Looking for the Holy Grail of Sustainability? Don’t…
Many of us sustainability professionals are idealists – on a mission to save the planet and all the people on it. We genuinely care about doing the right thing and doing right by everyone. There’s one main problem with idealism – and that’s the real world. The real world is messy and is full of people with maddeningly diverse, and sometimes illogical, viewpoints driven by different pressures, experiences and beliefs.
I was inspired to write this piece after taking part in a discussion on whether business driving Corporate Social Responsibility down through global supply chains was usurping local democracy. My view is that proactive supply chain management has nothing to do with democracy unless it weakens local standards, it takes industry around the world beyond compliance, and it is for the greater good – what’s not to like? But my big problem with arguments like these is that all too often they are simply throwing abstract intellectual spanners in the gears of real progress.
It is always easy to find fault with something that works. Veteran green commentator George Monbiot regularly attacks the incredibly successful Feed-In Tariff (FiT) system for funding renewables. His argument is that the many pay the (richer) few for generating clean energy. While that is indeed true, it is normal in today’s market economy – our combined grocery shopping makes a few supermarket bosses very rich, but our diet is better than it has ever been, so we rarely complain. Likewise, FiTs have created a solar revolution, driving record investment in clean energy for the benefit for the many, so is it really a problem if those who invest get a reward?
A third example comes from my experience of being second in command politically of green issues at Newcastle City Council. We proposed bringing in a semi-mixed collection of recyclates on the kerbside using lidded wheelie bins to replace the existing open crates which needed to be stored inside. The local green groups screamed blue murder, accusing us of reneging on our environmental commitments by mixing up materials. However the public loved the simplicity and convenience of the new system and the recycling rate jumped by 50% to an impressive 46% of all household waste. The screams faded to a recalcitrant grumble.
Sustainability, like politics, is the art of the possible. Let’s not get distracted by the indulgence of nothing ever being good enough for us and get on with the job in hand.