Sustainability 3.0 individuals make the difference

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Sustainability and corporate social responsibility may be topics of interest, but they have little to do with individuals. How can an individual contribute to a sustainable world, now and in the future? Businesses can have an effect by involving their employees in their sustainability policy. For them however, it is not enough to say that they work in a sustainable building. The more important point is whether their behaviour inside that building is sustainable. Facility managers can encourage this kind of behaviour. Author: René P.M. Stevens MSC Arch./MBA. First published in the Dutch Facility Management Magazine, November 2010.

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Sustainability 3.0 individuals make the difference

  1. 1. 24-11-2010 Sustainability 3.0 Page 1 of 5 Individuals make the difference Sustainability 3.0 Sustainability and corporate social responsibility may be topics of interest, but they have little to do with individuals. How can an individual contribute to a sustainable world, now and in the future? Businesses can have an effect by involving their employees in their sustainability policy. For them however, it is not enough to say that they work in a sustainable building. The more important point is whether their behaviour inside that building is sustainable. Facility managers can encourage this kind of behaviour. Text: René P.M. Stevens Research shows that the definition of sustainability is very wide-ranging. It covers more or less everything. Its meaning depends on the context in which it is used, and it is subjective. There is no clear-cut and unambiguous definition. Mention of sustainability moreover often implies an ethical discussion about the goals humanity should be striving for. Sustainability has no real meaning in itself. It is a quality that is assigned to tangible things (such as sustainable products, services or production processes) and intangible things (such as human life, the environment and society). There are various meanings for which this word is used: 1. sustainability itself, in the sense of a thing that is long-lasting in relation to its environment, 2. durability and endurability, meaning the inbuilt ability of a thing to resist or tolerate external influences, 3. renewability, mainly in relation to the sensible use of energy and commodities to maintain life on planet Earth. Sustainability therefore relates to both ‘here and now’ and to ‘elsewhere and later’. There are concerns about the future of the Earth, about human society and the global
  2. 2. 24-11-2010 Sustainability 3.0 Page 2 of 5 distribution of goods, resources and facilities. There are often conflicting interests for both society and businesses. Sustainability therefore relates to both ‘here and now’ and to ‘elsewhere and later’. Sustainability 1.0, focus on the environment Sustainability became an agenda item for world leaders with the report by the UN’s Brundtland Commission in 1987. This defined sustainability as follows: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ This definition identifies three components of sustainability: a. protection of the environment; b. economic growth, whereby developing countries are also offered the opportunity to achieve growth similar to that of developed countries. c. social planning: the gulf between rich and poor must be reduced to prevent deterioration of the environment in poor countries. In this definition, sustainability relates to the scarcity of the resources whereby prosperity is generated, now and in the future. We have only one planet Earth, the supply of commodities is finite and the ability of the atmosphere and our natural environment to absorb pollution is limited. The emphasis in this definition is on the environmental aspects of sustainable development. The foundations of economic growth and social planning are both seen in relation to environmental protection. If one wants to keep the environment of our planet in balance, by definition this is only possible at a global level. It is the world leaders that must come to mutual agreement. For political and economic reasons, this is no simple task, as was recently demonstrated at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen. But businesses that are ready to assume their responsibility do not have to passively await developments. Sustainability 2.0, focus on profit In his book ‘Cannibals with Forks’, published in 1998, John Elkington clearly explained how businesses can and should benefit society. This brought the issue down from a global level to the more digestible scale of businesses and organizations. The question is to find a balance between economic prosperity, environmental protection and social justice. The expression corporate social responsibility (CSR) or corporate sustainability was born. This is business designed to achieve economic performance (Profit), with respect for social issues (People), within ecological constraints (Planet): known as the ‘triple-P’ approach. The ‘triple-P’ approach helps to assess a company’s level of sustainability. It can also give guidance in the formulation of a CSR policy. The goal of a company is not exclusively to optimize its profits. It also shares a responsibility for social and ecological consequences. Society nowadays expects companies to meet this responsibility. In an ideal situation there is a balance between the social consequences of commercial actions, the ecological effects and the economic results for the company. This not only contributes to a sustainable society, it also leads to better results for the company. It is a trade-off between the short term and the long term, and between ‘us’ and ‘them’. However, money is and will always be important to a business. If it does not make a profit, it has no future. Whereas the emphasis in sustainability 1.0 was on the environmental component, with sustainability 2.0 it is on the profit component. Nothing wrong with this, since cash flows are an important instrument in a sustainable world.
