As I’m writing this, the world is waist-deep into a Pandemic. Covid-19 is still very much causing disruption to our way of life and how economies are running.
I’m a freelance sustainability consultant and that means that I work with companies to build sustainability into their model and daily operations. This work up to now has been put on the back-burner, as I’d already decided that no one would want to pay for my services when most business owners are struggling to pay rent & bills. I’m beginning to think that was a silly train of thought.
We’ve seen the words ‘pivot’ & ‘adapt’ being thrown around so recklessly since the world went into lock-down in March, that it almost makes you nauseous hearing right now. Those terms do hold some merit though, and we’ve seen many businesses either call it a day or make a decision to move towards the customer. One of the main examples being restaurants turning into takeaways overnight.
But nobody’s mentioning becoming sustainable as a means of adapting. They coincide beautifully. Through reducing your impact, you reduce overheads, improve your bottom line. Through setting up more responsible and transparent supply chains, you have greater control and become a more resilient business; able to tackle the turbulence that we face head on.
So what is Sustainability to Business?
Business relies on economics, resources, and people. AKA ‘The Triple Bottom Line’. Economic, Environmental & Social factors. To be a sustainable business, it must be prepared to function long term with potential for continual growth (economic sustainability); it must be responsible and accountable for how it impacts the environment and resources that it extracts. Finally, it must be conscious of how it treats people, across spatial and temporal boundaries.
We’re seeing some stark changes from a ‘covid world’ or ‘the new normal’ (yep, I hate those phrases too) and there has been a clear shift in the balance of that triple bottom line. Firstly, and perhaps the most obvious of them, has been a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. There are less people commuting to work and more restrictions on travel, leading to less flights and less vehicles on the road. But with that improvement for environmental sustainability, we’re seeing a loss in sustainability for the economy. Conversely, we’re seeing a lot of the progress on re-usability lost as we revert back to single-use for the sake of hygiene. Everything now has to be disposed of, I wouldn’t like to see the figures for all of those disposable face masks lying in landfill sites. I can vividly imagine it actually.
Is sustainable business a sensible way to go?
When preparing anyone for undergoing the journey of becoming a sustainably focused company or starting a brand centered around it, I’ll remove all of the BS first. It’s important to be absolutely honest with ourselves and others about the pros and cons.
There is a heavy weighting in the conversation towards sustainability being the north star and the holy grail of future business but the conversation rarely goes past that. We need to know what sustainable business looks like, what sustainability ACTUALLY means, and how on earth (pun intended) we’re going to achieve that. We need to be realistic about the obstacles and the odds stacked against us if we want to create a proper strategy that works.
Sorry to be a killjoy, I know it seems counter-productive; especially coming from a sustainability consultant, but it will be a battle. One that I desperately want us to win. After all, sustainably focused or not, we’re starting a business to make real change and to bring value to the world. Not to stroke our egos because it makes us look good.
So let’s look at the traditional view of business from classical economist, Milton Friedman (1970) who gave a very simple and clear direction for corporations. They must maximise shareholder wealth; aka be as profitable as possible. Okay, that makes sense, but let’s bring pressures such as climate change, social inequality, and of course a pandemic into the mix. Well now running a business becomes a little more complex, we need to prop up more entities than just our shareholders. It starts to look a bit more like maximising stakeholder wealth; stakeholders can be anyone impacted by the activities of a company. Customers, employees, local communities, producers, and manufacturers in the supply chain and that’s just to name a few. Did we just move towards becoming a sustainable company?
The point is that yes, traditional business norms and practices do often still apply, we shouldn’t disregard them merely because our objectives have shifted. Just as we shouldn’t take them as gospel. Many business principles will remain true, to survive, a company is dependent on growth. Thinking growth and profit is evil or not desirable for a sustainably focused business is a truly contradictory way of thinking. ‘Sustainability’ is to survive for a prolonged period and the only way for any business to survive is to grow. Now the rate at which a business grows, now that’s a different matter.
We’ve been sprinting along the track of a linear economic system for a few decades now, thoroughly embracing maximum growth. The economy has been flying with products designed to be disposed of after a few uses. An economy based on convenience, low cost, and massive levels of consumption. Well, I think it’s safe to say that we’re running out of breath and won’t be able to continue at this pace. We’re rinsing the planet of its finite natural resources and we’re better connected to seeing the levels of exploitation of cheap labour in third world countries. There is also certainly grounds for connections between pandemics, climate-related disasters, and globalisation, our rapidly increasing population.
Now returning to the question of what is sustainability? It’s an interesting question because it’ll have a different answer for almost every single business out there. Don’t expect a one-size-fits-all fast track.
The ability to create a more sustainable business or organization will rely on the ability to think beyond just profit and shareholders — David Hobson Myers
To create a profitable & sustainable business will require a change in human behaviour and a shift in corporate behaviour too. Luckily they usually go hand in hand. They have certain levels of control over each other. You’re also hoping for greater levels of support and incentives from governments but there’s little point in waiting around for the powers that be to make it easier to run a sustainable business. Think of it as a challenging puzzle to solve, a game to complete. Get competitive.
Let’s assume that this game is only going to get harder, as resources continue to become more scarce and the population continues to increase. It sounds like a conventional video game to me, each level gets progressively harder. Now, just to clarify, I don’t want to appear like I’m simplifying and making light of the hardships of many around the world by comparing to a game. When you really focus on those hardships, it’s certainly motivation but it’s also overwhelming. When you realise the enormity of the task ahead of us, you begin to feel a huge hit of Impostor Syndrome. “Who do you think you are trying to solve world problems?”, “you’ll never even scratch the surface”. Nah, ignore those voices. This is why we simplify, it’s breaking down a task, no matter how big, into smaller, more manageable tasks. It’s giving the journey more clarity and my word will you need clarity.
Here’s why. You want to start a business and be sustainable, you’re excited about making a difference; but you also need it to provide you with an income. Maybe you have a family to feed? You need this business to be profitable fairly early on, you don’t have a lengthy runway to experiment with. Oh and you must adhere to the myriad of corporate regulations and laws; the taxes, the legalities of employing others, establishing the right suppliers. Again, clarity.