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How can my company promote sustainable business practices?

Sustainability is a very fuzzy word that can be interpreted in many different ways. The most general meaning is “the ability to keep going,” which is desirable for everyone, business, government, or private individual. Most thinking on corporate sustainability embraces some version of the triple bottom line of “people, planet, profit” - meaning that a sustainable business is one that enables its people (or all people) to live healthy, productive lives, and ensures the stability and resiliency of global ecology, while also staying in business.

In service to this objective, at least the following principles should be embraced:

  • Life cycle thinking. Decisions made by a consumer or company can have far-reaching implications, and some decisions may result in “burden shifting”, where reducing impacts in one area leads to increased impacts in another. Turning on a hair dryer has no ecological impacts in the home, but it does require the production of electricity at a power plant far away. Switching from plastic to paper packaging may reduce demand for fossil fuels (to make plastic) and increase demand for forestry (to make paper). Using bio-fuels instead of fossil fuels may reduce carbon emissions from the tailpipe but increase clear-cutting of forests for crop production. To remain sustainable, a business must consider the implications of its decisions throughout the life cycle of the product or service being provided.
  • Producer responsibility. Very often a low-cost manufacturer may think its responsibilities end with the production of the product being sold - when it leaves the factory gate, it’s no longer their problem. But this is short-sighted because it is not clear who then becomes responsible for proper stewardship of the product. A classic example is with display technology: if you live in the US, chances are your TV or computer monitor has a message on the back saying something like “This product contains mercury. Dispose according to local regulations.” I’ll bet the manufacturer didn’t tell you that it was your responsibility to figure that out! Under the producer responsibility doctrine, it remains the producer’s responsibility, NOT the consumer’s, to ensure that the product can be safely disposed when it reaches end of life. An example would be taking back the product at the point of retail, or working with local municipalities to ensure there are other safe and convenient options for consumers to dispose of waste. Extended producer responsibility programs are popular in Canada and Europe, and are effective ways of managing hazardous and/or high-value waste. One useful mechanism for producer responsibility is to have the consumer pay a deposit upon purchasing the product, which is refunded when it is returned.
  • The Precautionary Principle. This principle holds that it is “better to be safe than sorry,” that it may be prudent to take precautionary action even if you have incomplete knowledge of the situation. This is classically applied in hazardous chemical management, where there are huge knowledge gaps. For instance, the substance methylene chloride was suspected to be toxic to workers for many decades, and the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) made efforts to regulate its use; however, the manufacturers disputed details about the biological mechanism of toxicity and argued over what would be a “safe level.” Meanwhile, the chemical continued to be unregulated while the dispute was ongoing, exposing additional workers to harm that could have been avoided. A sustainable business should be precautionary, should try to envision potential harms and hazards and take steps to avoid them, rather than waiting for indisputible signs that harm has occurred. Climate change is the preeminent example of a threat to well-being that demands precautionary action. It may be true that our models cannot precisely predict sea level rise or changes in atmospheric temperature, but the evidence of risk is overwhelming and demands a response.

The overarching theme is that companies should be self-critical: they should desire to review their actions and decisions, should crave information about the potential consequences to health, social well-being, and the environment. There is “no such thing as a green product,” according to some researchers- the only way to be truly green is to seek out systemic reductions in environmental impact, which may not come from simply making or marketing your product in a certain way.

This content was originally posted on Quora.com on 1 Feb 2017.

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