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Sustainability and the dangers of thinking in silos

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Hailed as an historic agreement to cut carbon emissions, a global deal has been cut at the COP21 climate talks in Paris. But I’m worried that too little coordination will kill it off.

I say that for several reasons, but chief among them is the fact that just weeks before the COP21 talks, the European Commission announced its updated circular economy package of proposals.

Given that there’s so much interplay between the need to end our reliance on the largely linear economy we have now (take > make > use > discard) and the need to cut emissions, it’s surprising that the European Commission decided to publish its proposals before the climate talks had concluded.

It feels like someone has put the cart before the horse. The danger, of course, is that one negates the other somewhere along the line.

And, as we showed last year in our policy paper Powering the circular economy – why the right energy policy is vital to success, large supplies of high density, reliable and affordable energy are crucial to the success of the circular economy as we know it. If the agreements stemming from COP21 don’t recognise that, then we’re going to have a problem.

This highlights two things:

Firstly, just how complex policy making is; and, secondly, the inherent dangers of thinking in silos.

The bunker mentality

Huddled in their bunker in Brussels, European Commission bureaucrats have been busy refining their circular economy proposals. When the package of measures was first put forward in 2014, there was no mention at all of where energy and emissions fit – and, if this Q&A document is anything to go by, it looks as though they may have been overlooked again.

Which is rather odd. No matter how much we close the loop on the circular economy, it still requires energy to function effectively. And the creation and use of that energy will give rise to emissions.

It looks as though they crafted their policy in isolation, rather than in conjunction with the wider world.

But this “bunker mentality” isn’t only evident in the world of politics and policy making – we see it in businesses too.

Companies with different departments and business units will sometimes find that those units have differing and, at times, conflicting priorities when it comes to sustainability. Worse still, they may not even talk to each other or understand how their actions and inactions affect other departments and their processes.

Here’s a real example of what I mean:

One of our clients produced a wastestream that consisted largely of emulsified (mixed) oil and water, that was costly to dispose of because of the high water content. After some trial and error, it was found that heating the waste and the use of an additive would break down the emulsion on site, enabling dirty water to be sent to sewer and a relatively clean, low water content oil to be sent for recovery instead. The move reduced the overall quantity leaving site in road tankers (creating a substantial saving) and all but eliminated any processing charges, leading to predicted cost reductions of around £30,000 a year.

But then, suddenly and without warning, volumes spiked and so did the water content. Additionally, the de-emulsification wasn’t as successful and costs rose.

Why?

Well, in a drive to cut energy costs, personnel in a different department took the decision to switch off the heating in the waste oil storage tanks – not appreciating that the waste needed to be held at around 80 degrees Celsius for the de-emulsification additive to work. The energy savings would have been very marginal overall, compared to the very substantial waste management cost savings that were already being felt.

This is exactly what can happen when sustainability efforts are pursued in isolation and where different groups, teams and departments function separately, in silos.

Breaking down barriers

Over the years, I’ve found that one of the biggest barriers to the successful uptake and implementation of sustainability measures is communication. Or, more to the point: a lack of effective communication.

If you’re going to embark on a drive to improve sustainability in your workplace, it makes sense to create a communications and engagement plan alongside the changes you want to make so that everyone knows what you’re doing, why and when.

It’s something you should also consider sharing with external stakeholder’s, such as key suppliers – the last thing you want is for them to suddenly make a change in what they do, without consulting you first, if that change reduces your ability to take forward your plans.

Once you get moving, you need to keep people informed. Remind them about recent successes and tell them what to expect next. This way, your people will stay much more engaged in the process and, at the same time, less likely to engage in activities that prevent you from reaching your goals.

Keeping everyone in touch with progress is exactly why the COP21 deal requires signatories to feed back every 5 years. But, in reality, that’s probably too infrequent – much deeper communication will be needed if silo thinking is to be overcome in the pursuit of a common good, because a lot can happen in 5 years…

What do you think? Got any experiences of silo thinking that you can share? Please do so in the comments and “like” this post if you enjoyed it.

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