If there’s one thing that gets tired its people talking about sustainability. But before you run off, let me explain: it’s not the unsubstantiated claims to being green, it’s not even the cynicism that comes hand in hand with the topic – it’s the fact that the right people aren’t talking about the right things.
I may not be 99 problems, but there’s some weighty and deeply difficult topics to think about when it comes to sustainability. The set up, however, which has been established for many years now, between organisations, suppliers, customers, experts, pressure groups and the press isn’t going to drive things forward anytime soon and the only ones who are comfortable with that are some of the organisations.
The press (hypocrisy fully appreciated) blow hot air about how important green issues are – picking on big name organisations and generally engaging with a lot of the people whom already know what’s coming in any given article. Experts meanwhile, while they frequently have important views, spend a lot of their time preaching to the converted or explaining the bleeding obvious and picking up the pay cheque.
Consultants and academics do some very important work, but the disconnect between their forward thinking and what organisations are prepared to pay them to do can be painful at times. Of course there are occasionally some very exciting sustainability projects, but in terms of looking at, say, emissions in the supply chain, which comprise a huge part of the pollution businesses are responsible for, there’s rarely such vigour and collaborative spirit as there is, say, on covering offices’ roofs with plants.
Some common problems that I think are causing this:
The channels of discussion aren’t open
People don’t often discuss corporate sustainability. Businesses may talk about something they’ve done they think is good. Pressure groups may talk about something businesses have done that they think is bad. Still, in terms of a dialogue between the people who have influence over supply chains and business policy and the people who have the knowledge about sustainable practices and how they can be improved, there’s often a disconnect.
Sustainable practices have often been centred on talking, rather than listening
Likewise, the general approach to sustainability is to talk about targets or talk about responses to allegations of polluting or labour abuses. It’s rarely to do with businesses listening to other people talk. Why would they if there’s not much short-term value attached to what they would hear? Likewise, not many people are making much money out of being experts in sustainability – why would executives see it as a smart career decision to go down that road?
No one owns this
Chief sustainability officers are sure useful for press releases and to work on energy saving schemes, but the big hairy decisions to be made, for example around dropping suppliers with a record of unsustainable practices, often fall elsewhere. But if no-one owns sustainable sourcing, who will be asking how to improve it?
There are very contrasting views of how fast this is moving
Though it’s frequently identified as a ‘mega-trend’, if you talk to analysts there’s more of an expectancy that sustainability as a concept is still much more dominant than the practices that are taking place. For many industries, being sustainable simply translates to not being caught, which is some way behind this idea of green and ethical supply chains that are supposed to dominate the business world in the future.
It’s not rich
The financial incentives to be involved in the sustainability discussion aren’t huge, unless of course you can be seen by the media to have been doing so.
Clearly there are some great exceptions to most of these assertions. I’ve spoken to several executives whom I was in no doubt were passionate about the topic and wanted to discuss it. Yet I still think there’s a long way to go until we can say that the debate around sustainable procurement is as productive as it needs to be.
Steve Hall is deputy editor for Procurement Leaders Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @thestephenhall.