Connecting the dots of sustainability

10th February 2014


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Christina Hadjipolydorou

Paul Suff finds out what sustainability means to environment practitioners and how they are working to embed the concept

Sustainability seems to be everywhere. More and more companies are developing sustainability strategies, establishing sustainability departments and publishing sustainability reports. Consumer goods business Unilever, for example, has its sustainable living plan, a sustainable business team led by the firm’s chief sustainability officer, and produces regular sustainability progress reports.

For companies like Unilever, sustainability activities centre on the classic “triple bottom line” of “profit, people, planet”, which was first outlined in 1994 by John Elkington, founder of the consultancy SustainAbility. The three “Ps” are now commonly referred to as the three “Es”, “economic, environment and social equity”. In Unilever’s case, for example, sustainability is about improving health and wellbeing, reducing environmental impacts across the whole value chain and enhancing livelihoods.

Sustainability has its roots in ecology and a growing number of environment professionals are playing a key role in helping to make businesses more sustainable. Others, however, are unsure how, or to what extent, environment practitioners should be involved in the non-environmental elements of the sustainability agenda. Some are perhaps fearful that any shift away from their core discipline will downgrade their status, as sustainability is often seen as less about science and more about public relations. Some may be reluctant to embrace new skill sets, having spent years honing their environmental knowledge and gaining recognition for their technical expertise. To better understand the role that environment professionals are actually playing in the wider sustainability agenda, the environmentalist spoke to some prominent practitioners.

What’s in a definition?

The starting point for most environmentalists when describing their view of sustainability is the 1987 Brundtland definition, which states that sustainable development is meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

For example, Kirsten Holman, environment manager at Parsons Brinckerhoff UK, says that to her sustainability is about “living within our means/resources without causing detriment to the world we live in, and without compromising future generations ability to do the same.” Bekir Andrews, group sustainability manager at Balfour Beatty, offers a similar view: “To me, sustainability is about conducting your business responsibly and transparently, while minimising your negative impact on the environment and maximising your positive impact on society.”

Andrews believes the Brundtland definition should be seen as a guide to help businesses develop their own interpretation of sustainability. “It is really up to each organisation to interpret these guiding principles and apply them to their own business,” he says. Andrews, who started his working life in environmental biochemistry and now considers himself a sustainability practitioner, explains that the definition of sustainability applied at Balfour Beatty is based on the classical three pillars of economy, society and the environment, and are referred to as “profitable markets”, “healthy communities” and “environmental limits”.

“Sustainability touches every aspect of our company. It affects our behaviour, impacts our costs, creates new business opportunities, sharpens our competitive edge and helps us contribute to our customers’ long-term profitability,” says Andrews.

At travel company Thomas Cook, activities to make the business more sustainable centre around four key pillars – the environment, people, communities and the “marketplace”, described by the firm as all of its interactions with stakeholders, from customers to suppliers. “The four pillars interlink with our aims to deliver for our customers; increase trust in our brand; create value; and reduce risk,” says Victoria Barlow, group environmental manager at Thomas Cook.

Meanwhile, Dr Cymru (Welsh Water) has outlined a 25-year strategy (to 2035) to improve drinking water quality, customer service and environmental protection, while charging customers less than equivalent UK water companies. Its “sustainable future” plan has eight dimensions, including “safeguarding the environment”, aspiring to be an “employer of choice”, and delivering cost-beneficial investment programmes, which the company categorises as “looking after our assets”.

Director of environment Tony Harrington says that he sees sustainability through the classic Venn diagram (see below), explaining that for a project to be really successful it needs to hit the “sweet spot” in the middle, where the economic, environment and social “circles” overlap. “Those that don’t are either suboptimal, or store up issues for the future,” he says.

Ian Hill, chief sustainability officer at Openreach, BT’s access network, reports that the communications giant regards sustainability as an integral part of the company’s broader strategy to create a better business with a better future. “In environment terms, it’s very much about helping others reduce their impacts. BT’s end-to-end carbon impact is roughly equal to the emissions our products help customers avoid. But we want to change that ratio and help customers avoid three times our carbon impact,” he says. This goal links with the other key aspects of BT’s sustainability strategy, which seeks to improve lives globally and to connect society through its products and services.

