Environmental strategy – good business or good sense?


Few, if any, business people aspire to be unethical or non-environmental. But few actually claim to operate ethically, apart from the values-based businesses such as Body Shop. For most, this has never been an explicit issue.

But increasing numbers of senior executives are struggling with the challenge of introducing environmental or social issues directly into their companies.

Being ethical (or responsible) is not a matter of learning a few techniques and implementing a programme. The issues are broad, wide-ranging and complex.

They affect every part of the business and everyone in the business, because CSR is about how a company affects the world.

That includes its environmental impact, but also the broader impact on society – the employees, suppliers, partners, customers and geographical communities with whom and within which the business operates.

Environmental issues are probably most familiar and will seem most straightforward to deal with for many companies.

But environmental impact is not just about energy use, pollution and waste generated within the company walls. It must also include the impact of products or services in use.

This is often the most significant impact. It is why oil companies such as Shell and BP are under pressure to develop renewable energy technology, why car makers are racing to develop low-emission cars, and why manufacturers such as Unilever are toying with becoming providers of cleaning services rather than products.

Best companies
The reasons are clear. Negative pressures are most immediately powerful – reputation crises at companies such as Shell, Monsanto and Nike; attacks from campaign groups such as Greenpeace; growing interest from mainstream investors in the new bottom line of social and environmental performance.

Added to which how do you fit these issues into ongoing business and match the time they take with the need for profit now?

More and more evidence is emerging, though, to support the positive case. The best people want to work for the best companies, and ‘best’ increasingly means most responsible.

Large customers, especially the big consumer brands, want suppliers to share their ‘responsible’ approaches.

Local and central government are increasingly aware of environmental and ethical issues – and moving towards using their influence as well as their substantial buying power to these ends.

The DETR and 24 local authorities have recently launched a UK pilot programme to reduce global climate change. This is part of the UK Government’s climate change strategy – ‘The Councils for Climate Protection’.

It will ultimately result in a local action plan to reach the emission reduction target. This partnership of organisations to address issues in the environmental and social agenda is increasingly taking place.

Social responsibility
One study from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a group of multi-nationals, concluded: ”Social responsibility is increasingly viewed not only as making good business sense but also contributing to the long-term prosperity of companies and ultimately their survival.

"Being a good neighbour and showing that you care, and being a successful business, are flip sides of the same coin.”

Experience of companies that Article 13 has shown that the first place to start is in involving the people affected to identify and air issues which are usually ignored. The resulting statement acts as a guide to where to start with these issues and then to help resolve subsequent dilemmas.

In an ideal world this group, or a reduced form of it, also acts as an ongoing means of evaluating progress against agreed objectives and as a scanning process for new and emerging issues – whether in the environmental, social or ethical area.

The key issues in each major area may include, for example: environmental legislation, climate change levy, community resistance to industrial growth (NIMBY), transport, traffic, congestion, through to employment, human rights, product stewardship, community involvement. These are not necessarily discrete.

Dialogue with the relevant stakeholders will help identify key issues and develop appropriate responses.

Then it gets easier, because you are into the familiar management cycle of plans, implementation, measurement, review and reporting.

The process of addressing these issues is not finite. It is continuous – continually examining changing issues and concerns, continually improving understanding and achieving better performance.