Going green need not mean losing your edge

Jun 10 2005 by Nic Paton Print This Article

British businesses need to get away from thinking of sustainable development as inevitably meaning job losses or becoming less competitive, union leaders and manufacturing organisations argued this week.

Ahead of next month's G8 summit in Scotland, where climate change, and particularly the attitude of US president George Bush, is set to be at the top of the agenda, the TUC is urging employers to sit down with workers and unions to thrash out how the business community can better react to the challenge posed by global warming.

At the same time, the manufacturers' organisation the EEF this week launched a new sustainable development guide, which argued that embracing greener processes is not only environmentally sound but can make a real difference to a company's bottom line.

But, by all accounts, there is still a long way to go. Last autumn, a survey by environmental advice service NetRegs estimated small businesses could save as much as £1,000 per employee through such simple energy-saving measures as switching off unused lights or turning down the heating thermostat a notch.

At the same time, the Government-backed Carbon Trust, which specialises in helping small firms improve their energy efficiency, calculated that such businesses threw away £1 billion each year through wasted energy.

These findings begged the question, if we can't bring ourselves to follow even such basic advice, what hope do British firms have of implementing more complex environmental and sustainable development measures?

To add urgency to the debate, the TUC's report, Greening the Workplace, was published in the wake of dire warnings from leading scientists from around the world that Governments had to take prompt action on climate change.

And this week, too, the Environment Agency warned that millions of people in England and Wales are now being seriously affected by pollution and global warming.

Sustainable development is not rocket science and does not always have to mean radical, costly changes
Sustainable development is not rocket science and does not always have to mean radical, costly changes, but there is more often than not a serious fear factor associated with it, stresses Philip Pearson, TUC policy officer.

"There are often concerns that it will lead to job losses, but the general trend we see is that, overall, the economic results are good," he says.

Similarly, because sustainable development is so often discussed in global terms, businesses can be lulled into a false sense of security and believe it does not apply to them, argues Gary Booton, director of health, safety and environment at EEF.

Alternatively, they may simply be bewildered by the complexity of the issue and feel, in a competitive environment, it is not something they can do anything about or which will benefit them, he adds.

Yet, when it comes to jobs sustainable development may even create jobs rather than cut them, the TUC report argues. It calculates that the development of renewable energy sources – wave and wind power – could create up to 30,000 new jobs in the next ten years, in the process in helping to make up for the 100,000 or so jobs lost in traditional manufacturing each year.

On the amount of energy commercial and industrial buildings consume for things such as heating, lighting, air conditioning, lifts and desktop computers, the UK fares badly compared with buildings in other European countries.

Transport is another major issue, currently responsible, estimates the TUC, for more than a quarter of the UK's carbon emissions.

Firms therefore need to be looking at simple, practical activities, such as environmental audits and, at a more micro level, revising job descriptions to make them environmentally friendly and greener travel policies, argues Pearson.

Car fleet purchasing schemes could be switched to ones based on low carbon vehicles, for instance, or video conferencing could be encouraged as an alternative to business travel, he suggests.

The key is to ensure that rather than imposing change from above, you are adapting existing structures to the new environmentally friendly agenda, he argues.

There is also the tricky question of engaging the workforce – however well-meaning you may be, if you don't bring your workers with you, little will change.

"The real challenge at a practical level is to help businesses recognise that small step-changes to their operations will contribute to a significant overall improvement in the environment and to their bottom line," agrees the EEF's Booton.

More and more companies are being pushed towards sustainable development by external pressures, such as legislation, taxation and an increasingly sophisticated customer base, he adds.

What's important, therefore, is that they embrace and work with these pressures, maximising what benefit they can, rather than find themselves dragged kicking and screaming to the sustainable development table somewhere further down the line.

Its Sustainable Development guide uses a case study-based approach to outline practical steps companies can take to improve performance in the areas of waste, water and energy management.

Following it, argues Booton, can make a real difference to a company's operating costs as well as helping the environment. Whether UK companies – much like George Bush – are prepared as yet to listen is something we will have to wait and see.