Like BT, retailer Marks & Spencer has a high-profile sustainability plan. Sustainability and reporting manager Rowland Hill has spent more than 30 years at M&S, and has seen firsthand how sustainability has developed, helping to set up the function now responsible for the retailer’s Plan A strategy. He says there has been a noticeable change in the focus of sustainability activities over the past five years. “When we launched Plan A in 2007, the balance was about 70% environment and 30% social. That balance has now swung the other way. Social aspects, like employment and skills, are now more to the fore,” he explains.

This change is noticeable in the 2010 version of Plan A, which increased the original 100 commitments set out in 2007 to 180. In the first iteration of Plan A, 67 of the commitments focused on climate, waste and raw materials, whereas more than half (93) of the 180 commitments made in 2010 are outside of these environment-based pillars. Nineteen focus on health and wellbeing and 21 on being a “fair partner” to employees and suppliers, while 13 relate to customers. Although some of the commitments in these categories have an environmental aspect, such as building “greener” stores, they are not specifically labelled as such, reflecting a shifting emphasis.

“The recession has pushed the short-term needs of society to the fore, rather long-term environmental challenges,” says Hill. Nonetheless, he reports that M&S is mindful of the need to retain its focus on the environment. “It’s our future, so we can’t ignore it, even if it’s no longer as high on the radar of politicians and the general public,” he explains.

Mandy Gloyer is stakeholder and planning policy manager at ScottishPower Renewables (SPR). ScottishPower is part of Spanish energy business Iberdrola and Gloyer says the parent company’s sustainability strategy embraces economic, environmental and social dimensions. According to the firm’s 2012 sustainability report: “Iberdrola has focused on sustainability in its broadest sense, continuously seeking equilibrium among its financial results, its environmental performance and its commitment to the people it serves and to the countries and societies in which it is present.”

Iberdrola’s 2012 sustainability scorecard covers 81 measures of economic, environmental and social performance. Of these, 54 are economic or social. “These sustainability indicators apply at every level of the business,” says Gloyer.

Playing their part

There is a general consensus among our panel that environment professionals can play a significant role in assisting businesses to achieve their sustainability ambitions, though the extent of their involvement varies and there is concern that some practitioners do not have the right skills to help deliver the necessary change.

Independent environment consultant Marek Bidwell explains that he works across a number of sectors, from manufacturing to electricity distribution and rail. While he is confident to engage clients on sustainability issues, he says that some environment professionals are focused only on environmental compliance issues.

“I generally have the most interesting discussions about sustainability with the directors of those organisations, because they are in control of the business plans that shape their products and services,” says Bidwell. “For me, it is vital that I understand sustainability, in addition to environmental compliance, or I couldn’t have these conversations.”

Bidwell believes it is important that where environment and sustainability are two separate functions, they work closely together. “The sustainability people should aim to add value by identifying new ‘greener’ opportunities and ways of doing business, while the environment people manage and minimise environmental risk,” he says. “The worst case scenario is that the sustainability people see those focused on environment management systems [EMS] as ‘compliance luddites’, and the EMS people see sustainability as all fluff and ‘style over substance’.”

Holman at Parsons Brinckerhoff provides a good example of how the two functions can operate together successfully. Holman is responsible for environment management across the firm’s UK operations and is a member of the health, safety, environment and quality team, which is separate from the sustainability function. “The sustainability team is a mix of client-facing and corporate staff. I work very closely with them, and we rely on each other for help when necessary,” she explains.

Holman reveals that, while the functions have separate goals and targets, their work often crosses over, particularly when it comes to behaviour-change programmes and initiatives that focus on energy, water and waste. Holman also highlights the important role she plays in supporting the economic and social pillars of sustainability at Parsons Brinckerhoff. “Maintaining our certification to ISO 14001 is critical to winning new work and keeping existing clients,” she says, adding that her work to improve environmental performance and reporting also brings financial benefits by helping to boost efficiency and cut costs.

Holman’s role has a social dimension too, through her involvement in supporting offices’ individual environmental action plans, which can include improving local biodiversity and habitats through volunteering initiatives, for example.

Parsons Brinckerhoff is part of Balfour Beatty, and Andrews confirms the structure of separate environment and sustainability functions outlined by Holman is common across most of the firm’s businesses. He also confirms that they tend to work very closely with one another.