  3. 3. 24-11-2010 Sustainability 3.0 Page 3 of 5 Making a healthy profit allows businesses to add a fourth P for ‘Prosperity’ (the sharing of success). This is also an aspect of ‘sustainability’ and ‘green’ business. If one looks at the developments in sustainability 1.0 and 2.0, one can identify a continuing trend of greater understanding of sustainability. In my opinion, we are now on the threshold of the next, more balanced phase: sustainability 3.0. Sustainability 3.0, focus on the individual Both sustainability 1.0 and 2.0 included ‘People’ as the human component. In the UN’s Brundtland report, ‘People’ is taken to mean the population in the developing countries. The ‘triple-P’ approach describes the ‘People’ component in terms of social planning, social capital or social justice. Both approaches are a long way from the personal actions of ordinary people. How can an individual contribute to a sustainable world, now and in the future? Many people think that one has to be rich to be able to make sustainable choices. During my travels to developing countries, however, I have come to the conclusion that defining what is rich (and thus also what is poor) is not so simple. In the developing countries people may perhaps be financially poor, but they are spiritually rich. While those in the West may be financially rich, but spiritually poor. Either of these conditions is not necessarily good or bad. To make responsible choices it is important to find the right balance between the material and the immaterial, between one’s head and one’s heart. Sustainability 3.0 places the emphasis on people as individuals. Sustainability 3.0 places the emphasis on people as individuals, i.e. both within and outside the commercial perspective. From the commercial perspective people are employees, suppliers and clients. Outside the commercial perspective, they are fathers, mothers, single people or people living together. Both perspectives are inextricably linked. Influence within one perspective thus also affects the other perspective. It is ultimately people that with their thoughts, emotions and resulting actions will make a lasting difference. Companies can apply their influence here. A sustainable change in behaviour is a journey with many small steps, falling down and getting up again, but not impossible. People make choices mostly on emotional grounds, not on rational grounds alone. If hearts are touched and people feel themselves joined together in a greater cause, much can be achieved. Through its brand(s), a business has a direct influence on the behaviour of its customers and through its production process on suppliers and employees, and therefore has more effect on the environment and social challenges than politicians or environmental activists can ever have. This involves taking responsibility and making people more aware of the consequences of their actions for our planet and society. Through their products, companies can encourage people to choose different priorities, to consider their own role, to work in a different way and do more themselves. A company can also give something back to society and thereby show its social involvement, for example by sponsoring sustainable or social-interest projects or allowing employees to contribute to a good cause in their working hours (on a voluntary basis). Inspirational business conduct Whether it is version 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0, the essence of socially responsible or sustainable business operation is doing business decently. Decency is not a question of what you do, but who you are. You are not only an employer or an employee, you are also a person and an inhabitant of this planet. In both capacities you have a responsibility that is not without its obligations. By setting an example, you can inspire and influence others.
