Sustainability awards can drive change, but there are no quick wins

Sensemaking / Sustainability awards can drive change, but there are no quick wins

Each year, more award schemes add the word 'sustainable' to their criteria.

By Futures Centre / 23 Oct 2013

In doing so, they could drive leadership and promote best practice. At worst, though, they could endorse companies that do little more than keep up with regulation, failing to sift those showing the way from those with time to shout about it…

Prizes and profile-raising aside, award schemes can shape the way businesses think afresh about what they do and why. The application process itself can be a tool to prompt candidates to take a step back, reconsider their targets, benchmark their progress, and explore best practice in their field. It can also prompt innovation in communicating sustainability: in some cases, this isn’t a form-filling exercise, but a creative, multimedia one. The merit of the award itself depends on the rigour of the application process, as much as on the judges’ discernment.

Take the Queen’s Awards for Sustainable Development, says Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director of Forum for the Future, singling out a UK scheme which aims to recognise companies that have integrated environmental, social, economic and management aspects of sustainable development into their business. “I take these Awards very seriously. It’s a really intense process that everybody has to go through, and nobody gets it unless they really are deserving in all sorts of different ways.”

Longevity sets the Sustainable Development category of the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise apart from many others in the space. Not only has it been running for 20 years, but it seeks to recognise efforts sustained over a number of years. This means that the rapid, dramatic cuts in carbon footprints that can result from low-hanging fruit aren’t good enough per se. Businesses can apply for an award either based on “an outstanding advance in sustainable development, sustained over not less than two years”, or “continuous achievement in sustainable development, sustained over not less than five years”. A company could not evidence such a claim lightly.

The scheme has public prestige, partly through association with the Queen herself as its ultimate judge, with a reception at Buckingham Palace for winners, and also thanks to a rigorous assessment process. A shortlist made by a panel of experts is presented to the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee, which makes further recommendations to the Queen. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs advises the Prime Minister for the Sustainable Development award, bringing its own agenda: to reward enterprises which grow the rural economy; proactively safeguard animal and plant health; and reduce waste and inefficiency. The Queen’s Awards also performs checks to ensure proper reporting, hires expertise to verify commercial data, and screens the shortlist for due diligence.

Of course, the reputational risks and benefits of an award scheme cut both ways. Checks safeguard the prestige of the award, and its own brand also stands to gain through association with well-reputed winners. Among them, in 2013, is Pureprint, which was the first CarbonNeutral printer in the world and was the first ISO 14001 and EMAS accredited printer in the UK. Pureprint also won a Queen’s Award in 2008, and a second award shows that it didn’t then rest on its laurels. The Queen’s Award may be able to claim some credit for its subsequent achievements: a survey of applicants revealed that 61% felt that applying for a Queen’s Award was a useful process to benchmark the progress of their business.

One missed opportunity is that the scheme has yet to mainstream sustainability throughout all three categories. The other two – International Trade, which rewards “substantial growth in overseas earnings and in commercial success”, and Innovation, which recognises “substantial improvement in business performance and commercial success through innovative products and services” – fail to make the point that longterm growth and success depend on a sustainable approach. Does the Queen’s Awards assess its own practices and purpose with the same rigour it requires of winners? – John Eischeid

Pureprint Group is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

Please register or log in to comment.