Barlow at Thomas Cook is part of the sustainability team but, like her peers in organisations with separate functions, she also works with non-environmentalists on various initiatives. One example is the firm’s work to effectively manage water. A priority for Thomas Cook is to encourage its accommodation suppliers to better consider and reduce water consumption.

“Water management is primarily an environmental issue, but it has a knock-on effect on economic and social impacts,” says Barlow. “My role is about working with the sustainable destination manager and overseas teams to engage hotels and local communities on the importance of reducing water use. It’s about providing technical information.”

Likewise, the sustainability team at M&S acts like an internal consultancy. “A lot of the team are skilled project managers,” says Rowland Hill. “They take a project, whether it is environment or employment based, for example, and work with people throughout the business to deliver it.”

The policy and innovation team at SPR includes policy specialists, two community liaison officers and three ecologists and is part of the firm’s policy and innovation function. Gloyer explains that the team works on onshore and offshore wind, wave and tidal projects, with a focus on developing community and stakeholder relationships. “SPR policy is to develop and operate sites for the lifecycle of the plans (around 25 years for a wind turbine), so we have to work with local people right from the start, when designing the project,” she says. Gloyer says the ecologists, who are concerned mainly with habitats, work very closely with project teams, both onshore and offshore.

Knowledge sharing

Aside from being a source of technical knowledge, environment practitioners typically have skills that can benefit other elements of the sustainability agenda. Andrews identifies compliance and EMS auditing as one such area of expertise. He explains that part of his role at Balfour Beatty is to monitor, audit and report on the progress of the sustainability strategy. “Auditing skills are quite easily transferable, if you have the right level of expertise and the necessary subject matter knowledge. Balfour Beatty, for instance, uses its internal auditors who are experienced at auditing financial data to also audit its non-financial sustainability data.”

There is concern that some environment professionals lack the ability or are reluctant to see outside their technical specialism, which makes it difficult for them to take a lead role on sustainability. “There’s a tendency for environmentalists to specialise in waste or water or whatever, whereas a sustainability person is essentially a Jack-of-all-trades. Specialists tend to lack context, so they’re unable to see the bigger picture, something that is crucial in sustainability,” comments Jae Mather, director of sustainability at the Carbon Free Group. He believes that the ability to take a broader perspective on an issue is the next stage of the evolution of the profession.

Rowland Hill at M&S says that it is essential that members of the retailer’s sustainability function can see the bigger picture and how to measure the impact on the business of water scarcity, for example.

Harrington at Dr Cymru believes the profession is generally now much less “monochromatic” in its approach to issues than in the past. “The profession has evolved and many practitioners are now able to take a more holistic view, rather than just focus on say the environment,” he says.

Harrington is concerned, however, that too many environment graduates still lack the right combination of skills to make them really effective in the broader roles that industry has to offer. “Leadership and the ability to build relationships do not really feature in many science degrees. There is no shortage of graduates with good technical knowledge, but to apply this knowledge effectively and drive change they need to have strong people and leadership skills too.”

Harrington reports that Dr Cymru puts graduate job applicants through a one-day assessment centre, which includes psychometric tests that focus on leadership skills, aptitudes and behaviours, to ensure they recruit candidates with both strong technical and leadership skill sets.

According to Andrews, some environmentalists find it difficult to quantify the benefits of a particular project. “They are good at identifying the issues, but poor at developing the business case,” he argues. Andrews says he has benefited from working closely with business development managers. “Typically, they consult widely and consider all potential eventualities before bringing an initiative forward.”

Ian Hill at BT advises practitioners to expand their business knowledge and learn how they might apply the skills they already possess to different agendas.

Andrews urges environmentalists to engage in continuing professional development (CPD). “I keep my CPD up to date by attending and organising events that are of interest to me, taking part in workshops, auditing project sites and learning on the job,” he says. “I like to keep abreast of technological solutions, especially in the field of energy efficiency and IT, and I also take an active interest in finance and procurement solutions.”

Mather suggests that environment practitioners keep informed on the major sustainability issues, even if they only have time to read things like the two-page summary from the IPCC on the latest climate change projections, and to think about what the changes might mean for their organisation. Bidwell agrees. “Environment managers need to ensure key developments are on their radar,” he says.

Holman sees no problem in developing her knowledge and skills set. “I think this has already happened throughout my career. I’ve had to learn about carbon management and footprinting, sustainable procurement, reporting and climate adaptation,” she explains. “Professionals should never stop learning.”


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