IEMA held its annual conference on Wednesday last week.
It was probably the most useful conference I have been to in years, having grown an aversion to large conferences where only the great and the good appear to speak representing the same companies, with little or no time to speak to anyone about anything of real significance. Here there were facilitated workshops, a virtual café, practical suggestions, case studies, people grappling with issues that others seemed to have an actual understanding of.
After the conference, I had a four hour journey ahead of me and it seemed that taking the slow train gave me time to reflect on the tough questions tackled during the day. Looking at the genteel English countryside on the outskirts of Cambridge and observing peoples’ gardens, my mind would from time to time drift and wonder if the gardeners tending to their patches were doing it to be more sustainable – to ensure they had a secure supply of produce for their family.
I snapped out of my drifting mind and turned my attention back to the conference.
What about the outcome at the end of the day- is sustainability an imperative?
Can we answer that without understanding what we mean by ‘sustainability’ and putting this in the context of our global situation. There is still confusion over the term ‘sustainability’. IEMA has started to try and create some common language. Its white paper addresses definitions (see: http://www.gacso.org), but for now we will stick with the accepted concept that the term covers environmental, social and economic issues. The indicators about where this globe is heading might make some of you yawn (heard it all before) but perhaps some others sat up and heard what we are faced with. Indeed if more business and governments sat up we might have some hope of tackling the huge environmental and social challenges of the day.
The numbers were shocking – on everything from loss of biodiversity, to sea levels rising, and energy prices set to continue increasing. Then of course there is population growth and related poverty issues. And even if not mentioned by the presenters, I can’t reminding myself of the growing crime of human trafficking as supply chains become more complicated.
The point is are these still just numbers to business or are there businesses that are prepared to think about their own role in reducing their impacts on the environment, helping to build communities and still being profitable to ensure economic wellbeing?
David Symons from WSP provided a synopsis on different approaches taken by business to tackle these issues . The approaches appear to differ from companies leading from the top down, those leading from the bottom up and those with an all-round view. Not much was said about those who choose to do nothing.
Sadly, although not reflected by the participants at the conference, this seems to be where the majority of companies lie (link to Edie net sustainability report)
I was intrigued to hear how few participants represented companies that are having to consider how to report under the UK Company’s Act 2006. Perhaps there is an issue of not understanding the impact of the legislation? Certainly there appears to be a long way to go still to get companies to understand their material issues and the key performance indicators chosen to reflect how they will address these issues. And no talk of human rights.
The afternoon café was structured into a series of different questions, getting participants to consider what they are doing, what they can change and what resources were needed to achieve their objectives.
Most salient of all was hearing from those people representing their companies who were trying and though faced with budget and resource challenges were finding ways to tackle some of the issues. The discussion flagged up the usefulness of workshops and smaller groups able to discuss things without the fear of recourse often created in larger conference settings.
The answer to the question – is sustainability a business imperative? No doubt, but more resources are needed.
As for me – what was I going to do differently tomorrow? Revisit our sustainability policy, do a check on how we contribute our skills to the community and celebrate what we have done well to date.
Taking the wrong train was definitely the right decision. My ‘don’t mess with me’ Surrey tractor wouldn’t have given my mind this opportunity for reflection, not to mention, it would have been a much less sustainable decision.