Environment and business – Challenges and opportunities

As the UK starts to emerge from recession, the business and economic profile is very different to what it was before the financial crisis. Given this new more responsible age where stakeholders are more aware of profit, loss and profile than ever before, what opportunities are available to business through meeting stakeholder expectations, sustainability measures, and environmental competitiveness?  

It is clear that inclination towards unrealistic capital and financial risk within government and business is not a sustainable approach of running the economy. The sub-prime mortgage fallout in the USA, the Icelandic investment crash, and over-arching global financial crisis has led to some tough times, job losses, businesses folding, not to mention the Spending Review’s predicted 40 per cent cuts to publicly funded schemes.

Business focus
Taking this message, and in something of a firebrand speech during the Liberal Democrat’s September conference in Liverpool, the coalition’s Business Secretary Vince Cable derided the modern City culture of “spivs and gamblers” as well as Labour’s “financial lunancies” urging for a more responsible and sustainable age of government, banking and business. Although this speech has in itself been criticised for its over-emotive language and candid attacks, it is perhaps in line with the view that many people now take; that public funds and privately invested money should not and can not be put at risk. It can be argued that this attitude is demonstrable of stakeholders now favouring ethical reputation and responsible operations over massive market success.

The media maelstrom around the recession, banker’s bonuses and the sleaze surrounding the MP’s expenses has allowed the public – all of whom are stakeholders in public funds and governmental issues – and those with a vested interest in the private sector to now demand that organisations conduct themselves in a more responsible and ethical manner. It seems that sustainability, something of a corporate double entendre term encompassing environmental conservation and a long term business focus, is now key to survival and a sound reputation.

Interestingly, the very word sustainability is currently under debate, with factions of industry and government assessing what it actually means to them. But while discussions whether it is really about environmental or economic survival go on, we can perhaps assume that they are mutually exclusive and that one can not exist without the other’s presence; a guiding principle that both government and business would benefit from
adhering to.

Corporate Social Responsibility
How businesses in particular choose to express their current attitude to sustainability can usually be found online in a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or Sustainability Report, sometimes including details of the corporate environmental policy. In these environmentally conscious and financially responsible times, many stakeholders expect organisations to have a positive, comprehensive environmental policy freely available to view. Such documents should demonstrate an attitude of resource efficiency, efforts towards green based cost savings and an overarching dedication to a low carbon future for all.

Sustainability and the environment featuring at strategic/board level and in corporate communication materials like a CSR statement illustrates an intention of environmental commitment as well as business sustainability, but is that enough? Perhaps simply having the right products, services, schemes and incentives – the tangible stuff – is what really achieves stakeholder buy-in, both figuratively and literally.

Challenges and opportunities
This topic is the focus of an industry conference in November. ‘Environment and Business: The challenge and the opportunity’ is a flagship event arranged and hosted by the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA), as part of their mission to place the environmental practitioner at the heart of change and decision making in business and government. Taking place 1-2 November at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, the first day will focus on ‘Environmental Challenge – Shaping the UK’s Infrastructure and Economy’ and the second will address the topic of ‘Transforming Business – Environmental Opportunities and
Competitive Advantage’.

Central to the conference theme is the doctrine of sustainable business. One of the conference keynote speakers in particular has experienced huge success in developing and maintaining a sustainable business within a very recognisable British brand. Mike Barry, head of Sustainable Business at Marks and Spencer, was instrumental in developing the now eponymous Plan A which, through its 180 commitments towards combating climate change, reducing waste, using sustainable raw materials, trading ethically and encouraging healthier lifestyles, has transformed M&S’s reputation and placed the 125 year-old retailer as a leader in the sustainable business arena. His presentation ‘Developing a Sustainable Business’ will reveal just what it takes to create such a plan and achieve recognition for its values.

“The product and service experience is key to the customer but now all environmental and social considerations will have to be managed in a smooth, integrated manner,” Mike says.

Citizen trust
As established, the environmental/sustainability opportunities presented to business and government can enhance reputations and achieve that priceless sense of trust from customers, clients and stakeholders but it is people, through their role as member of staff or customer, that are at the core of sustainable business and any success a scheme may experience. Jan Chmiel, CEO of IEMA and Chair of the event believes that there are huge opportunities for organisations that choose to follow a sustainable business route to transform their fortunes, but attests that it is the environmental and sustainability practitioner, either an in-house environmental manager or outsourced consultant, that can bring about such change.

“There are increasing opportunities for forward-thinking organisations to establish competitive advantage by leading in the environmental arena,” says Chimel. “For that to happen more widely environmental professionals will need to be more effective at creating and managing change in their organisations. This will mean getting into the fabric of senior level decision making in a much more effective and significant way.”

Over 300 of these environmental and sustainability professionals will meet along with consultants, planners, local authority decision-makers and business leaders to hear the views of leading names as they address how environment can bring about competitive advantage and why environmental professionals should be making their way into senior management.

For more information

Tel: 01522 540069
Web: www.iema.net/events

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