The best of both worlds

Development is always seen as being achieved at a cost. The price we pay for progress is usually a compromise with our environment. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is called sustainable development. The concept was first introduced in “Our Common Future” a 1987 report prepared for World Commission on Environment and Development. The report recognised the inherent links between poverty, inequality and environmental degradation and identified ways in which we could move forward to a fairer world without compromising the livelihood of the poorest among us and without destroying the environment.

Our health, the food we consume and the environment we inhabit are all closely interlinked. Compromised ecosystems have a direct impact on crop cultivation and livestock health patterns which in turn impact our health, because of the pollutants in the air we breathe and the food we consume.

Environmental sustainability is about ensuring that we meet our needs for food, water and shelter as well as industrial and social needs without causing damage to our environment or depleting resources we cannot renew.

Private industry plays a significant role in the transition to a sustainable economy. The private sector produces the goods and services that we want and use, and without the motivations of capitalism, there would be far fewer of these goods and services to choose from.

Woke individuals, communities and even some businesses have long been the champions of our environment, recognising the damage we’re inflicting on an ecosystem that’s barely coping, and acting to drive change. However, these efforts can only be classified as limited until there is collective will, not just half-measure initiatives enforced by governments. Very often, money and economy are the deciding factors, and this needs to change if we are to leave something behind for future generations.

The air we breathe, our rivers, seas and oceans don’t recognise local, national or even continental boundaries. Natural disasters, ozone depletion, changing warming and cooling periods and weather patterns are just some of the environmental problems our planet is facing. Environmental damage in one country often impacts the population of another. The unchecked littering of our rivers, seas and oceans, rampant use of chemical fertilizers and industrial pollution are causing the growth of toxic algae. Ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef which have taken millions of years to perfect are under serious threat.

To some extent, corporate environmental sustainability has been seeing a proactive transformation from just a footnote in an annual report to an important mainstay of a company’s strategy. Business leaders are increasingly discovering that these issues are beginning to affect their bottom line. Only last week Mahindra & Mahindra chairman, Anand Mahindra committed that the Mahindra Group would implement the Paris Agreement in its entirety. He said that setting science-based targets is a powerful way of ensuring corporate climate action, aligned with the ambition of the Paris Agreement.

There are several other examples of organisations that have embedded environmental sustainability initiatives into their long-term strategies. According to the World Resources Institute, companies that integrate effective sustainability actions into their business strategy stand to benefit both financially and from customer approval. This has been proved by companies like The Body Shop, Azco Nobel, Johnson and Johnson, Mars and Alcoa who are are all reaping the benefits of environmentally sustainable strategies put into practice several years ago.

A local example of an effective, sustainable intervention is PepsiCo India’s Waste to Wealth (WTW) program launched in 2004 with NGO Exnora Green Pammal. The program, implemented in select districts in Tamil Nadu, demonstrates an economically viable, environmentally feasible and socially acceptable model for urban solid waste management. The program involves door to door collection of waste by Green Ambassadors who segregate it at source and send it to an EGP-managed treatment yard for resource recovery. 80% of the waste collected is recovered, and only 20% goes to the landfill. The organic component is converted into compost using vermiculture, and the inorganic component sorted for recycling. Plastics, waste paper, PET bottles and tetra packs are all recycled into products and sold through retail outlets.

The 3BL (triple bottom line) framework to performance is emerging as the gold standard for environmental and developmental sustainability. 3BL is an accounting framework with three parts: social, environmental (or ecological) and financial and organisations are increasingly adopting this framework to evaluate their performance in a broader perspective and create greater business value.

But as it stands, sustainability practices implemented by a few are not enough to protect the natural resources that communities and businesses depend on. In the face of environmental impact, companies are for the most part driven by financial imperatives, shareholder responsibilities and the regulatory demand to balance current needs against potential future threats to the environment. This is especially true of developing nations. While the developed world has been making a transition to a sustainable, renewable resource-based economy, it is important that newly developing nations are also simultaneously incentivised to use new technologies rather than old ones that have a greater negative impact on the environment.

As Stephen Cohen suggests, the private sector cannot make the transition from a waste-based economy to a renewable one by itself. This transition can only happen if we can create a public-private partnership. Even if economics drives agenda, governments and companies must work together to ensure that environmental factors influence development design and create an approach that provides the best of both worlds.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn

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