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Snakes and ladders and the spectrum of sustainability

· Business

As climate change, habitat loss, over-consumption, waste, pollution and other 21st century global challenges — or more accurately, their impacts on humanity both real and imagined — permeate the bedrock of humanity’s consciousness, so our collective consciences continue to stir like some sort of fracking anti-venom seeping into the earth. If you’ve read this far, the chances are that yours is already alive and kicking. You’re probably one of the 10% of people who both have some knowledge about environmental issues and are prepared to take action accordingly. You’ll likely have already made changes to your attitudes, lifestyle and told your family, friends, colleagues, maybe even random strangers, about them too. You’re very much exhibiting behaviour that’s some way along the sustainability spectrum. But what about everybody else? Those environmental ostriches with their hands over their ears and eyes closed we’ve yet to encounter? Or those who profess to care, but never get round to doing anything meaningful? How do we move them along the spectrum from profligacy and indifference to advocacy and action?

It’s the eternal question for those who work in sustainability in any capacity, and increasingly for anyone in business or public life full stop. The recent high profile campaigns to ban plastic straws and reduce other single use plastics are starting to gain traction and are becoming part of daily conversations. One reason is because they are issues that we as individuals (consumers) can easily relate to and do something about with little effort. Influencing businesses is much more of a challenge, but one that has to be addressed. Apart from the ethical imperative of minimising environmental footprint, there is a growing consensus that embedding sustainable practice into a company’s DNA leads to greater profitability.

And of course, business is great at “getting things done”.

Any company that wanted to become more sustainable could do so if it truly wanted to, but not enough of them are doing enough to help to decarbonise business. Mike Barry, the man behind Mark’s and Spencer’s Plan A, has said that although there are an increasing number of companies doign great things, they generally fall into two camps: the massive and the tiny — and it’s everyone in the middle we need to influence most.

There are many complex reasons why businesses don’t do more. The challenges are too great, too intangible and the path is not linear. You will constantly shift along the spectrum, because becoming sustainable is hard. The key thing is to start. Think of it like playing a game of snakes and ladders. When it’s your turn, you roll the dice and move forward. Sometimes you’ll make swift progress and climb a ladder — perhaps a quick win or two reducing waste or your carbon footprint. Sometimes your actions may result in a slide down a snake towards the beginning — you suddenly find out your new supplier is using a water supply that is stressed for example. The amount of squares you traverse on the board may be down to chance, but simply by playing you are making progress.

If we were to extrapolate this idea, humanity’s combined snakes and ladders board could be considered to have thousands, maybe millions, of squares before we reach the end, which we may never do. But if you work in sustainability think about giving a game to the average company not just the exemplars who roll the dice every day.

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