Sustaining the future (2/5)

Written on the 17 June 2009

Sustaining the future (2/5)

Corporate social responsibility was once a private sector initiative, but the launch of Griffith University’s Asia-Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise takes the concept into the mainstream in a new format. Director and UN adviser, Professor Malcolm MacIntosh tells Brisbane Business News how business is adapting to climate change and choosing sustainability over the ‘short-term money grab’.

WHEN I first started teaching sustainable enterprise, people laughed as if I should be wearing hemp clothing and living in a commune. But today the people who talk about it are wearing dark suits and sitting in board rooms. Over the last decade we have seen the birth of voluntary corporate citizenship initiatives, but in the wake of the global financial crisis we can now see more acutely their importance. The economy has been overrun by a thunder of hooves and the idea of corporate social responsibility has moved to a society-encompassing ‘sustainable enterprise economy’ format.

The current climate change issues and global financial crisis have created a perfect storm to implement sustainable principles ­— the perfect point of calamity to push forward new initiatives. If key individuals in crucial companies were trading more ethically and more sustainably, then the global financial crisis wouldn’t have happened, or at least the impact wouldn’t have been as severe. It was the people looking at the short-term money grab who contributed to the sub-prime mortgage collapse – in other words, they weren’t acting sustainably.

Businesses in Queensland have shown they can make rapid changes and the reduction in water use by businesses during drought is one such example. The community was in a dire position and on the verge of running dry, but everyone pulled together, from homes to businesses to make a difference. This proves that changes can be made at a local level. But what can Brisbane businesses really do to make a difference? Apart from being aware of the larger debate and contributing to it, local companies need to focus on their own suppliers and what is under their control.

A great example is the electrical retail store The Good Guys at Capalaba that has gone green by improving its supply chain. Proprietor James Brockhurst analysed his supply chain and encouraged suppliers to become more sustainable by making it a prerequisite to be ‘green’ to do business with his store. In doing this he was able to influence other businesses to improve their practices, which is something more Brisbane businesses can do. You drive the business of your suppliers so make them accountable to you – in applying this idea Brockhurst took the responsibility to help consumers choose efficient products and know their environmental impacts. For businesses wanting to know more about what they can do to be sustainable, the Department of Environment and Resource Management has also launched of the ClimateSmart Retail Program to encourage retailers to sell eco-efficient products.

We’re at a transition point in the history of humanity. The best way to climb out of the recession and depression caused by climate change is to develop an economy that’s based on decarbonisation and dematerialisation and based on clean, renewable technology. This transformation will not be easy and there are enormous challenges ahead – this has been recognised as a business and government imperative. It’s strange to think that 20 years ago there were only about 10 or 20 of the world’s major corporations that took the sustainability issue seriously.

Overcoming the current challenges will require a better understanding of complex dynamics and systems, particularly fragile earth ecosystems and a continuously connected social world. Our current way of thinking and seeing the world has created global warming and global terrorism, so we must now use our new-found knowledge to create a paradigm shift to a more equitable global socio-ecological situation. An important part of this is finding the right approach and incentives – when you look back at history we’ve had the revolutions of agriculture, industrialisation and information, but now comes the challenge of sustainability and our ability to live within the earth’s limits.

The smartest governments and businesses recognise we have entered an age of intelligent innovation through a mixture of experimenting and seeking out what we know works on the ground now. We need to learn from those organisations that are ahead of the curve, bring people together who would not normally interact and take heed of the scientific research about climate change, which coupled with the current economic crisis is a perfect opportunity for a revival of sustainable business.


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