Wednesday, 22 December 2010

“In light of the current economic climate, what is the future of sustainable development and what role does government policy have to play?”

I applied for a job a couple of weeks ago. As part of the application I had to write an essay on this: “In light of the current economic climate, what is the future of sustainable development and what role does government policy have to play?” in 400 words, here's my effort:

People, Planet, Profit; Win, Win, Win?

During hard economic times it is easy to assume that action on Sustainable Development will be delayed; ‘if you are in a fight to save your business, you might forget to save the environment’1. However, a recent study2, highlights the rise in corporate action on Sustainability. The drivers for such a trend are not easy to detect but are worth exploring. The study reports that: ‘demonstrating a visible and authentic commitment to sustainability is especially important to CEOs... Strengthening brand, trust and reputation is the strongest motivator for taking action on sustainability issues, identified by 72 percent of the CEOs’3. It is easy to be cynical, but we must not be too quick to judge.

Wighton4 makes an interesting observation: ‘Many [CEOs] privately believe that being environmentally responsible is a good thing in itself. But they feel that they must adopt utilitarian ethics, justifying everything on the basis that it leads ultimately to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of shareholders.’ Are CEOs therefore acting on their environmental concerns but having to justify their sustainability activities on financial grounds to their investors (what’s good for the brand is good for profit)? This suggests a difficult balancing act in communications. At present, those concerned with People and Planet are sceptical that they can win while Profit wins. Those concerned with Profit alone worry that prioritisation of People and Planet will lessen the wins for shareholders and investors. The result is that authentic commitment is often masked and difficult to detect (whether it is there or not).

But, the future of sustainable development is bright if Government seizes the apparent enthusiasm in industry for sustainability and ‘steers the conditions’5 for sustainability in three key ways.

Following the Dutch example Government policy could:

  1. Nurture a business led ‘Cradle to Cradle’6 revolution by regulating in favour of environmentally positive practices, to create a level playing field and encourage innovation.
  2. Promote collaboration and sharing of best practice by those already leading on Cradle to Cradle;
  3. Transform the education system to improve creativity, systems thinking and ecological intelligence7,8,9.

Such Government leadership may help push those superficially engaged along with those who are already authentically committed. Although, this assumes that Government itself is authentically committed. If it is, it must proceed with caution. People do not like to be told what to do by politicians and ‘do-gooders’; this impacts on their role as promoters of sustainable development. Lively debate10 ensues over the correct approach for politicians and civil society organisations to take in communicating sustainability.

‘Cradle to Cradle’ may not be the answer, but it frames a sustainable future positively; a future where People, Planet and Profit all improve; it ‘sizzles’11. This is an insight to be built on and a reason for hope.


1. Wighton, D. (2010) What’s good for the planet is good for business, Opinon, The Times, December 1st, p. 29

2. United Nations Global Compact - Accenture (2010) A New Era of Sustainability [Online], p. 1, Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

3. UNGC-Accenture (2010), p. 10.

4. Wighton, D. (2010), p. 29

5. Jan Joustre, D. (2010) Cradle to Cradle Government, Presentation to Ten+One Conference, Bradford, UK.

6. Braungart, M. & McDonough, W. (2002) Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the way we make things, North Point Press, New York, USA.

7. Robinson, K. (2010) Changing Paradigms, RSA Edge Lecture [online], Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

8. Webster, K. & Johnson, C. (2009) Sense and Sustainability [online], Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

9. Sterling, S. (2009) Ecological Intelligence, [in] Stibbe, A. (ed) (2010) The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy, Green Books, UK.

10. Phillips, M. (2010) WWF’s Common Cause –The debate [online], Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

11. Futerra (2010) Sizzle: The New Climate Message [online], Available from: Accessed: December 4th, 2010.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did you get the job? or an interview?