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.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.