It is not easy being green, but business has a vital role to play in protecting our planet
By Nick Rowley, CEO of Ocean Forests Foundation, James Viles, Owner and Head Chef of Biota Dining, and Kate Harris, CEO of GECA explore the role business should play to help solve sustainability challenges
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Robust conversation and debate is essential to driving the sustainable business agenda forward. We only need to look at the worldwide ripple effect caused by Greta Thunberg protesting outside the Swedish Parliament, ultimately resulting in climate strikes led by schoolchildren across the globe. People of all ages, all around the world, are realising that we have failed to protect our planet and the responsibility sits with all parties, not just government.
“Political leaders will come and go. But an effective response to climate change requires continuity and stability. Effective businesses must plan for the long term. Many businesses can and already do play a vital role in effectively reducing their impact and responding to climate change”
Nick Rowley, CEO of the Ocean Forests Foundation and former advisor on sustainability and climate change to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Since the mid-1990s I have been working with and for governments, firms and not-for-profit organisations on responding to climate change and other sustainability challenges. Much has changed in that time. We have made progress.
Yet, as Lord Stern of Brentford (author of the seminal Stern Review into the economics of Climate Change) has stated, climate change remains “a complex, inter-temporal, international, collective action problem, under uncertainty”. That is a hard problem.
To reduce emissions with the speed and scale necessary to limit warming to 2 or 1.5 degrees those systems currently dependent on the use of fossil fuels (for example: transport, electricity, heating, cooling, and lighting) need to change. Remember, the need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees is both informed by science and supported by the Paris Accord (the current global treaty on climate change). Fail to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and the consensus is that there will be no coral reefs left.
In many sectors of the economy businesses have the power and resources to play a vital role. It is business which drives activity in any liberalised economy. It is therefore responsible for much of the waste and environmental impact. To rise to the challenge of addressing climate risk and promoting more sustainable practice all businesses can ask three questions:
1. What can you affect directly? For example, how the businesses sources it’s electricity and deals with its waste, or as was recently the case with a major IT company allowing all its employees the afternoon off work to attend a climate rally.
2. What might you affect indirectly? For example, promoting more sustainable practice from suppliers as a condition of purchase.
3. What can’t you affect, but still have a position on? For example, how ambitious international and domestic responses should be to climate change.
And beware thinking about the packaging more than the present. Be it on reducing waste; reducing carbon emissions or being more energy efficient, any claims need to be measurable, reportable and independently verifiable. Numbers and hard work must come before any thoughts about marketing or appearing to be ‘green’.
Rather than a cost, climate leadership and more sustainable practice can be a significant opportunity. For many businesses it is simply a matter of choice: do you want to be, and be seen to be, a contributor to the problem, or a problem solver?
“The problem is complex, but changing your mindset is the easiest thing you can do. Change your perspective, and the situation almost appears to be a little easier to deal with.”
- James Viles, Owner and Chef of Biota who serves Nespresso coffee in his restaurant and rooms
“Sustainability is not an action, it is a state of mind. At my restaurant, sustainability encompasses not only food practices but people, their welfare and day to day living.
The biggest challenge businesses face right now is encouraging consumers to take on a less is more approach. Society is hungry for the newest and best in product development and launches. I think businesses can lead the change by focusing on what we already have, and how we can make it better.
I’d ask business leaders to look at their team leadership structure to make sure it includes positive and progressive thinkers. To achieve this style of thinking, companies should take employees out of their norm and start doing things differently. At Biota we have flipped from an excessive mind-set to a non-excessive mindset right down to managing waste - from how we order to where we order from.”
“With great challenge, comes a need for great leadership. Leaders should make sustainable choices every, single day.”
- Kate Harris, CEO of Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) and a leading contributor to the packaging and labelling changes happening in Australia
“It can be easy to see why business is a huge part of the problem when it comes to the impacts of consumption and production. But more importantly, it’s a critical part of the solution! Business moves markets, and with great challenge comes a need for great leadership. I see the business sector taking the lead on many sustainability issues globally - and it's inspiring. Leading businesses are needing to do it all from environmental issues such as climate-carbon and biodiversity to social and health.
One massive challenge is the sheer complexity of supply chains. Our impacts and responsibility go beyond our organisational limits, but getting that information, initiating transformational change up and downstream is hard.
I suggest businesses start mapping their supply chains by looking at the three key areas of money, materiality and geography. What GECA sees is that most businesses don’t understand the material risks of inputs in their supply chains - this is where standards can help communicate what 'good' looks like and how to keep on the road of continual improvement. It's also essential to invest in quality relationships with your suppliers.
I’d also encourage businesses to remember that employees are often the greatest drivers of change. Business is made up of people who want to have a meaningful life and to make a difference. All we need to do is enable and empower them.
My vision for sustainable business in the future is a mechanism of global citizenship working in partnership with governments communities and nations to all play their part with pride to create systemic solutions for people and planet for generations to come.
Is this a utopian vision? I don’t think so. Business is and can keep taking the lead.”
(From left to right: Professor Nick Rowley, Kate Harris, CEO at GECA and James Viles, Owner and Head Chef of Biota Dining)