Sustainability 101
Article written by Michelle Parker-Low Carbon Europe Sustainability Consultant
The science behind climate change is now unequivocal; humans are changing the chemical make-up of our atmosphere, therefore also our oceans and land, faster than the natural environment can respond. The sustainability agenda has been accepted across industries, business, public sector and governments to address the most pressing challenges posed. The ultimate aim is ensuring global temperature rises are no greater than 2°C, mitigating the most severe human impacts.

Sustainability is a broad concept, which can sometimes be confusing in complex organisations to unravel the requirements necessary to enable outcomes. The official definition was laid out in the Bruntland report in 1987; “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs“. In its simplest form, sustainability can be viewed as common-sense resource efficiency; and resource efficiency saves money.

There are three main components of sustainability; the environment, society and economy. Often models depict the three concepts as interlinking circles, with sustainability sitting in the middle (see figure one). However, a more accurate description is to consider sustainability as three concentric circles, with each providing capital for the next. Without a functioning biosphere, our species cannot survive. Without a functioning, healthy species, there will not be a strong economy.
When organisations begin to consider sustainability, they need to assess their inputs, outputs and services as a whole. By understanding exactly where materials for products, or staffing movements both to-and-from work and as part of the business, or waste streams then critical actions can be taken to improve each factor. The previous list, by the way, is not exhaustive at all. Sustainability within organisations is often complex and interdisciplinary. However, by not fully evaluating the business or organisational model as a whole, there is a danger of exposure to unnecessary future risks. In an example from 2011, in addition to the loss of life and homes, flooding in Thailand led to a global shortage of hard disk drives, which lasted throughout 2012 and considerably increased demand prices.

Paradoxically, one of the many ways that research and development is creating more sustainable products and services is by looking at how the natural environment has itself evolved answers. The world of biomimicry is creating new technologies, based upon natural solutions. Translating the ventilation systems of termite mounds into the built environment saves resources on mechanical cooling and heating. Using the anti-bacterial properties and structure of shark skin is creating anti-bacterial surfaces for use in healthcare settings. Understanding the technical process of photosynthesis in plant leaves are leading to more efficient solar panels. Each of these technologies, and more, are relying on the natural efficiency of evolution to deliver improvements for the human environment. However, I digress!

Moving forward, businesses and organisations that tackle sustainability now, in a strategic and engaging manor, will continue to reap multiple benefits. Already we see global companies aligning themselves with a sustainable ethos, one which includes corporate responsibility, but one which looks wider to their material sourcing, supply chain and communities with whom they work. Customers are responding too; recently it was reported that sustainable products are producing six times the revenue when compared to ‘normal’ lines. The comprehensive and well considered Plan A from Marks and Spencer’s, has seen a net benefit to the company of £625m since 2007. Sustainability does pay!

There is no returning to the use of long buried fossil fuels to spur rampant economic growth. We have exploited the supplies of unvalued natural resources and services for too long and are now beginning to see the consequences. Our activity and growth on the planet has had measurable and unintended results. Sustainability is the only pathway through the future that tackles limits to resources in specific and demonstrable ways. It is up to us to decide how quickly or slowly we head down the road; quickly would be good.

 For any questions or queries that this article has raised, please contact Michelle at