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Sustainability: pragmatism vs idealism

By 28th July 2016 Blog, Sustainability No Comments
Sustainability: the nexus of pragmatism and idealism is where the magic happens - more at www.remsol.co.uk

When it comes to sustainability, the magic can be found at the nexus of pragmatism and idealism.


You’re trying to improve your workplace sustainability performance, and have some great ideas about what you want to try and achieve based on the commitments you’ve heard other businesses making: you’re going to go zero waste and carbon neutral.

In an ideal world, it would be easy. But we don’t live in an ideal world, we live in this one, where eliminating every scrap of waste is incredibly difficult, if not impossible for most businesses, and where it’s equally hard to achieve the emissions cuts needed to go 100% carbon neutral.

Having idealistic goals is great, but there are three key problems:

Firstly, they’re generally unrealistic.

Secondly, because they’re largely unattainable, you and your colleagues will run out of steam when you realise you’re not achieving the sort of progress you’d hoped for.

And, thirdly, initiatives born from ideals are seen as ‘nice to have’ and are among the first projects to get the chop when times are hard.

What you need, in order to succeed, are a set of goals that are rooted in reality; ideals twinned with a big helping of pragmatism – because when it comes to sustainability, that’s where the magic happens.

Some examples of what we mean

Have you heard about the flight of Solar Impulse? It’s a solar powered aircraft that’s completed a lap of the planet to demonstrate the future prospects of solar-powered travel. But as sustainability consultant Gareth Kane points out here, it’s hardly going to set the world on fire; to be commercially successful and to make an impact on global air travel emissions, a solar-powered aircraft would need to be capable of transporting hundreds of people and their luggage over significant distances, reliably and safely.

Another example is the idea that we can transition to 100% renewable energy within a couple of decades – or even sooner according to some. It’s true that in some countries, notably Iceland, they are already close to 100% renewably sourced electricity, but not 100% renewable energy – a significant proportion of total energy consumption in developed nations is in transport and industrial heating. And not all countries are the same – Iceland, again, has a land area of 100,250 square kilometers, a population of just 324,000 and gets most of its electricity from geothermal (its an actively volcanic island) and large-scale hydroelectric dams vs the UK which, whilst it may be double the size, has a population of over 64 million all demanding power, isn’t naturally blessed with abundant geothermal resources and lacks the topography and geography to do large amounts of big hydro.

Whether it’s solar-powered flights or 100% renewable energy systems, truthfully, they’re both goals without solid plans at the moment. And a goal without a plan is just a dream.

Working your own sustainability magic

So, to be successful at sustainability, you need a set of goals with a plan.

Our unique maturity model is a great place to start. We use it to measure current performance in up to 30 separate areas, rating that performance as either Beginning, Improving, Succeeding or Leading and then provide a series of actionable recommendations aimed at helping businesses progress iteratively through the model from wherever they start out to where they’d like to get to.

See also: Measure It

This approach means you understand where you’re at and what could or needs to change, the practical steps you can take to make those changes, and provides a way of measuring your progress.

Of course, there are all sorts of other tools and resources you can use to gauge your level of sustainability performance and to signpost you to the sorts of things you can do to improve – like this on supply chain sustainability.

Here are our top 5 tips for working your own sustainability magic:

1. Evaluate your performance, identifying and fixing weaknesses;
2. Track your performance and link it to S.M.A.R.T. KPIs and your financials;
3. Report your performance and show how it strengthens your financials;
4. Don’t try and bite off more than you can chew – eat the elephant one bite at a time;
5. Engage everyone and keep them informed of progress.

Take energy, for instance.

Find out how much you use and where, identify and eliminate any obvious wastage (such as lights being left on in unattended rooms). Then, develop Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Limited KPIs (we will reduce electricity consumption by 10% in 2016 compared with 2015 consumption, based on a £4,000 capital investment in energy-efficient infrared heating panels that will result in annual electricity cost savings of £800, with 100% first year capital allowance). Show how the accumulated electricity cost savings result in bigger profits without having to achieve more sales. Limit it to your electricity consumption, not that of your supply chain as well, and specifically exclude total energy (small bites). Tell your colleagues what’s happening, when, why and what you hope it will achieve, elicit their help in thinking of other energy saving actions you could take in future, and report back to them – if someone makes a suggestion that isn’t taken forward, explain why.

DON’T make the mistake of Tony Blair’s government when it signed-up to an EU renewable energy target of 20% with no credible plan for how it would get there – never mind achieve a 20% renewable electricity target.

What do you think? Do you agree that it’s important to stay grounded when it comes to improving sustainability performance? Let us know in the comments.

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