Innovation & Insights
Current thinking @ B-M Brussels
Sustainable development is a challenge and an opportunity but it is also an imperative. There is an urgent need to address global pressures related to environmental protection, population growth, food production, energy supply, the management of the world’s resources and climate change.
It is also an opportunity to mobilise creativity, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and vision to find clean, clever and competitive ways of ensuring economic welfare and social wellbeing.
Much is happening, but much less is being told. Let’s share the ideas, let’s give sustainability a shape.
Communicating on Sustainability
“Sustainability”, “Green economy”, “Sustainable Development” – so many abstract concepts that to talk about them – let alone act on them – we need a common understanding of what they mean in practice. And here is the initial problem. Existing definitions tend to add to the generality of the concepts rather than help elucidate them. No shortage of challenge here!
The issue hits home for politicians and also for industry, whose license to operate often rides on credible communications with their stakeholders.
The very phrase “do more with less” presents a paradox. Practical actions taken by leading individuals, companies, industry sectors, civil societies, policy-makers, academics can help explain it. By telling these stories and by communicating their impact we can demonstrate collective opportunity. And create the momentum for accelerated change.
On one hand, the focus of leading companies to meet the challenges of a sustainable business creates innovation, behavioral change and resource efficiencies, all of which are linked to better environmental and often social performance. However, more often than not, such efforts are not communicated, the experience gained not shared, and an opportunity for sustainable progress missed.
On the other hand, regulators are challenged by their electorates to explain how they are contributing to a sustainable future – in principle an appealing topic but in practice difficult to translate into policies and even harder to communicate. Addressing concerns on sustainability requires a life cycle and cross-sectoral approach which is more complex to convey than are vertically segmented policies. So, how can this communications deadlock be released to help the transition to a greener economy?
Industry holds a key. It is within its reach to transform vague claims about green production by drawing on robust examples from proven business models. Bringing green production patterns to life is often less about the actual measure and more about the process that led the company, in the first place, to understand that improving its environmental performance makes sense – business sense. After all more than anything else sustainability describes a way of thinking, a mindset. The experience gained by companies in improving their environmental performance can be used by regulators to recreate similar innovation patterns in other companies and sectors. Thus, environment policy can act to catalyze growth by promoting innovation and more efficient production.
In fact, regulators are in constant search of such pioneering companies and keen to spread their practices.
Creating sustainable development is a rewarding exercise. It presents unique opportunities to re-examine conventional wisdom, and even turn it on its head. It can introduce new ways of thinking, producing and living which can become part and parcel of a new green economy and business paradigm.
Rio+20 will provide a platform on which industry can share with the global public and politicians its vision and efforts towards reaching a greener future. The question remains, however: will industry meet the challenge and grasp the communications opportunity leading us down the road to a green economy?
Crisis as a catalyst?
In the current times of austerity, it is important to remember that crisis can provide opportunities. Opportunities to reassess business-as-usual practices and think about the future.
In fact, it was on the back of the 1980s-1990s economic crises that the 1992 Rio Earth Summit gave birth to a number of ground-breaking political initiatives including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Agenda 21 and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
While the current state of international agreement may fall short of expectations, in the 90s climate change climbed to the top of the international, political agenda. This was not least due to the efforts of high profile figures e.g. former US Vice-President Al Gore, who established a real debate about priorities to meet climate change. Yet, other 1992 commitments, e.g. on sustainable development and poverty eradication got less traction. Political action on these issues has been fragmented and the world has failed its commitments; sustainable development as a concept received far less attention from media, politicians and civil society. One might wonder why an informed debate took place on climate change, whereas sustainable development somehow slipped from the political agenda more or less unnoticed. For more thoughts on this see “Looking Back” section.
In efforts to re-pitch the sustainable development agenda, emphasis has been placed on growth, additional jobs and prosperity. There is a growing realisation that sustainable development does not mean additional investment required by business, or cost for government. This has led to the articulation of concepts such as the green new deal which are the means of mainstreaming ecological concerns into economic decision-making. In the face of the current financial and economic crisis, the world needs to take a step back and assess how it operates and understand that today’s investment decisions will mark tomorrow’s business models. As such, the logic of sustainable development resurfaces to challenge current economic practices. The crisis requires a new economic paradigm built on long-term and sustainable investment decisions.
It has been done before.
In the wake of the 1970s oil crisis, renewable energy became a way of thinking more long-term and of reducing future dependence on oil. Policy-makers introduced measures to limit energy consumption and encourage renewable energy production through taxation, subsidies and public funding for research and development. But the 1970s oil crisis also sparked innovation in businesses that were forced to think differently. For instance, the windmill company Vestas invested in wind turbines to create alternatives to traditional energy sources. Vestas sold its first wind turbine in 1979 and is today one of the leading companies in the renewable energy sector. See Connie Hedegaard video on this topic in the Interesting Links section.
The question is whether we have learnt the lessons of the last 20 years. Agreeing on the economic facts, which show that sustainable development leads to smart growth, would be a good start. See UNEP report on the green economy in the Interesting Links section.
Search this website
More B-M Talk
Burson-Marsteller accepts no responsibility for external links. Content of websites which are linked through B-M Talk is solely provided by the website owner.
( B-M Talk is updated automatically once per hour, 24 hours per day. )