  4. 4. 24-11-2010 Sustainability 3.0 Page 4 of 5 Each organization has a different take on sustainability and the degree of sustainability, just as each organization has a different view of quality, costs or profit. Is your goal to reduce the burden you place on the environment as far as possible, or is it to make as large a contribution as possible to the environment? This difference in approach can also be seen if one searches for the most sustainable building in the Netherlands. The designation ‘most sustainable building in the Netherlands’ turns out to depend on how one measures sustainability. There are several organizations using different criteria and associated certification, each with their own approach to sustainability. Sustainability moreover depends on context and the time when it is assessed, since our understanding of the concept and our measuring techniques are continually changing. In the search for sustainability, it also emerges that ‘how far you want to go’ is a determining factor for the sustainability framework. Can a cigarette factory be sustainable because its factory building is extremely sustainable, even though its product, the cigarettes, is damaging to the health of both smokers and non-smokers? Is a bank automatically sustainable if it allows your savings to contribute to a more sustainable society simply by investing in social, cultural and ‘green’ businesses? Regardless of how it treats its employees, clients and assets, etc.? And from another point of view: Is there no point for the cigarette factory to try to be sustainable because its core business is not? When all of us start to do what we can, sustainability will gather momentum and in due course new possibilities for making a contribution will appear. Sustainable building or sustainable behaviour However valuable energy saving and reducing the CO2 footprint are, focusing mainly on making our real estate more sustainable is too limited an approach. This is only a part of what is needed in terms of sustainability. Are you actually in a position to name and properly calculate all your dependencies in order to assess what is more or less sustainable? These calculations are difficult in practice, because in many cases the composition of the production process for products and components in terms of people, resources and materials is not known in detail. The only way to resolve this is to establish where the focus on sustainability should be in your organization. This will always be a subjective assessment, but is not a licence for taking half measures. The adoption of behaviour patterns mainly concerns the reanimation of the ‘heart-set’. Employees usually have little or no involvement in the question of sustainability as individuals. Is it enough for an employee to be able to say that they work in a sustainable building? The more important point is whether their behaviour inside that building is sustainable. Facility management is an excellent tool for promoting the CSR policy because employees come into contact with it on a daily basis. Facility managers often have to prepare for decisions such as whether to use pottery or recyclable cups, paper or linen hand-towels. The technical approach to this question is to prepare a business case. The people-oriented approach is to find out what the implications of each choice will be for employee behaviour. If the employees prefer linen to paper, choosing linen will encourage sustainable behaviour. This can affect behaviour in other areas and thus increase the effect on sustainability. ‘Yes, but you cannot establish this’, I hear you saying. That is true. But the technical approach is also not able to find a proper solution, let alone monitor the situation during the term of the contract. And it is human behaviour and action that ultimately determine whether sustainable measures are effective or not.
  5. 5. 24-11-2010 Sustainability 3.0 Page 5 of 5 One can now pose the question: Can I make something more sustainable without being able to measure it? This is a purely rational approach. If you are in love, you do not go to the doctor for a test to find out whether you are in love or not. You simply know. Just the feeling is enough. It is the same with sustainability. The adoption of behaviour patterns is therefore not simply a question of changing the ‘mind-set’, it mainly concerns the reanimation of the ‘heart- set’. Without emotional commitment, sustainability will not take root. Make the ‘What’s in it for me’ clear to employees: not only the rational financial incentives, also the emotional intrinsic incentives. Make the sustainability policy simple and fun. Make it so tangible and visual that employees can recognize their own dreams, ideals and hopes. Then and only then will inspiration come from the heart, and people will be truly motivated. They will then behave sustainably not only inside the ‘sustainable building’ but outside as well. This will create a snowball effect and their family and friends will become involved. The behaviour of your employees will moreover spread the policy through the chain and customers and suppliers will become involved and inspired to make their own contribution. Something that works and possibly cannot be demonstrated with figures is better than something that looks good on paper but does not work in practice. Be clear and transparent regarding your organization’s goals with regard to CSR. Indicate the priorities so that choices can be made in conflict situations. Setting an example and encouragement are more important than producing an annual sustainability report. The sustainability policy will then not remain in the board room, it will be part of the company’s daily activities. Employees are proud to work for a company that takes this approach to sustainability; they want to associate with it, and this creates a commitment that goes beyond an employment contract. The moral of the story Organizations that have their sustainable buildings certified usually use a measuring method that is likely to place them at the top of the list. But what is the employer doing, other than employing people in a sustainable building? The far more important point is that individuals, people like you and me, are intrinsically motivated to (also) make a contribution in their daily lives to prosperity for all, now and in the future. As an individual, you cannot change the world, but you can change your own behaviour and set an example. Setting a good example is effective. Gandhi said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ It is a question of one’s attitude to life. It is not something which is the responsibility of only our political leaders or our employer. Sustainability 3.0 is something you do yourself, and thus gives the component of ‘People’ the place it deserves.<< René P.M. Stevens MSc Arch. MBA is Managing Director of ATELIER V real estate B.V. of Amersfoort (www.atelier-v.nl). ATELIER V develops and implements strategies for accommodation, real estate and urban development. rene.stevens@atelier-v.nl

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