Talking about sustainability

29th June 2015

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Christine Snow

The environmentalist reports on a discussion to help clarify the language of sustainability

Given the scale of IEMA's vision to transform the world to sustainability - an objective set by members in 2013 - it is vital to get the foundations right. A strong and universal mastery of the basics of sustainability will prepare the institute and its members to achieve its goal.

That is why IEMA has been striving over the past year to build a shared understanding of sustainability as a principle and to clarify its terms. To achieve this end, IEMA has held workshops with members and consulted on a draft white paper to define and explain terms and concepts, such as sustainable development, sustainable business, corporate responsibility and corporate sustainability.

Nick Blyth, IEMA's policy and engagement lead, says: "It could be easy to get lost in the definitions around sustainability. This initiative is different. It is about a common language and understanding."

A new language?

At a recent roundtable discussion, leading members met to talk about the emerging lexicon. All agreed there was a need for the work.

Phil Cumming, a consultant, said: "What we don't have is agreement on the process and the direction and some of the language. You can talk to a myriad of people within our circles and multiple different job titles and they could all be doing the same thing or they could all be doing something very different."

"I think drawing a line and stopping 'term creep' is a good idea," said Matt Sexton, senior adviser at Futerra. "There are more and more terms coming out and it's starting to bewilder non-expert audiences. The sooner we can lock it down to a few terms the better, and with IEMA's backing that will be very useful."

Once this is achieved, professionals would be free to decide for themselves the words that most resonate with and motivate the companies they are engaging with, he added.

Members favour the Brundtland commission definition of sustainable development, which simplified is "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the future". They also want to draw on "one planet living", a concept developed by Bioregional and WWF International to emphasise the need to work within environmental limits and natural cycles. Under this scenario, members have pushed for sustainable development to be seen as resolving rather than balancing the three pillars of sustainability - environment, economy and society.

"We're not going to limit this to the environmental definition; we are going to broaden into social, ethical and wider considerations. IEMA needs to move into that broader space," said Martin Baxter, executive director of policy at IEMA.

Members expressed broad agreement with this definition. However, roundtable participant Bob Latham, a director at the Delphi Projects consultancy, queried the idea of resolving the three elements of sustainability rather than balancing them.

Blyth responded: "This came out of several discussions we had where there was a feeling that balancing the three pillars can be unambitious. Resolving is implicitly taking it one step further. Rather than looking at silo issues and trading one off against another, it forces you more towards the ambition of trying to find win-win solutions across social, environmental and economic issues."

Jae Mather, director of sustainability at the Carbon Free Group and partner at Responsible Worlds, agreed that balancing the three pillars could lead some organisations to be less ambitious. "This is a problem for many corporations. Often when they face up to this it becomes difficult so we have to coax them in," he said.

Business terminology

Looking at sustainable business as a term, the white paper consultation defined this primarily as an aspirational status for organisations to achieve in the future. However, roundtable participants were concerned that use of the word "aspirational" could allow businesses to think they can delay action.

Beth Knight, head of corporate sustainability at EY, flagged this up: "If someone sees aspirational, they're going to think it means 'let's worry about it later' but we're not saying that. We mean it's an evolution."

Baxter echoed this sentiment: "It's great having aspiration. But anyone can have aspiration safe in the knowledge that they won't be there to see it through."

Some roundtable participants felt there needed to be a stronger connection between sustainability and mainstream business strategy. Freelance consultant Jan Buckingham said that, to be regarded as sustainable a business needed to link its sustainability strategy to its corporate strategy. "A business needs to map out its journey to sustainability and then take that into its overall business strategy. I think that's fairly fundamental," she said.

Knight said: "We should say upfront what it is not. We're not talking about 'my business is sustainable because it's been around for 30 years'."

Participants debated whether a truly sustainable business could be profitable, because that would limit the definition to profit-making companies only. Some suggested that the issue was more around how an organisation distributes its profits. Other words, such as "efficient" or "commercially viable", were suggested, though it was felt that "profitable" was more reassuring language to use with business as long as it was put into context.

Corporate accountability

Definitions of corporate responsibility and corporate sustainability were discussed together by the roundtable participants since there is traditionally an overlap and confusion between the two.

There was a suggestion that the best way to differentiate between them is by their timeline. Corporate responsibility can be seen as a shorter-term idea considered up to three years in advance. By contrast, corporate sustainability considers longer term aspects of business, which tend to be more strategic, such as responding to megatrends like climate change.

A sustainable business is identified as one that is frequently reviewing itself and its dependencies, and is not just enduring over time. This type of business is also managing, improving, innovating and changing, and is likely to have an active and ongoing approach to corporate sustainability. The concept of a corporate sustainability timeline is illustrated in this diagram.

Latham pointed out, however, that he has heard corporate responsibility used to mean a longer-term view in reference to the responsibility of a board to pay shareholders. "We're at an important crossroads about defining this language," he said. "If we look at defining responsibility in a shorter time frame with specific activities, and sustainability in a longer time frame looking at transformation, not simply endurance,
then go for it because somebody somewhere has got to solve the issue of these four or five words that are causing real problems."

Colleen Theron, director of CLT Envirolaw, said: "One of the biggest challenges is how to bring that long-term thinking into what is a short-term consumerist agenda."

Mather believes that the term corporate sustainability is absent from most boards. "That's why the world finds itself in our current circumstance," he said. "It's the absence of any level of greater responsibility, the quarterly methodology has infused itself into all aspects of politics and governance. It started in finance and spread like a virus throughout society and it's the central fundamental challenge of any sustainable thinking because you cannot have sustainability with short-termism."

Cumming stressed the importance of top-level leadership in achieving corporate sustainability. "Some organisations have well-thought-out sustainability strategies but they're completely divorced from the actual governance architecture of the organisation and there's no oversight at all," he argued.

Roundtable participants also debated whether certain types of business, such as those in the tobacco and oil sectors, could ever be truly sustainable. "We need to be bold in distinguishing between corporate responsibility and corporate sustainability," said Cumming. "For example, some tobacco companies have some great programmes in place. But while they can do as much as they can to make their business more responsible, can they ever be aligned with what sustainable development is all about? Should they be pursuing corporate sustainability?"

Others thought it would be damaging to exclude types of business and that the more important outcome is to get all businesses to employ sustainability professionals to help them transform.

The session concluded with a discussion of the dynamic nature of corporate sustainability beyond responsible business. Roundtable participants agreed on the essential imperative to seek to embed sustainability in the mainstream strategy and the importance of ongoing innovation, review and change. These and other factors, such as collaboration, are essential in differentiating and defining the sustainable business, they said.

Roundtable participants

Martin Baxter, director of policy

Nick Blyth, policy adviser

Jan Buckingham, consultant

Phil Cumming, consultant

Beth Knight, head of corporate sustainability

Bob Latham, director

Jae Mather, director of sustainability

Matt Sexton, senior adviser

Colleen Theron, director


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