Many people are already looking at the tragic consequences of Typhoon Haiyan and commenting on its place in the growing pantheon of extreme weather patterns brought on by climate change. There is no doubt that climate change presents one of our most pressing challenges – if the current effects of storms and rising sea levels are caused, at least in part, by just one degree of temperature increase, what will the planet look like if we reach the more extreme doomsday predictions, of five or six degrees?
But the changing climate is just one of the challenges we need to address urgently. Even if we were able to de-carbon our societies, we still need our planet to function and flourish. Much of this broader picture is captured within the idea of sustainability.
Put simply, sustainability means being able to live at a level that doesn’t compromise the chances of future generations to also live at that level. One of the big questions many are asking is ‘Are we on a sustainable path?’ and most commonly the answer is ‘No’. This is why sustainability strategies have not only been developed by the majority of the world’s leading businesses, but why some are now embedding this thinking into their core business plans.
Sustainability issues can pose a genuine threat to the long-term viability and security of an enterprise. Issues such as water and mineral availability, agricultural yields, soil quality, biodiversity, infrastructure, employee health and, of course, the climate… these are all subject to change, and businesses that rely on them but do not work to safeguard them, risk failure.
The current population of the planet is 7 billion. Some of you will have watched Professor Hans Rosling’s TED talks or seen his recent programme on the BBC looking at population. His BBC lecture was entitled ‘Don’t Panic’; the idea being that population increases are slowing down, and people are being lifted out of poverty so we will have a more prosperous world.
This is all good news but if we look at the current impact that 7 billion people have on the planet – such as pollution of natural systems and resource use (deforestation, mining, over-fishing etc) – then we do need to plan for how the planet will cope with more people, operating at a higher demand; not only will the population grow to over 9 billion over the next 50 years, but they will be richer - by 2030, 3 billion will be joining the 2 billion existing global middle class, and richer people place a higher burden. At the moment, half of the fossil fuels burnt each year are for the richest one billion. Clearly steps are needed towards more sustainable lifestyles.
How will we feed these people? How will we provide them with enough energy? Approaches such as GM crops and nuclear power must be part of the discussion, which means sustainability solutions can often be complex and challenge our notions of what is right or best for us, presenting their own communications conundrums. Nuclear power produces around 20 tons of waste for 1 GW year, whereas coal can produce around 8,000,000 tons of CO2 for 1 GW year, but disasters like at the Fukushima plant in Japan mean people are nervous.
The story of plastic pollution in our oceans is one illustration of the burden we already place on the planet. Plastic waste has been found in the stomachs of endangered marine species, such as whales, turtles and porpoises, and the EU Commission estimates the stomachs of 94% of all birds in the North Sea contain plastic. It’s also affecting fish stocks. Around 99 billion plastic bags were placed on the EU market in 2010. Thankfully, the EU has just put forward proposals that will result in member states being encouraged to tax or even ban plastic bags.
This is an example of where disposability has an impact on sustainability. We can expect to hear much more about the 'circular economy' in the years ahead and it is interesting to note what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
is doing here to drive the agenda forward.
Communicating the way forward
I work for a communications agency that specialises in promoting positive social change. We have recently started working with Forum for the Future, a global sustainability non-profit that works with businesses, governments and others to address complex challenges. We were involved with promoting the global launch of the latest book by Forum’s founder and former Friends of the Earth director, Jonathon Porritt. The World We Made looks at what life in 2050 would look like if we started to address some of the major sustainability challenges facing us today. It’s an exciting and prosperous world but it requires work to get there.
To position the book to potential readers, we nuanced the messaging about what it addressed, according to that market. For Singapore, we talked about technological innovation, air pollution and water security. For the US, we discussed renewable energy and agriculture, and for the UK, we looked more at transport and food security. To get individuals to act on sustainability, it has to matter to them, but it also has to be placed within the context of an interconnected global issue. It is important that people feel educated and empowered.
To get businesses to act on sustainability, it is right to appeal to their sense of responsibility, but they also want to know how they can address their shareholders, or board. In the excellent What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? a book by another Friends of the Earth figurehead, Tony Juniper, he explores the financial contribution that natural balanced systems make to our economy. Indeed, accounting for environmental impact by placing monetary value on the natural world could allow corporations to manage resources more sustainably and communicate the value of the approach.
‘Sustainable’ may be the new word for green but it is not the word itself that excites consumers – they want to see value; to them and the environment. It is the product, plan or action that they buy.
Ikea is an example of a forward-looking business that is providing opportunity for consumers. By 2016, it will stop selling non-LED lights. By going ‘all in’ it believes it can bring prices down and provide viable sustainable solutions.
Ikea’s chief sustainability officer Steve Howard points out that consumers want to be more sustainable but they need businesses to show them the way by making it easy, affordable and attractive. He also points to the fact Ikea plans to produce more energy than it uses by 2020 as being great news for the CFO, as much as for himself.
Just as with any communications challenge there are many audiences that need to be reached on sustainability. There needs to be political action and there needs grassroots pressure but fundamentally there also needs business pioneers. Brands that innovate and lead in this space will build their reputation and customer base – if they communicate it effectively – and they will be fit for the future. Those that don’t, could lose it all.
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