There’s nothing like prefacing an article with a colossal question; a question that is both difficult to pose and incredibly difficult to answer. In most cases, we run our businesses for profit, climbing financial and social ladders, providing employment, contributing taxes and being beneficial to society through the creation of wealth. Many business owner/operators will see these objectives satisfied as a job well done. However, the great danger of sealing our businesses off from the wider environment by ignoring our downstream impacts is a legacy that future generations will not take kindly.
Let’s illustrate the point. I work a short hop, skip and a jump from a stretch of industrial coast land The wheels of industry have turned here; engines shuttled raw materials to and from a nearby steelworks. Busy roads plough goods in and out. Industrial units have filled the space along these transport arteries. Green space has all but disappeared and what little remains is nothing short of scrub. Business and urban planning is of course, cyclical and in time, we’ll want to bulldoze the detritus and house people here. The area is central and close to the work spaces of the CBD, fitting in with more enlightened thinking. However the choices of the past mean that an incredible amount of work will be required to make this area habitable. The ground is contaminated. Biodiversity has been squeezed. It is a blot on the landscape and a problem to be tackled by a future generation. As businesses, how can we spot and avoid potentially similar error of judgements now and in the future?
Recently I ordered a copy of ‘Ecological Urbanism’ a weighty doorstop of a book that didn’t so much get posted through our door, but rather smashed its way through it. Produced by the Harvard University of school of Design, the book is effectively a huge amalgamation of essays, infographics and images that depict the need for us to consider the whole picture when we paint our own part of the canvas. Despite the book tackling some large and serious issues, depressing it is not. The articles are written imaginatively and thoughtfully, rather than pedalling doom and gloom, with collaboration and optimism the order of the day. It is also abundantly clear, that for forward thinking organisations prepared to embrace the notion of responsibility, there is an incredibly rich seam of sustainable commerce to be embraced. The book therefore, is doing its job; providing education and inspiration.
In our case, it is looking to see how our product can improve the built environment. Cycle storage is fine in and of itself, but if our storage systems are also positioned optimally, utilise renewables to power their services, offer rooftop environments that mitigate flash flooding, soften the landscape and increase biodiversity, then we have enhanced our environment for financial, environmental and moral gain (win/win/win). In your case, it may mean utilising more local services, or moving to sustainable sources of raw materials, or offering consultancy to the community as part of a programme; it can take many, many forms. But however it looks, objectively critiquing CSR and the company role in society is likely to make not only good common sense – in a densely populated, resource tight world – but also excellent business sense in the long run. It is better to be recognised as part of the catalyst for change, than part of the obstacles to improvement.
If you’re not sure where to start with this, try Life cycle assessment of your product/service and take it from there. Look at what you currently do. Look at what you could do. Look at what you’d like to do. Use imagination, wit and intelligence. Explore. Investigate. Tap into academia. But above all else, think of the future you’d like to see and resolve to contribute toward it. My staunch advice? Swot up. The benefits of smartly designed products speak for themselves. Read long and prosper.
With thanks to Simon O’Rafferty, recently Senior Research Officer at the Eco-design centre for the initial loan of the book. I’ve since bought a copy. This article also appears on the website Sustainable business toolkit. Lower image: Elwell supersafe and Sheffield stands.