The move of sustainability to become an increasing core issue

Wendy Sutherland, Managing Director at Ramsay Todd argues it’s been a long time in the making but the conversation has now truly started.

Whilst the definition is debated, organisations have no choice but to demonstrate their credentials and compliance.

We think of sustainability as being something relatively new but it was being discussed even back in the 1970s, when it appeared on the agenda of the Stockholm Conference in 1972.  It has taken over 45 years to become something that is being actively addressed by both individuals and the corporate world. 

The definition of sustainability has been debated for decades but, we are now in an era where discussing what it means and why it’s important has moved to actually changing behaviours.  We have been educated to consider how our actions impact on the environment and others but the biggest step change has been the infrastructure provided to enable us to contribute to the sustainability agenda.

So what’s changed?

In 1987 the Brundtland Report defined sustainability using the concept of three pillars.

This model was adopted by many organisations and we began to see during the 1990s and early part of the new century, a growth in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies and the employment of CSR specialists.  Initially the focus was on the social aspects with priority being given on how we could support poor communities.  Charities, such as WaterAid (transforming lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation), have been adopted by organisations in an effort to demonstrate to shareholders in their annual reports that they had CSR on their agenda.  In 1994, John Elkington introduced the concept of Triple Bottom Line Focus, which was adopted by many corporate organisations.  This consisted of:

  1. The Financial Result
  2. Care for people – broader society
  3. The Planet – the environment

The value that society now places on sustainability is creating the move towards it increasingly being a core issue.  The academics and scientists have done their work by getting governments to listen and take notice.  Public awareness has never been higher and this is driving the behavioural changes needed to provide a sustainable lifestyle for future generations.  Initiatives such as local councils reducing the amount of waste going to landfill and introducing recycling has impacted on us all.  Whether we like it or not, we are all part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

The introduction of legislation and the growth of global and government frameworks to address sustainable issues is ensuring that this subject is not going to go away.   How many of the following are you aware of?

  • The UN Global Compact
  • The Earth Charter
  • BS 8900
  • The Kyoto Protocol
  • ISO 14001
  • EMAS (European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme)
  • BSI PAS (Publically Available Specification) 2050

Sustainability is now linked to; environment, development, education, procurement, fashion (apparently there is a sustainable style!), to name just a few.   Qualifications are available at degree and masters levels for sustainable development and in 2016/7 the Corporate Ethics Mark awarded by CIPS (Chartered Institute for Procurement and Supply) included a section on sustainability. 

The move towards sustainable issues being part of everyday life has arrived and consumer expectations are such that organisations have no choice but to demonstrate their credentials and compliance.  This will hopefully deliver further improvements and developments to support the objective of preserving resources for future generations and making a better world for everyone. There’s a long way to go and it’s a big task but the conversation has at least started.