Sustainability processes and the private sector

Eco-efficiency Program: How can we increase the private sector´s participation in sustainability?A reflection on actual practices, values and commitment to sustainability might be a good place to start.In 2007-8 I worked for an environmental consultancy in Ecuador with the philosophy: we practice what we preach. As this is no easy feat, they hired me to assist them with this process and develop a similar program for businesses and offices interested in doing something positive for the environment.Having just finished an education for sustainability program at Macquarie University, Austrailia (which is based on sustainability processes), the client and my task seemed to be the perfect place for me to test out my new knowledge. To my surprise culture had a huge role to play in success and opened up a lot of questions about what type of vision and context are necessary for the implementation of sustainability.For instance, involving staff in the process, although relatively easy at a superficial level, was just plain frustrating when really trying to encourage learning and capacity building. The main obstacles can be summarized as:

  • the existing power structure and top down processes
  • short term vision of the company
  • a lack of clarity among roles and functions
  • excessive workload and lack of followup, reflexion and evaluation

Power structures:Being immersed in a culture where people tend to act only when the command comes from their immediate boss (getting to the root of why this is will be left for another blog entry) can be rather frustrating when you are trying to motivate interest in sustainability practices. So rather than try and change this, I say work with it…creating processes that always come with the bosses approval (not so easy when not all of them are convinced about sustainability) while at the same time allowing participants to be creative and make decisions about the activities and initiatives at hand. Short-term planning: The short term vision guiding many companies, is really a result of context. Ecuador is known for it´s relative lack of political stability (7 presidents from 1997-2008) and a 1999 financial crisis resulting in disapperance of the Sucre and the apropriation of the US Dollar. And with this instability comes an insecurity around investment, especially in long term initiatives. (Also, one cannot omit the incredible poverty that affects the country in general. People live on a day to day basis thinking about what they will be able to put on the table today, not about making a downpayment on a new home). Visions that might be set for 10 -20 years in some countries, should be considered at a more realistic 2 year interval (subject to context: most of my projects for the provincial government were only 5 months long!!!) and flexible enough (or not rigid enough) to ensure that changes can be made as appropriate. I haven´t quite managed to put my finger on how this short term sustainability planning would look but it definitely involves considering what sustainability means in the short term, being creative, and preparing processes that assist in mitigating the negative impacts of instability.Roles and ResponsibilitiesDefining clear roles and responsibilities, respecting these limits and communicating them to others is vital, not only in ones regular work duties, but also in sustainability processes. Better yet, get participants involved in the development of their own roles and responsibilities  to avoid creating ones that are impossible and unrealistic. And after you think that everyone has been informed about each other´s roles and responsibilities, do it again, and create chanals that communicate pertinent info to new staff and allow all staff to be updated. Of course you will want the bosses stamp of approval on this!!!OverworkedForget even trying to be ambitious if everyone is over-saturated with their workload. I think that if the company is really commited to sustainability, then they simply have to find a way to integrate sustainability processes in their daily operations, rather than expect that their staff is going to work extra hours. After all keeping the process separate from actual operations is actually counter productive. The program becomes a side project rather than a natural part of the business and one tends to see results that really have nothing to do with the company. However, if the staff is really overworked, perhaps you should be considering more important questions about the company than how to increase the private sector´s participation in sustainability. Sometime we just need to step back, reflect on the big picture, and ask ourselves what is priority here?A WORK IN PROGRESS…

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