What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you?

Cycling to work for everyone? Linen suits all round? Vegan only food choices? No more bacon?

This week I had the pleasure to visit the ‘Growing Green’ workshop in Oxford.

The session was part of a research project conducted by Oxford University, The Open University and Climate Outreach. Researcher representation on the day was provided by Sam Hampton and Dr Tina Fawcett. Sam is OxLEP’s Low Carbon Network Navigator, which means he’s the go-to guy for everything low carbon. Tina is a Senior Researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

The project aims to develop resources and messaging for SMEs to help them understand the implications of working sustainably.

The participants at the workshop were owners and manager in SME’s and the session was a stimulating discussion about what sustainability meant to each person and their business. To find out more about the project click here.

Sustainability workshop

Unsurprisingly, many of the attendees already has a ‘sustainable persuasion’; that’s probably what attracted them to the event in the first place. Despite the bias there was an interesting discussion facilitated by Chris Shaw from Climate Outreach.

The session shared a few interesting points including those below:

  • Home workers use 13% of energy in the UK
  • Home workers behave differently to ‘dwellers’ eg. they use peak power during the day
  • Sustainability includes three key facets: Environment, Social and Economic.
  • Will current ‘social media culture’ continue? Will society become further disconnected from their impact on the world?
  • Is sustainable working done as a result of choice, or as a result of crisis?
  • Does the ‘always open’ and ‘rapid delivery’ methods of business mean that sustainability is unachievable?
  • Is there sufficient trust in businesses for people to believe that they are being sustainable if they say they are?
  • Who are the best people to determine and measure sustainability?


So what? Learning aspects

The topic of sustainability could clearly be a lifetime’s work of research. But for most people it needs to be quickly understood. The broad premise of ‘being a force for good’ in business can easily be shared and makes sense. It takes time to investigate how sustainability is measured in the world and how reliable, or specific, the data is. For instance, a battery manufacturer claims recycled materials in their products. Specifically, it’s 4% recycled material. It’s true that recycled material is there, but it’s probably a lot lower than the claim would have people expect.
But most businesses don’t have the time to do in-depth research – they rely on the standards and claims made by their suppliers.
With that in mind the key learning elements are around just ‘how’ to make sustainable choices.

So what? Project aspects

Projects, by their very nature, exist for a ‘short’ period of time. There is clearly the opportunity for new projects to embrace sustainable practices. There is also the potential for projects to ‘field test’ practices before rolling them out to the parent company or companies. Such field testing could involve the trial of new materials, trial of new suppliers and even the trial of new project working cultures.
Projects are built to handle change so finding the best sustainable practices seems to be something ideal for the world of projects.

So what? Business aspects

Business is often motivated by how things affect ‘the bottom line’. If something is not cost effective then it’s unlikely to be adopted.
However, there does seem to be a rise in sustainable cultures in business; rather than being a sustainable bolt-on to business as usual the sustainable choices are made inherently. This type of cultural shift might be hard for ‘old school’ firms, but for start-ups it’s something that can be woven in quite quickly. In fact, start-ups are often using the sustainable moniker as a brand differentiator and a display of their authenticity.

However, in our current ‘business culture’ there still needs to be a viable business. A business that is totally sustainable but doesn’t turn a profit will fail and will stop doing good in the world.

Naturally, the culture in business needs to be receptive to sustainability too. Some companies have a natural tendency towards such practices, but some don’t seem to ever fit the ideal. Compare Organic locally grown produce to crude oil production.

It’s clear that for consumers to be able to easily purchase sustainable products then businesses need to provide them. Until there is a big enough incentive, then change towards sustainable practices is likely to be driven by regulation rather than self-motivation.

Closing words

There will always be people who don’t believe in sustainability for whatever reason. There will be others who whole-heartedly live every moment of their life as one with the Earth. However, most people are somewhere in between. Whether it’s a commitment to recycle your cardboard and cans each week, or having a shower instead of a bath there’s always something that can be done to minimise our impact on the planet.

The truth is that every little bit does help. But to make it easier to contribute it needs to be easier to understand how best to behave and when.

It’s a tricky balance to maintain. And it is a balance. From the personal decisions we make, to the professional decisions we make.

Since businesses have a big impact on the environment I look forward to seeing the guidance from the research project. Anything that helps people in business make better choices puts our planet in a better position and that must be a good thing.

I, for one, would prefer a future world that looks more like something from a David Attenborough documentary, rather than Mad Max.


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