When it comes to the environment, business must adapt or die

A golden age of sustainability lies in waiting.

Five years ago the world’s economy went into shock as Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.  The resulting global economic crisis was driven by the greed of loosely regulated financial institutions, governments seeking short term popularity and the unhealthy relationship between the two. It has resulted in unsustainable levels of debt in some major economies with a period of austerity prescribed to restore balance within a decade, although the scars may last far longer.

But a more fundamental risk to our long term economic development lies in the rapidly expanding use of our scarce natural resources, combined with the planet’s ability to cope with the multiple impacts of their use. We know that we are living well beyond our means, drawing on natural resources at a rate that we cannot sustain.  Just as we have accumulated debt priced too cheaply, so we have built economies with resources priced too cheaply. 

Whichever basic need we consider, from warmth to mobility to food, today’s solutions are hugely inefficient – in the same year the Lehman Brothers went under the world was using resources at a rate 50 per cent faster than it can renew.  And as our growing population, expected to reach nine billion by 2050, consumes more, these strains on our natural capital will become even more acute.

The inevitable conclusion of this is a resource crunch. It means we urgently need to find new methods of production, address wasteful consumption and develop innovative business models that put sustainability at the heart of business operations. But a recent survey of global business leaders shows that while awareness of a pending resource crunch is high, most businesses see this as a risk to be managed rather than as a new commercial opportunity. Few see it changing the nature of the business they do today. Tellingly we also found that only 13 per cent of board directors are remunerated for achieving sustainability targets. 

The resource war will bring winners and losers. Take water. Already we are seeing parts of Texas in drought with reports that 30 communities could be dry by the end of the year.  By 2050 the OECD predicts that the world's demand for water will grow by 55 per cent. Competition between water users and nations demanding water resources will escalate. And yet our research has shown that only one in seven businesses have a target to reduce water use.

In our work with businesses all around the world we have found two distinct behaviours when it comes to sustainability.  Think of the 19th century science experiment with frogs and boiling water. Most businesses are treading water on the issue of sustainability as the temperature rises. They won’t move until the issue bites them hard. Our research suggests that they are discounting the impacts of sustainability on their business well into the future, beyond the time horizon of most shareholders or the CEO’s likely tenure.

A few, the jumpers in the frog analogy, are moving now.  They anticipate the danger and see a way out. The first step they take is to look inside their business and map out the resources used in the products and services that they provide.  The insight gained usually highlights simple cost saving measures to improve efficiency and resource use. But incremental improvements that once seemed ground breaking can now look like greenwash, damaging reputations and doing little to ensure competitiveness and survival.

True leaders go further and take a deeper look at resource use to drive a far more fundamental business change. These companies are at the cutting edge, redesigning products and services and their business models to minimise the use of resources that were once plentiful and cheap but are increasingly scarce and costly. Interface, the world’s largest maker of carpet tiles is an example of a company putting sustainability at the heart of business strategy. It’s not being done as an add-on but is core to the future success of the business. Dyson, through its focus on designing out inefficiency from the start, is another.

While I understand it’s hard to challenge the status quo before the platform is burning, the alternative can be harder still. Just think how many of the high street names that have recently failed could have survived had they anticipated, not just reacted to the onslaught of the internet.  A new tsunami of change will result from the resource crunch with less reliable access to cheap land, energy, water and materials as regions of the world and business supply chains become resource stressed.

A golden age of sustainability lies in waiting.  For as we slowly recover from the debt crisis, businesses that have been hoarding capital are now looking to invest once again in their future. But that future can’t just be more of the same. Business face a world where consumers will expect more but resources will be scarce and expensive. This is a huge opportunity to innovate. Successful businesses will be sustainable investments, resilient to the resource crunch, but they will also be good businesses that appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. They will have sustainability inside.

Photograph: Getty Images

Tom Delay is Chief Executive of the Carbon Trust.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war