internationally.

The success or failure of ANY sustainability initiative is dependent on the understanding of those involved and their willingness to participate. As the UN puts it, “culturally informed urban development can inspire more participatory processes”. Wedded to that is the fact that what is sustainable in the one place, may not necessarily be sustainable elsewhere. Understanding local context is therefore not only key to improving local engagement on sustainability, it’s also key to ensuring the response itself is appropriate. The role of localism in sustainable development, and its role in improving engagement, has been well explored by academics and is being put into practice by the likes of the Transition Network.

3) Demonstrate the business case

Many of the sustainability measures businesses can take make good business sense. The ‘We Mean Business’ coalition demonstrated many are achieving an average IRR of 27% on low carbon investments. This doesn’t account for the indirect financial benefits of a sustainable approach such as improved productivity, estimated at 16%, higher sales, particularly for those that compete on a brand level and improved resilience to change.

It’s interesting to ask people whether they view sustainability as a risk or an opportunity. The answer is usually a risk. Acknowledging BAU cannot go on is daunting, but the alternative view is that a fundamental shift in how we operate throws up various opportunities for growth. From a business perspective, why wouldn’t you be undertaking the tasks required to improve your sustainability anyway? Lowering resource consumption, establishing robust, resilient supply chains and building a reputation as a good corporate citizen is unlikely to have a detrimental impact on your business, so why not view sustainability as an opportunity?

Once you accept the underlying logic behind the imperative for change, the question becomes “why wouldn’t you change?”. Let’s assume you’ve convinced someone of this imperative and want to support them in driving change within their business…  

4) Make your support fit the people, not the other way around

Everyone you engage will have unique circumstances. They may have a deep understanding of climate change, the resources to drive sustainability within their workplace and the skillset to engage others, or they might lack all the above and simply be passionate. A challenge of supporting others on engagement programmes is making the requisite resources available, without over-burdening and discouraging those who are less engaged or have competing priorities.

It’s useful to have an appreciation of each person’s skillset and capacity at the outset. Asking the right questions is key; why are they doing this? What do they want to achieve? What barriers are they facing and how can you help them overcome them? This appreciation allows you to tailor your support so that everyone gets the most out of sustainability. Establishing expectations, developing an action plan and setting up KPI’s clarifies everyone’s responsibilities. Putting in place the appropriate communication channels and support mechanisms is the next challenge. Organising regular one on one catch ups is a good way to build relationships. Once again, understanding the type and regularity of communication and support each individual requires is key.   

5) Don’t preach, encourage ownership

Environmentalists have developed something of a reputation for having a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. When attempting to change behaviours it’s all too easy to sound as if you are apportioning blame or being judgemental. This understandably leads to feelings of alienation, cynicism and mistrust.

Engagement should be an inclusionary, two-way process. The truth is no one has all the answers – the deep, fundamental changes necessitated are unprecedented so how could they? Admitting this once in a while can inspire trust. Ultimately stimulating innovation through collaboration is far more effective than working in silos. Ensuring that people know you’re partners, jointly responsible for the success or failure of any project encourages ownership.       

Behavioural change, particularly changing social norms, is a long-term process. On a personal level, it can be hard to see progress when you so regularly encounter scepticism, apathy and stubbornness but change is coming. Yes, there’s a long way to go, but finally we are starting to see the type of unprecedented technological innovation (e.g. energy storage), government commitment (e.g. Paris Agreement) and private sector investment (e.g. RE100) we need to create a truly sustainable economy.

Daniel Murray is a senior consultant at Carbon Smart 

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