Sustainability and environmental quality are issues for citizens, communities, cities and the businesses that operate within them. Pollution, congestion and adverse weather conditions can impact upon health, productivity and performance. A company, its people and its customers can all benefit from resilient and effective transportation, water, energy, sanitation, sewerage, rubbish collection and waste disposal services. When formulating a corporate strategy for managing the relationship with the environment and taking decisions concerning production, corporate offerings, infrastructure and the built environment, to what extent should a board take social as well as business issues into account? Should CSR practitioners be involved?
Climate change challenges individuals, organisations, communities and governments. It has social as well as business implications and for several months in a row average temperatures have been the highest ever recorded. The 18th World Congress on Environment Management will look beyond issues and threats and consider options and opportunities. My theme paper for the event raises questions for consumers, investors and employees, as well as directors, public officials and elected politicians. It suggests a shift of focus and imaginative responses from entrepreneurs could create new business opportunities and lead to more sustainable and affordable lifestyles. It identifies areas in which companies can demonstrate their social responsibility.
Boards need to consider what role a company should play, either individually or in collaboration with other organisations, in ensuring that corporate activities, capabilities and facilities, essential infrastructure and public services are able to cope with climate and other changes. Should a strategy embrace social considerations? Is a more integrated approach needed? For example, issues relating to food, water, energy and the environment impact upon each other, and can no longer be considered in isolation. Should more companies and public bodies be looking at shared services as a way of making more cost effective use of infrastructure?
Bridges of Sports, a non-profit initiative to create an inclusive and sustainable sports ecosystem in India, has found that publicly funded athletics facilities in many areas are under-used. What should companies and other bodies do to make people more aware of healthier and less environmentally damaging working, lifestyle and leisure options? Bridges of Sports is calling for both increased awareness and additional provision. Should boards be also advocating more involvement in the creative arts and how might this energise people, stimulate creativity and increase innovation?
Directors need to be aware of developments occurring in the social, physical and market environment and alert to ways of taking advantage of them and supporting those that are beneficial. In some countries the creative arts, sports and leisure activities are significant economic sectors in their own right. They present many business opportunities as well as enabling people to lead more fulfilling lives. Will our buildings be more flexible and intelligent? What do smart city initiatives mean for businesses? Will they lead to intelligent communities and the delivery of more integrated public services? Will they lead to new and more sustainable ways of working and operating?
In 2015 106 new buildings over 200 metres tall were added to city skylines, the first time the annual total has exceeded 100. The location and use of such space reveals much about the priorities of planners and developers. How much of the space and its use is related to perpetuating current patterns of consumption and display, as opposed to simpler and healthier lifestyles or the encouragement of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation? Should insecure status seekers be aiming to build the world’s smartest building rather than its tallest? Does taller just mean greater isolation and distance from the natural environment? How accessible are our buildings for the disabled? The repeal of the 1898 Lepers Act is an encouraging development, but over 120,000 people each year are diagnosed with leprosy in India. What more could be done to remove discrimination against them and their families and increase their inclusion in society?
Personal consumption patterns cause significant environmental damage. Do we need to change our consumer values and priorities to confront the difficult challenges and choices that we now face?Could we be less wasteful? Could more be recycled? Are more people looking for independence and balance in their lives, greater personal freedom and opportunities to reduce their environmental footprint? How should such aspirations be reflected in corporate policies and practices? Do our corporate strategies and priorities reflect our past rather than the aspirations of younger generations?
As consumers and investors should we give a lead by changing our expectations of business leaders? Rather than reward those who increase the production of unnecessary and disposable goods, should the giving of awards and the writing of case studies high-light the leaders who reduce physical production and the use of scarce material resources and switch the emphasis from external trappings to helping customers achieve more of a sense of inner worth and launching offerings that enable people to engage in less environmentally damaging and more sustainable activities? While in marble entrance foyers should we ask questions about the safety of the stone cutters involved?
Directors could reduce the environmental impact of physical good production be limiting or abandoning practices such as built in obsolescence. Could more elements be replaced as they wear out or upgraded? Should boards champion sustainable product design? The new product designs of a responsible business ought to be ethical and sustainable as well as profitable. How might a new design benefit other species such as birds and bats? Could engaging with the public and providing them with ways of increasing biodiversity represent a new business opportunity for garden centres?
Should we champion fulfilling activities rather than physical consumption? As the production of goods is increasingly undertaken by factory robots or local 3D printers, a shift of emphasis to creative endeavours, sport and keep fit activities could create opportunities for those who might otherwise be marginalised or made redundant to offer one-to-one personal services, engage in communal activities and experience a higher quality of life.
Will displays of material wealth such as expensive and fuel-guzzling fast cars come to be seen as evidence of shallow self-obsession, concern with superficial appearance and ignorance of environmental issues? Could the manufacture and use of some products be considered a “crime against the environment”? Will business leaders have the courage to exercise restraint in how they advertise and promote offerings, to reduce impulse and unnecessary purchases of items whose production and use are environmentally harmful?
In comparison with personal consumption, team sports are shared activities. Like the creative arts they can be both participative and observed or enjoyed by others. A whole community can be lifted by a winning team, performance or exhibition. Such activities have a multiplier effect. Their externalities are positive. They deliver health and social benefits. They widen perspectives and enrich lives. Creative and knowledge-based activities build intellectual capabilities rather than consume physical resources.
Could one envision an inversion of life chances? While a new quality of life poor composed of lonely urban dwellers trapped in high-rise apartments look down at the life-shortening pollution of congested and dangerous cities, will rural dwellers revel in being close to nature and valued members of vibrant and connected communities, living longer, healthier, simpler and less materialistic but more fulfilling lives? We have choices. Entrepreneurs could both trigger the transition and also contribute to greater well being by devising innovative and affordable solutions to basic needs for sanitation facilities and fresh water.
The 18th World Congress on Environment Management provides a forum for discussing options. How might we best internalise external costs? How do we ensure corporate and political strategies are aligned? What individual and collective action could customers and investors take to bring about desired changes? What role should professionals, banks and insurance companies play? How might cities contribute more to global discussions? Do we replace markets or work with them? Could a barter economy, including the exchanges of time, replace or complement a monetary one?
These comments are taken from a theme paper prepared by Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas for the Institute of Directors Annual Convention and 18th World Congress on Environment Management which is organised by the Institute and is taking place in New Delhi on 8th and 9th of July. Full details of the forthcoming conference can be obtained from http://www.iodonline.com/wcem-2016.html. The full theme paper is now accessible on India’s Institute of Director’s website from: http://www.iodonline.com/images/wcem2016/wcem-2016-theme-paper.pdf. Further information on Bridges of Sports can be obtained from: http://www.bridgesofsports.com/.
In addition to advising boards and his board appointments, Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas leads the International Governance Initiative of the Order of St Lazarus, is Chancellor of the School for the Creative Arts, Director-General, IOD India, UK and Europe Operations and chair of the Audit and Risk Committee of United Learning. He has helped directors in over 40 countries to improve board and corporate performance. Author of over 60 books and reports he has held professorial appointments in Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India and China. Colin was educated at the London School of Economics, London Business School, UNISA and the Universities of Aston, Chicago and Southern California, and is a fellow of seven chartered bodies. His recent books and reports on quicker and more affordable and sustainable routes to high performance organisations can be obtained from: http://www.policypublications.com/.