Corporate Sustainability Rhetoric

About a decade ago it became all the rage for corporations to develop Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies. Originally CSR was clear. It encouraged corporations to consider their impacts on the societies that quite literally sustain them. Society consumes their goods and services, provides them with staff and, especially in the case of bankers, pays for their mistakes. Initially CSR had very worthwhile aims, but now is more commonly used simply to out-worthy competitors.

So how was CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility replaced with CSR – Corporate Sustainability Rhetoric?

Well, like many aspects of business the innovators and early adopters have a clear mission and understanding of what they are doing and why. However, by the time that any new practice becomes the subject of business improvement handbooks, it simply becomes a fad that everyone has to follow in order to maintain market share. At this point the followers are simply looking for the easiest route to show compliance.

Thus CSR has gone the way of Quality Assurance (QA). In the early days both CSR and QA were business improvement activities. A CSR policy allowed business to connect with the community that supported it. A well written QA system supported and enabled the business operations. Now both of these ideals have been reduced to tick-box auditing with the simple purpose of allowing businesses to demonstrate that they are no worse than their competitors.

So, we have now reached the point of “Sustainability Accounting”. Rather than recognising that all human activity has impacts, and taking responsibility for these, sustainability accounting uses a limited set of performance indicators to demonstrate worthiness whilst often obscuring the real issues. This approach clearly has great appeal to judge by the burgeoning of sustainability or carbon consultancy.

Now I guess political leaders must also be reading these same business improvement handbooks. Because, as we know, the private sector has all the answers doesn’t it? Maybe this explains why we are seeing rhetoric replace action on sustainable development in all spheres of life, including politics and national leadership. Competing organisations in any sphere from supermarkets to governments now vie to be seen to be more sustainable than each other without actually doing anything concrete.

We need to stop obfuscating and start taking responsibility for our actions once more. To begin with, we have to acknowledge that all human activity has impacts and that these impacts may go far beyond the present sustainability indicators. We need to take responsibility for all these impacts and work to minimise or mitigate them.

We need to start taking responsibility for our resource and energy consumption, for social development, for the health of our economy and for protecting our vital biosphere. We cannot continue to cherry pick just those issues which allow us to demonstrate our worthiness in limited spheres. These responsibilities also extend across the generations. We cannot simply ignore our responsibilities because we will not be around to be held accountable by future generations.

Its time to throw out the sustainability rhetoric and put responsibility back in business!

An extended version of this article was published here: The Conversation
And Here: The Guardian Environment
And Here: 2 Degrees Network

You can comment and join in the conversation at any of these locations, or just comment below:

Lets Talk Business

In sustainable construction it has become commonplace to focus on carbon footprint. We cleave to the metric of kg CO2e / m2 for both operational or embodied carbon. This has clearly grown out of the practice of valuing buildings by floor area. Yet this measure of sustainability is largely meaningless to the leaders of businesses that will occupy our buildings.

Businesses have their own measures of performance and success. In commercial enterprises these are likely to involve profitability and productivity ratios. Schools will measure their performance in terms of learning outcomes, hospitals by recovery rates. None of these measures relates to floor area.

A business leader choosing premises needs to evaluate many criteria. It is well known that location is a primary consideration. Design, as in the overt appearance, may also play a role. However, since assessing performance against building carbon footprint quickly becomes complex, it is rare that sustainable design gets sufficient consideration.

By sustainable design, I of course mean design that addresses the social and economic performance of business, not just the carbon footprint of buildings. There is plenty of evidence that well designed workplace leads to happier and more productive staff. This should be of immediate interest to a business leader, as the cost of staff dissatisfaction and absenteeism is likely to far exceed the cost of energy in offices.

On the other hand, less tangible design features should also feature in property decisions. Workplace designs with higher carbon footprints, such as air-conditioning, may actually permit higher occupation densities, in other words more staff in the same space. These considerations should also be critical in the choice of premises if only the benefits could be made explicit.

The simple metrics of construction cost and carbon emission by floor area do not reveal any useful information about the true benefits of a building’s design. Imagine instead metrics for office buildings of construction cost and carbon emission per workstation at design occupancy. These give direct measures of the efficiency of the design in terms that are meaningful to the occupier.

These metrics allow true comparison between naturally ventilated out of town offices with low occupation and a densely occupied, air-conditioned, city-centre offices. These metrics would allow a business leader to immediately relate productivity to resource consumption via the vector of staff. This is a compelling tool for property related decision-making.

It doesn’t end with commercial offices. If we understand the end user businesses a little better we can develop metrics for cost and carbon efficiency appropriate to any business sector. We would measure the efficiency of a hotel by bed space and a distribution warehouse by the number of pallets of goods accommodated. It will require some work to establish suitable measures at the outset, but this will lead to better business outcomes for us as well as our customers.

The recent RIBA survey of chartered practices revealed that the majority do not have a business plan nor set themselves business performance targets. We would probably also find this to be true of consulting engineers and other related professionals. This lack of familiarity with business issues could be limiting our ability to communicate with our customers in language familiar to them.

If we want to see substantial change in sustainable construction we may need to start by changing ourselves a little. A bit more business savvy would not go amiss. Not only would we be more successful in the business of making buildings, but we could learn the language of business to better communicate our skills and ideas to our customers. Measuring the cost and impacts of buildings in terms that are evident and compelling to business leaders has to be a good start in the transition to a new paradigm.