I own an old VW camper. It’s red and white and full of real wood and character. When I drive along the road, people smile. But it’s an inefficient, polluting old banger. So should I keep it?
It’s certainly less sustainable than a modern car. Around 80-90 per cent of the environmental impact of vehicles is in the use phase not the manufacturing phase. It is generally more sustainable to move up to a newer, more efficient car than stick with an older one.
In my defence, I do very few miles in the old van. And even if I sold it, someone else would use it as it’s a valuable classic. And the plain fact is, I don’t want to sell it.
As with so many sustainability dilemmas, there’s no clear answer. We are all human, and working within an unsustainable infrastructure (travelling – flying in particular – is unsustainable at present).
For companies grappling with their own sustainability issues, understanding the science is one thing, dealing with people quite another.
Shell discovered this all too painfully when it used a purely scientific argument to dispose of the Brent Spar in the North Sea in the mid 90s. It had to back down – not because the science was wrong, but because people objected to the idea in principle. Crucially, Shell had not engaged properly with public opinion. The Brent Spar episode was a watershed for Shell, which responded by opening up to dialogue with its stakeholders.
The need for companies to understand the perspectives of the different groups of people whose lives they touch has been reflected in the rise of the concept of stakeholder engagement. To really engage, companies must move from one-way communication to genuine dialogue, and use what they learn to inform the decisions they make, and even to involve stakeholders in those decisions.
New standards such as AA1000AS have emerged that explicitly incorporate the human side of sustainability by making stakeholder engagement a core principle. AA100AS recognises that companies must be more inclusive, incorporating stakeholder concerns into their thinking.
For instance, The Co-operative Bank asks its customers how they want their money invested – the feedback is used to form its ethical policy. Last year, they turned down an estimated £5m of investment income based on this policy. Not only do they believe this is the right thing to do, they know it’s also good for business. The Co-op’s ethical stance attracts extra customers and delivers a substantial proportion of its profits.
Some companies are starting to use their understanding to develop new products and services that solve sustainability problems, rather than adding to them. This is particularly true in the developing world. The yoghurt company Danone has partnered with the Grameen social bank in Bangladesh to create a new company that provides healthy food for local people, employment and, through the bank’s networks, loans for people to buy cows to supply the new company with milk. The company is helping tackle malnutrition while creating incomes for hundreds of local people.
Many predict that sustainable and green enterprise will be bigger than the technology boom. I just can’t wait for the organic, recyclable, fair trade, solar-powered kombi!