Overcoming the knowledge gap

6th April 2014


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Johanna Jarvinen

Jae Mather argues that the evolving sustainability profession should resist falling into the age-old trap of reinventing the wheel

Fifteen years ago, the focus of environment practitioners was generally on environment management and impact assessments, usually in government organisations and the business sector. Then, with the emergence of corporate social responsibility, sustainability roles began to appear in large companies. Next, small and medium-sized enterprises started looking seriously at sustainability. But, in 2008, the recession pushed sustainability back to the “nice to do pile”, or it became something to do when the economy returned to “normal”.

Now, it appears that many conventional business roles in mainstream organisations are responsible for various aspects of the sustainability agenda. Many people will say that this is a positive move, as one thing that the sustainability profession has been criticised for is that the mission was always more important than business imperatives. Others will view the transition as a natural maturation of sustainability. They will argue that non-sustainability professionals taking on sustainability issues will enable mainstream business skill sets to be used to advance environmental and social strategies. But there are drawbacks.

Institutional wisdom

Recently I spoke at a large business conference on sustainability where I followed eight business speakers who spoke predominantly of sustainable business being not about pursuing a greater environmental mission, rather that it is essentially only about the business case. I enjoyed hearing about five exciting sustainable business projects as they perfectly demonstrated exciting innovation, opportunity and sustainability. However, what I found interesting was that I had come across three of the five ideas before.

In conversation with the speakers afterwards I found out that they were largely unaware of the other related projects. It was obvious to me that there was a great deal of reinventing of the wheel going on. We seem to be losing the institutional wisdom that had been so hard won by others who have worked in this field.

As an example, one of the projects was a large business that had invested a fair amount of time in establishing whether environmentally friendly cleaning products met their existing quality, supply reliability and cost requirements. These alternative products were integrated into the existing cleaning contract but were met with resistance by contractors, and only a few of the products used in its buildings changed eventually. The company is now waiting until the contract comes up for renewal to decisively make the switch to using products with a less damaging environmental footprint.

Maidstone Borough Council did much of the background work on the efficacy of such products nine years ago, winning multiple awards as an example of best practice. Case studies about this project are readily available and even the technical specification can be found. If the business wanting its cleaning contractor to switch to alternative products had been aware of the council’s story, it could have more easily overcome many of the stumbling blocks it encountered.

This tale underlines the importance of business leaders understanding that giving mainstream business professionals responsibility for sustainability requires up-skilling beyond the mere job at hand: they also need the knowledge that comes from working on sustainability for years – if one is unaware of the bigger picture apparent success can equal failure. An individual might be very competent at aspects of sustainability but, if it is just a pin that has been added to their lapel, the big picture is often lost.

Say, for example, that you are one of the world’s leading kitchen firefighters and you have just put out one of the most challenging fires of your career, but you now face a fire on a sinking boat. It doesn’t matter how good you may be, in the absence of context it could be largely irrelevant. This is where people with a greater skills set in sustainability come in and can help with context and historic reference.

Interdependence essential

What is becoming common today is that some leading businesses are striving to have zero impact on the environment. That is not enough; they need to have a positive impact, not only to make up for their historic negative impacts, but also to demonstrate what can be achieved and that tackling sustainability issues can also be good for the bottom line.

It is not a question of being profitable or being sustainable. There are no businesses in the medium to long term that can be profitable without becoming ever more sustainable. As Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, said: “Business is the only institution that is large enough, persuasive enough and powerful enough to lead humankind out of this mess.”

But businesses need to learn from each other on sustainability and that means those charged with managing these issues need to stop reinventing the wheel and take note of what has already been achieved.

Header image source: istock.com

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