What's in a word?

29th May 2015


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Manan Abbas

Effectively engaging in sustainable development requires a holistic approach, argue Neil Rotheroe, Gary McFarlane and Martin Ruston

Despite the evolution of sustainable development or sustainability to include social and economic components, it is disappointing to find that many businesses and other organisations still tend to perceive it in solely environmental terms. Too many organisations do not consider sustainability in terms of opportunity.

Successful entrepreneurs tend to have an opportunistic mind-set. But if sustainable development (SD) is perceived as being outside this and restricted to a risk control activity, leaders are unlikely to be significantly engaged and it will lack positive strategic management. What is required in such circumstances is a culture change. The problem is best described as a failure to find a means for developing and operating a strategy for SD in the management of organisations.

Limited approaches to sustainability have included management system specification (MSS). This covers environmental management systems for the environmental component, such as ISO 14001 and the EU eco-management and audit scheme, EMAS, and quality management systems set in the economic context, such as ISO 9001. However, MSS approaches have been criticised for failing to substantially engage significant input by the strategic leaders of organisations, and is being tackled by the revisions to both 14001 and 9001, and which will adopt the same high-level structure.

Nonetheless, the issue remains that MSSs, while having a clear utility and contributory value, do not provide a holistic approach. A more comprehensive framework needs to be deployed to achieve strategic management for sustainable development.

Accessible framework

To develop an accessible framework, we have taken part in piloting an approach using the recent update of BS 8900 on managing sustainable development of organisations. The 2013 version has two parts: a guide and framework requirements (against which recognised certification can be achieved).

The intention is to use the two parts together. The standard is not an MSS because it provides a strategic framework for the management of sustainability in organisations. The approach set out by the standard expects continuous senior management leadership, input and direction. Critically, it seeks to capture, engender and orientate innovation in organisations relevant to sustainability in the management context.

8900 does not duplicate existing management system approaches and reporting activity. Rather it sits above these and provides strategic direction and input into the setting of high-level objectives.

In the context of innovation, the standard seeks an approach that moves beyond risk control to be a focus for strategic business opportunity – it is central to the organisation’s business case and to meeting client requirements in relation to corporate social responsibility and sustainability. It sits well with organisations that are innovative and want recognition for this.

The standard is not about being perfect now. It is about setting and achieving genuine direction, supported by objective evidence, and promotes the notion of the learning organisation.

Beyond risk control

Innovative organisations tend to have many positive initiatives geared towards sustainable development. 8900 provides a manageable and coherent way to develop a strategy to embed successful initiatives at the operational level. It also provides the context for further progress. The approach used in the standard engages senior management. In this respect it is all about moving beyond an approach that focuses exclusively on operational risk control to one focused on business opportunity in response to the need to be sustainable.

In this it makes efficient use of business leaders by providing them with a framework to direct sustainability management without necessarily being sucked into all the operational details. The sustainable development maturity matrix component of the standard is valuable at leadership level in that it assists directors to make truly strategic decisions on a continuous improvement pathway towards effective management of sustainability.

The success of the pilots (see examples from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and Stone Computers in panel, left) suggest that 8900 provides a good solution to the lack of an accessible framework for organisations to engage in a holistic way with sustainability, particularly in smaller organisations where resources can be limited.

BS 8900 in practice

Chartered Institute of Environmental Health

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) is a registered charity providing a voice for environmental health professionals. The management board decided to undertake the framework provided by BS 8900 for the management of sustainability as a way of assisting the future development of the organisation, particularly in a period of rapid change in its strategic operating environment.

The CIEH has found 8900 useful for demonstrating to its members and other stakeholders where the organisation is going. The strategic framework provided by the standard has helped to enhance and articulate the meaning of the current activity of the profession, which is inherently concerned with the management of sustainability in its social, economic and environmental components. As result, 8900 adds value to the professional stance of the organisation through communication, focus and the practice of continual organisational learning.

The institute is set on changing the culture of the organisation, and the adoption of the framework provided by 8900 is seen as central to achieving this. The experience of the CIEH confirms that the standard can be a constructive tool in a corporate change strategy.

The creation of a stakeholder group in line with the requirements of the standard to determine principles of sustainable development, as indicated by 8900, has been useful to the institute in terms of it becoming more of a learning organisation and better able to respond to challenges. Also, the development of the format of the maturity matrix in the standard was found by the CIEH to be valuable in providing cultural alignment.

Stone Computers

Stone Computers is the UK’s largest independent manufacturer of IT equipment and a supplier to the public sector. The company, based in Staffordshire, is the only UK-based IT manufacturer with its own onsite facilities to recycle redundant equipment.

Sustainability is an increasing area of interest to its public sector clients, notably in education. Gaining certification to BS 8900 demonstrated to external and internal stakeholders the company’s commitment to addressing sustainability issues and embedding these in the strategic development of the business. The company was also keen to be a leader in this area and be the first in the IT sector to gain such recognition. By using the standard, Stone Computers has built on its core values and ensured that the senior management team maintained a clear focus on sustainability, helping to determine strategic policy and create opportunity for the business.

For Stone the process of gaining certification to 8900 put the spotlight on the more difficult challenges facing IT manufacturers, some of which appear insurmountable. One is the issue of working conditions in many IT manufacturing plants in Asia, from which most components are sourced. The sustainable management process undertaken by Stone in accordance with 8900 ensured that the board faced this issue head-on. This provided the opportunity for the company to engage with its stakeholders and to promote the stance on sustainability that it has adopted.

Applying the standard at Stone and gaining certification have enabled the senior management team to develop a clearer strategic overview of how the business should identify and address sustainability issues as well as how the elements of its management systems are relevant in delivering progress against its sustainable development objectives. These are aligned with the declared principles of sustainable development in 8900.

The development of Stone’s sustainable development maturity matrix, an 8900 requirement, has also proved useful in the strategic management of the business.

Neil Rotheroe, sustainable development consultant, academic and verifier; Gary McFarlane, director at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health; and Martin Ruston, group compliance manager at Stone Group


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