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Sustainability in business thinking is still rare

17 May, 2019

I have been invited in my capacity as an Advisor at Ditto Sustainability to talk in their sponsored session at Edie Live on May 22nd 2019 about sustainability in business.  This has led me to refresh myself on how businesses are facing the challenges we know we have globally; climate change, plastics pollution, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and so on While we are all now starting to understand that these are huge challenges, I remain optimistic. Mankind has the technologies, the money and the political frameworks to make those changes happen. That being said, can we turn the ship fast enough?


While we have the international political frameworks, we don’t quite have the Governments on board to enact the legislation and taxation we need to implement the change. One example would be a carbon tax; another would be a resource tax, increasing taxes on resource extraction while reducing taxes on employment; another would be to eliminate the $500 billion global subsidies to the oil and gas industries - currently twice those going to the renewable energy industry, crazy no?

In my mind, one of the reasons for the majority of our Government’s failure to act is that major industries threatened by rapid change are lobbying hard to stop change happening. The oil industry alone spends around $200 million a year on lobbying. Likewise, many petrol industry leaders have not yet understood that by adopting solar, wind and biomass technologies, change can be beneficial by guaranteeing them long term involvement in the supply of energy.  With the rise in ethical investment, and a great scrutiny on consumer brands, these organisations will sooner or later be wiped out by consumers leaving them if they do not make these changes. 

You only have to think of Blockbuster or Kodak as two examples of technologies wiped out by the rise of new technologies- online streaming wiped out video rentals whilst digital photography wiped out printed photos; businesses we all used on the High Street are dying rapidly as  consumers leave them to shop online.  Think of how consumer habits are moving to lower meat diets, to driving less, to electric cars and to less plastic packaging.

For the May 22nd talk I looked at what sustainability means to me.  An obvious point of reference is the Sustainable Development Goals our Governments agreed in 2015; we wrote about this in a piece Edie published in April 2018.

For me sustainability is about nurturing the natural capital we have, respecting it and restoring it. You only have to look at the recent Guardian article on biodiversity loss  to see that we are systematically wiping out hundreds of thousands of species we share the planet with.  It also means reducing poverty, enhancing human rights, promoting gender equality, providing basic support systems like health care, education and pensions.

Not everyone thinks like this. I was amused to see that the business magazine Forbes had a list of companies they think are doing their best in terms of the environment. You may be amused or shocked to see these include a major US producer of weapons; an oil company; a producer of chlorine; an automobile company; and a wood pulp and paper producer.  I will talk about this more on May 22nd.

But more close to home I was not amused to see the Guardian article regarding how the British plastic industry body the BPF, are lobbying to subvert Government policy on plastic taxes and to lower the cost of their future obligations under Extended Producer Responsibility. 

This shows that they simply have not understood that sustainability is going to mean

  1. Above all, using less plastics especially in packaging. They are indeed fighting to ensure as much if not more plastics is used. We need stringent reduction targets and taxation to pay for more recycling and they oppose this.
  2. Embrace conversion to other packaging products, so converting to making some of their packaging from more easily recyclable materials like paper, board, aluminium.
  3. Embrace innovation such as compostable plastics where appropriate for food packaging.
  4. Invest enormously in ensuring their materials are fully collected, recycled or correctly disposed of. Currently, two thirds of UK plastic packaging collected for recycling is exported, including to developing countries where it is simply dumped. That is not sustainable but the BPF oppose a Plastic Tax which would help finance collection systems.

I am sorry to pick on the plastic industry here but it is symptomatic of many industries facing the challenges of environmental protection and consumer enmity. They need to understand what sustainability means in reality and not just to green wash their marketing; and their members need to ingrain that in their corporate philosophy from the Board down to the humblest member of staff.

This is what Ditto does and I will be talking about that, meanwhile I suggest you read the very nice piece published by Edie which will help you understand more. The risk today for those who ignore these challenges is commercial extermination. It is that simple.