The new year looks promising for sustainable business

Sensemaking / The new year looks promising for sustainable business

Despite tough times ahead, there is little sign that mainstream business will go soft on sustainable development in 2012 says Martin Wright.

03 Jan 2012

Despite tough times ahead, there is little sign that mainstream business will go soft on sustainable development in 2012 says Martin Wright

Photo of a glass half full of waterSo, 2012, what’s it to be? Can we find a glass half full of something vaguely cheering, or are we staring at the dregs?

A quick glance at the headlines doesn’t exactly leave you brimming with New Year cheer. What hope for sustainable business when we have economies in atrophy across the world, a damp squib of a climate deal in Durban – and David Cameron’s drive to lead the ‘greenest government ever’ looking at least two huskies short of a sledge?

So, let’s get the grim stuff over with. Inevitably, tight purse strings mean less money – whether bank loans, business investment or state funding – for all sorts of sustainability initiatives. And a divided government will hardly risk inflaming the Tory backbenchers on whose support it depends by making bold gestures on climate, say, or energy.

So where’s the good news for 2012?

First, despite numerous gloomy predictions, there is precious little sign that mainstream business is going soft on sustainable development. If it really were just an optional add-on – a luxury for the good times – then the streets should be filled with newly redundant SD managers. In practice, I know of just one who’s lost their job in the last year. And as Forum for the Future’s Sally Uren points out, such roles are even rising up the responsibility ladder [see 'Out with 'my business': in with 'our world'']. So it’s goodbye Sustainability Manager, hello Chief Sustainability Officer.

Meanwhile, the contrast between the way in which sustainability leaders – companies like Kingfisher, Unilever and Marks & Spencer – are sticking to their course, while the UK government under Chief Petty Officer Osborne is noisily trimming its sails, couldn’t be more striking. Unlike politicians, business leaders realise they’re in it for the long term.

Second, while cutbacks may indeed stymie investment, price signals send out a more nuanced message. The same rising costs of oil and resources which dampen the economy also put a premium on energy efficiency. And there’s nothing like soaring energy bills to focus the mind wonderfully on low-carbon alternatives. So it’s just as well that the plummeting costs of solar in particular look set to continue their dive, with some experts suggesting grid parity is just a few years away. In hindsight, this could make the dip caused by the government’s shock move on feed-in tarriffs look like a very small blip indeed.

Third, tough times can be fertile ones for new business models. Another Forum colleague, David Bent, points to the surge in peer-to-peer startups – many of which, from AirBnB to WhipCar, are inherently sustainable (maximising the use of idle resources) [see 'Things to look out for in 2012']. Expect this to be a surefire growth sector in 2012. Some established companies, too, are exploring new consumption models. Patagonia even went so far as to exhort its customers not to buy stuff they don’t need. While Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman (that man again) has spoken out against “mindless consumption”, arguing that “we have a unique opportunity to reinvent [it], to bring about ‘mindful’ consumption.”

So, three reasons to be at least moderately cheerful. Or to quote that old African saying: “Hope and optimism - in spite of present difficulties.” - Martin Wright

Photo credit:iStockPhoto/thinkstock

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

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