Business must continue to drive itself and wider society towards more sustainable models, but cannot succeed alone, corporate sustainability leaders argued at an event organised by ENDS on 18 April.
The ENDS Sustainability Roundtable, sponsored by ERM and the British Computer Society, focused on the question: How long can business continue to lead the sustainability agenda?
Mike Barry, head of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer, kicked off the session. The firm’s ‘Plan A’ for sustainability continues to be a yardstick against which other companies measure their efforts.
The scale and systemic nature of the challenge means business cannot act alone, said Mr Barry. Although M&S is among the top two or three firms on sustainability, he said the company was “only 10% of the way there”.
A theme that emerged strongly was the need for corporate sustainability pioneers to draw the mainstream along with them, not least by influencing supply chains.
Sally Uren, deputy chief executive of Forum for the Future, called for more direct “sustainability dating” between business heads to engage with sustainability.
John Elkington, founder of ENDS and chairman of sustainability consultancy Volans, said there was no alternative to business leadership.
Mr Elkington said business had come a long way. He recalled attending a board meeting of a chemical company some years ago at which executives were pleased that the company’s operations were 70% compliant with environmental regulations.
Now some businesses are setting targets to reduce impacts to zero by 2020. Sportswear firm Puma’s environmental profit and loss account is one example of an attempt to create a meaningful measure of sustainability (ENDS Report 443, p 21).
But Mr Elkington warned many firms misunderstood the meaning of sustainability, believing it to be synonymous with efficiency or corporate responsibility programmes.
In fact, sustainability entails a paradigm shift in the way we work and live (ENDS Report 411, pp 36-39). This is creating opportunities for new businesses, he said, but also raises the risk of protectionism and xenophobia from those that remain wedded to consumerist economic and political structures.
All the panel members agreed business cannot solve the sustainability crisis alone. Mr Barry said government intervention is needed to improve performance in mainstream business and mandatory corporate carbon reporting is the single most important thing it can do now. He said NGOs will also continue to play an important role.
Alan Knight, sustainability director at Business in the Community and B&Q’s first environment manager, agreed with the idea of government intervention.
Despite years of effort by B&Q to reduce its use of peat in compost, it is still widely used in the market (see p 18). Mr Knight said withdrawing planning permission to extract peat would be a simpler and more effective way of addressing the problem.
1. Video highlights of ENDS sustainability roundtable