Business And Sustainability

February 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Business and sustainably are not comfortable bedfellows. There are too many stories of environmental and social failure – BP, Dow Chemicals, Monsanto – for us to embrace the current market model as compatible with a sustainable future.

At the base conference earlier this week, this awkward relationship was on full view. Well-meaning individuals were eager to find new ways to take the sustainability message into the heart of their business, but struggling to re-align company aims from where they currently are. Caroline Lucas MP said that in all her years in the European Parliament and now in Westminster, she had never been lobbied by businesses for stronger environmental action. And you can understand why – business is about maximising profit, and that’s that.

Sometimes you come across the happy case of mutual benefit – for example, The Aldersgate Group, bringing together businesses, think-tanks, NGOs, politicians – on the idea of green growth/job creation. Sky gave some compelling examples of cost saving measures that also saved carbon, and how they’re now reaching out to their customers through the power of Ross Kemp.

But not all corporate social responsibility is good. (Natalya Sverjensky’s blog will testify to that.) The presentation from a senior executive at Coca Cola was deeply troubling. His words about future targets fell flat, and his incomplete understanding of what sustainability means in practice revealed itself as a question from the audience challenged him on the inherent contradiction between an unhealthy product and the need for sustainability.

As an observer, the general theme that emerged for me was the struggle by business as it is to fit into a world that has changed. Business needs to change, and I believe, our idea of what business is needs to change. (May I suggest Umair Haque’s new book for further reading.)

And yet in the business world – real leadership, real courage, and real vision is possible. It looks like this –

Who knew carpet tiles could be so interesting?!

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