How to spot a Sustainability fig leaf…
Yesterday I drove down the A19 to Teesside for a client meeting. Every time I do this, there’s always a nostalgic moment when I crest the lip of the Tees Valley; a vista of sprawling heavy industry opens up and I know I’m nearly at my destination.
Usually, this scene brings back memories of my lengthy commute to the University of Teesside where I ran the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) for six years, my second Sustainability job. But yesterday, a memory from my maiden Sustainability job at Newcastle University popped back into my consciousness.
I was one of two researchers working on the Design for a Clean Environment project at the Engineering Design Centre. Every couple of months, a retired senior industrialist would pop in for a chat. He always came armed with a red folder, and, no matter what the subject of conversation, he would, without fail, flip it open to show us the same graph of air quality in the Tees Valley through the day.
“Look at the peaks of pollution!” he would say “They correspond with rush hour in the morning and the school run in the afternoon. It’s not industry doing the polluting, it’s people taking their kids to school!”
The folder and the graph became a running joke. Once my colleague asked to borrow the folder and he was like a parent leaving his toddler at nursery for the first time.
The sudden realisation I had yesterday was, as the petrochemical plants ran 24/7, given steady weather conditions, their contribution would be largely constant. Therefore any cyclical pattern would simply superimpose itself on top of the industrial contribution and produce those peaks. I would love to see that graph again and look at the relative contribution in terms of the area under the line which would probably tell a truer story.
But dubious statistics aside, one of the giveaways of a Sustainability fig leaf in this case is the predictable repetition. If an individual or an organisation keeps wheeling out the same data or case study again and again, I smell a rat.
A genuine commitment, whether in science, politics or industry, moves things forward. If someone doesn’t have something new to say over the course of a year, then the greenwash klaxon should be going off in your head.