by Claire Bonello
The original definition of sustainable development was coined at the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992. In essence it was a focus on “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Although, many tend to think that it is a concept exclusively related to the environmental field, it actually goes far beyond. Sustainability is a holistic concept that encompasses a wide range of environmental, social, and economic issues. In the more poetic – but also the more precise – words of the entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken “Sustainability, ensuring the future of life on Earth, is an infinite game, the endless expression of generosity on behalf of all.” In other words, sustainability is essentially linked to survival and depends on the combined effort of all acting together today for there to be a future for all.
In the case of businesses, sustainability would include sensitive and ethical concern for “people” and “planet” besides the essential “profit”. Businesses should aim for sustainable practices to permeate through every level of their internal and external dealings, ranging from responsible and ethical sourcing and procurement to environmentally-friendly investments. Reducing the carbon commute of personnel, embracing a zero-waste policy, and aiming for a paper deficit are other sustainable practices which businesses could opt for.
Within the local scenario, there is the dawning realization that businesses have to be sustainable, not only to be perceived to be addressing the latest eco-fad or trend, but also because the sustainable ethical practices of businesses impact society as a whole, which in turn creates an environment which is conducive for businesses to operate within and within which to attract investment. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is evolving to include sustainability.
Unfortunately, some Maltese businesses show a growing tendency to confuse CSSR with philanthropy. The norm in Malta is to have highly-publicised events where the CEO hands over a sizeable cheque in the glare of attendant cameras, and to think that this would be enough to have the CSR box ticked. This is a very superficial way of adopting a CSR policy. A meaningful CSR programme goes beyond singular monetary transactions. A genuine and sustainable CSR programme would have a broader focus on more long-term systemic issues, such as climate change and the inclusive economy.
Another pitfall on the road to sustainability is the tendency to “greenwash” or “green sheen” using green marketing to appear more environmentally responsible than they really are. For example, a transport company may spout the specifications of its vessels to show how eco-friendly the said vessels are, neglecting to say that the vessel routes will oust communities from their long-term swimming recreational swimming haunts and disturb marine life. Or a company may sponsor tree-planting initiatives but downplay the fact that it will be excavating and building upon good quality agricultural land, displacing farmers, and generating more traffic congestion. Similarly, a business entity may fund a one-off sports activity but ignore the fact that its activities pollute the air or sea, making it dangerous and unhealthy for members of the public to practice a sport in that locality all the year round.
In order for these attempts to stop becoming the norm and for genuine and effective CSR to be practised, there should be the introduction of mandatory social and sustainability key performance indicators as evidence of proven empirical evidence of sustainable reform. These would measure specific indicators of ecologically sound practices such as the percentage of materials used in manufacturing which are recycled input materials, energy saved sue to conservation and efficiency improvements, the percentage of water recycled and reused, total amount of greenhouse gas emissions by weight.
These indicators should not be considered merely as mathematical concepts but ways of achieving the human-centric restorative economy. Indicators should help us understand whether we are reaching necessary goals for sustainability, namely to stop accelerating the rate that we draw down capacity, to refrain from buying or degrading other people’s environment, and to avoid displacing other species by taking over their habitats.
Businesses are called to lead in this drive towards sustainability. If their practices are genuine and effective, they will resonate with clients and investors, besides being intrinsically desirable. On the other hand, if sustainability is just another buzzword there will be no long lasting impact from it being bandied about. As Paul Hawken coolly told a room full of civic and business leaders at the Commonwealth Club way back in 1992, “Either we see business as a restorative undertaking, or we businesspeople will march the entire human race to the undertaker.”