Sustainable Organisations: what Sir David got wrong at COP26

Nov 8, 2021 | Blog

Inspiring, a national treasure. Sir David Attenborough, with his sage and familiar voice, spoke beautifully on the peril of climate change and then offered us hope. Hope that we can all, acting together, bring carbon emissions under control and save our planet.

I found it stirring, compelling even. In seven minutes, he covered the growth of civilisation and the possibility of its imminent end. Throughout, he used a single number to illustrate his story, carbon ppm in our atmosphere – it created clarity, focus. A single number, that told us the story of our history, the challenge we face and the solutions that we must now embrace to avert disaster.

But the use of a single number to reinforce his narrative, is also what is wrong about the debate on sustainability. To lead more sustainable lives, we must take a holistic view and embrace complexity.

If we focus on that single number, organisations that do not emit carbon in their core activities may feel this is not their challenge. Many may look to oil producers, heavy industry and agriculture before realising they too have a critical role in sustainability. Sustainability goes beyond a single, although vital, measure.

Sustainable, together

At Qlearsite we help organisations listen to the voices of their employees, highlighting challenges and opportunities to improve. Sometimes, we help start a conversation about environmental practices. Measuring sustainability is something that leading employers are increasingly focused on.

For example, simple survey questions can reveal whether people are following your existing environmental policies. They can also ‘crowd source’ new, great ideas. From a simple ‘lights off’ policy to reduce energy consumption or more specialist ideas to improve your supply chain. The survey can spark conversations, raise awareness and allow us to harness the collective power of our people, through many small acts, to reduce the overall carbon footprint of our business community.

And we can go further still. Does sustainability mean merely carbon footprint? Or is it a chance to focus on sustainable working practices – inclusive workplaces, wellbeing and so much more. The priority maybe carbon but many people believe a sustainable organisation is one that incorporates many more measures that are collectively termed ESG (Environment, Social and Governance).

Underlying these three titles are many measures of sustainability. Tracking them and monitoring progress is complex and challenging but improvements in any of these measures can have unintended, positive consequences for the climate. Take gender equality for example.

The UN and the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) have shown that globally women are both more likely to be aware of and more often affected by climate issues. Furthermore, they have evidence that organisations with better representation of women in leadership roles have a significantly better record on delivering progressive environmental changes.

What is true globally and nationally, is also true in individual organisations. Better representation, better working practices – backed by a high-quality employee listening program – will deliver better environmental practices as well. Progressive, sustainable practices support and reinforce each other.

Connected environments

Like many people, I am an avid viewer of Sir David’s nature documentaries. He travels the world, reveals the lives and habitats of incredible species and has now done so for decades. His message has always been that our planet is a huge inter-connected environment – small creatures can be critical to the survival of whole ecosystems; that sustainability is a complex, interconnected topic.

So yes, we must reduce carbon in our atmosphere. It is a single, clarifying goal that acts a bell weather of our overall progress. However, the actions we take to create a better, more sustainable world will be measured with many, many, complex smaller metrics. So, even if your organisation emits no carbon, embrace that interconnected complexity – set some broad ESG goals to create a better, more sustainable future.

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