The issue of sustainability is never far from the news these days.
From stories about restaurants using donated food that was otherwise heading for a tip, to landlords swapping with their tenants and having epiphanies about the impact of their business decisions on others. It seems using energy efficient light bulbs is just the tip of the iceberg and the range of issues covered by the word ‘sustainability’ is vast.
To try and make things a little more manageable we are going to look at three broad areas; environmental, social and economic sustainability.
Environmental sustainability covers most initiatives that would be seen to be helping save the planet, such as; recycling, saving energy and increasing the use of renewable energy, reducing waste and carbon emissions, as well as considering the environment when designing and building products and premises.
Social sustainability could be described as anything that supports social equality and justice. So, choosing to buy products produced through schemes that directly increase the income of farmers, instead of the profits of large companies, would be socially sustainable. Equally, a business providing flexible working conditions to its employees so that they can have a manageable home-work life balance would be another example of the social aspect of sustainability.
Finally, economic sustainability is about finding a balance between the desire for environmental and social improvements against the need to sustain the economic productivity of organisations and as a result the wider economy. Often initiatives in this area seek to make savings but require compromise between long and short term costs and gains.
For example, solar panels will reduce electricity bills and produce an income via the government’s Feed-in-Tariff but only if the capital outlay to have them installed in the first place is affordable. If installation means that the organisation may fail due to lack of funds in the short term, then the panels should not be installed until they can be afforded without risk to the organisation. This is important to the economic sustainability of both the individual organisation and the wider economy. After all, if businesses fail they do not pay taxes and taxes are needed by government to fund healthcare, education and travel infrastructure, enabling social and environmental standards to be raised.
One of the challenges when studying sustainability is being able to identify which of the three areas an initiative supports. There are occasions where initiatives benefit all three areas. To make things even more complicated, lots of sustainability initiatives are often good business practices in their own right too.
We are going to look at a few examples that organisations have adopted and identify the impact in each case:
Buying Fair Trade coffee for the office
- Environmental benefits are gained as coffee growers are encouraged to use sustainable farming methods that reduce the need for deforestation.
- Economic benefits are felt by the coffee growers and their families as the Fair Trade initiative is based on paying a fairer percentage of the crop’s income directly to the grower. More sustainable practices allow coffee growers to gain better livelihoods which in turn improves their local and national economies.
- Social benefits also stem from people’s improved economic situations as this allows them to enhance their quality of life, with better food, housing, sanitation and education.
Installing energy saving lighting
- Economic benefits are gained because, whilst this may require significant investment initially, it will reduce energy costs in the long run. A decrease in expenses will positively impact on an organisation’s profitability thereby helping its economic sustainability.
- Environmental benefits will be gained too as energy saving lighting will require less electricity to power it than traditional lighting. The knock on effect of that is a reduction in use of fossil fuels and the release of less greenhouse gas.
- Social benefits will be felt in the long run as any reduction in energy consumption will positively impact on the planet’s resources now and conserve more of them for use by future generations.
The above breakdowns are quite simplistic and there will be other impacts and benefits for both examples. The important point is that any sustainable initiative is likely to have benefits across the three areas. We need this breath of understanding when it comes to analysing initiatives and deciding which area is directly benefited by them.
Let’s look at some more examples, taken from the Sustainable Business Partnership’s Sustainability Policy and go through some questions and answers.
Which of the policies below directly support society as a whole?
- Lights and equipment are switched off when not required and heating controls accurately set.
- We communicate, invoice, do our banking and store documents electronically.
- We are a Living Wage Employer, including for internships.
The answer is being a Living Wage Employer. Paying the living wage supports social equality and justice. It allows people to improve their standard of living and participate in their local communities and society as a whole. The other two options are good sustainable initiatives that save energy and reduce the use of paper, both resulting in a positive impact on the environment but do not directly support society.
Which of the policies below would directly impact on the economic sustainability of the organisation?
- Suppliers, including banking and insurance, are selected with consideration of their environmental credentials.
- We print only where 100% necessary and always double sided.
- Food waste from our office and events is composted.
The answer is double-sided printing only when necessary. Savings will be made by only printing when there is no alternative and, in cases when it is unavoidable, by printing on both sides. Reducing expenses will have a direct impact on economic sustainability. Again the other two options are sustainable policies and will have positive environmental and ethical impacts but no direct economic benefit to the organisation.
Which of the policies below directly benefit the environment?
- We are a member of the Brighton & Hove Chamber of Commerce.
- We travel by public transport to events, site audits and meetings. When this is not possible, we car-share and co-ordinate meetings to minimise the number of journeys required.
- We are a Living Wage Employer, including for internships.
Again the answer is using public transport or car-share when necessary. Using public transport, car-sharing and minimising journeys will all reduce fuel consumption, emissions and the carbon footprint of the organisation resulting in benefits to the environment. The other options above provide social benefits by encouraging good practice with other organisations and sustainable incomes for employees.
The way sustainability affects us is wide ranging and multifaceted so when analysing initiatives be clear which area they relate to and whether you are identifying general or direct impacts.
Gill Myers is a self-employed accounts consultant. She has taught AAT qualifications since 2005 and written numerous articles and e-learning resources.