Sustainable strategies: Learning from the (many) mistakes of Brexit

The Brexit process has been marred by a plethora of mistakes meaning that 'Brexit Day' is just another day of endless negotiations. However, the Government's failures are an opportunity to learn, and there are some key lessons for sustainability professionals.

Sustainable strategies: Learning from the (many) mistakes of Brexit

Friday 29 March was meant to be Brexit Day, marking the occasion where the UK finalised a departure from the European Union (EU). As it stands, Brexit remains as vague an enigmatic as an Instagram influencer promoting Fyre Festival, and we all know how that ended.

MPs are still navigating the utterly labyrinthian withdrawal plans, void of any real leadership on the matter, despite Boris Johnson’s best Moses impression.

The nation has reached a point where very little is understood about Brexit, but everyone has an opinion; as Will Ferrell would say: “no one knows what it means, but it’s provocative! It gets the people going.”

Regardless of how you voted in the referendum its highly unlikely that anybody believes that the withdrawal process hasn’t been littered with mistake after mistake; ranging from innocuous to glaring.

However, mistakes are how we learn and grow. Even sustainability professionals, who overwhelmingly voted in favour of staying in the EU, can use Brexit as an opportunity to drive the sustainability agenda to greater heights.

So, amidst the parliamentary chaos, here’s what sustainability professionals can learn from the many mistakes of Brexit…so far.

Trust the experts

Before becoming a surprisingly effective Environment Secretary, Michael Gove lit the touch paper on public attitudes towards Brexit and economist and scientists.

Gove claimed that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, a narrative that enabled Leave campaigners to relabel any worrying studies into the impacts of Brexit as “project fear”.

Apart from an extremely powerful man located in the White House, the global consensus on climate change is largely agreeable; it is happening, and at a rate that requires immediate and ambitious action.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report has laid out the facts – global temperature increase will hit 1.5C by 2030, and 3-4C by the end of the century.

The document warns that the world is already 1C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and that an increase to 2C would significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

Fortunately, the business community isn’t labelling these findings as “project fear” but is instead using them to shape conversations about climate policies and low-carbon strategies. More than 540 companies have set science-based targets to align their strategies to a verified low-carbon pathway, but if Brexit has taught us anything, its that we need to trust the experts and increase these ambitions further by setting 1.5C targets – a feat only achieved so far by Tesco, BT, Carlsberg and Pukka Herbs.

Be wary of public demand

The UK public had their say when the Leave vote narrowly triumphed in the referendum. Built on a not-so-sturdy bedrock of promises on how the NHS would benefit amongst other wishes, Brexit serves to highlight that the public thinks it knows what it wants, but doesn’t necessarily know what it needs.

That’s not to say that the UK needs to stay in the EU – although I’m an avid ‘remainer’ – but rather, the public doesn’t necessarily have the foresight to anticipate the impacts of its desired outcome.

Take the ongoing plastics purge, for example. Generally speaking, the wider public wants businesses to phase-out avoidable single-use plastics and, in fairness, you’d be correct to suggest that public wants correlate with environmental needs.

For many consumer-facing companies, plastic phase-outs are being driven by consumer demand. In a bid to appease consumer concerns and keep the trust, these companies have jumped right into this battle, phasing-out common items like straws and cutlery.

There is a danger, however, that public desire for plastic-free or plastic alternatives – these stories are typically the most-read on edie each month – could steer businesses towards solutions that ultimately cause more harm than good.

Conversations are starting to take place about the “unintended consequences” of switching plastics to biodegradable, plastic-free or plant-based alternatives due to the impact they could have on land use, food waste and littering. But from the retailers I’ve spoken to, consumers are still asking “when” the plastic will be removed, rather than “what” they’ll be replaced with.

If the public have spoken on a matter, it’s in a company’s best interest to act. Just make sure these actions have long-term considerations in place and aren’t just a knee-jerk reaction that ultimately drives consumerism.  

Keep moving in uncertain times

It’s very rare to read a piece about Brexit and not see the word “uncertainty” dotted throughout. Organisations could and have used the Brexit negotiations to stand still and reassess situations largely related to finance and business growth.

Banks and automakers have acted quickly, moving production and headquarters out of the UK as a response to projections of a post-Brexit Britain. But if the Government can still function in these times, then so can business.

Both Defra and BEIS deserve credit for launching an array of legislative frameworks that will shape the green economy for decades to come in the UK. The Clean Growth Strategy, 25-Year Environment Plan and the Waste and Resources Strategy were all subjected to lengthy delays, but also set out the long-term trajectory for sustainable business.

Sure, some strategies are more aspirational than targeted, but if Government can use these uncertain times to launch ambitious new strategies than so can business; after all, the end goals are long-term, and action is needed now.

Fail fast

Theresa May’s insistence to get her deal through the door is emblematic of the issues facing Brexit. A deliver-at-all-costs mindset means the failure isn’t an option, despite the fact the plans continuously fail.

Brexit has devolved from “what deal works best for the country?” to “what deal gets this over and done with?” and I believe this is a result of Government refusing to analyse its defeats.

Sustainable business, on the other hand, is about setting stretching goals that you’re not sure how to meet. There’s no harm in failing along the way, as long as you fail fast, learn from it and try things differently.

Now is the time to take a leap of faith, roll out new technology and collaborate with different players. The results might not work the first time, but the business case for sustainability is stronger when you know what doesn’t work.

Comments (1)

  1. Philip Jordan says:

    How appropriate, that’s probably the most important thing anyone has written about both Brexit & for that matter Sustainability/Sustainable Development
    Thank you very much & I hope you’re similarly sending it to not only No 10 & Parliament but also your fellow journalists

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