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Sustainability: walking the tightrope

Sustainability can be like walking a tightrope, it's a constant balancing act - more at www.remsol.co.uk

Sometimes, when we’re thinking about how to develop sustainability habits and practices, we’re forced to make conflicting choices. It’s a constant balancing act.

The UK supermarket group, Tesco, recently announced plans to give away unwanted food from its stores rather than dispose of it as waste.  Morrison’s has now followed suit.

It comes after years of mounting pressure, with Friends of the Earth food campaigner, Vicki Hird saying in 2013: “there should be a national drive to slash food waste to zero.” She urged retailers “to clearly change their buying practices, marketing strategies and demand for cosmetically perfect produce and also help farmers and customers towards that goal”.

Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall, celebrity chef of River Cottage fame, is also spearheading a campaign to cut supermarket food waste, and is featuring in a series of BBC documentaries on the subject that’s airing on prime time TV.

But a significant and growing quantity of food waste is now processed in anaerobic digestion (AD) plants to improve sustainability and create energy – either as electricity or biogas that’s injected straight into the grid as a substitute for gas extracted as a fossil fuel – to help curb carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, as greater AD processing capacity is brought on stream, operators are finding that they’re already scrapping for food waste,  and so moves to further encourage the prevention of food waste could result in a reduction in feedstock, limiting the contribution biogas can make to reducing Britain’s carbon emissions – unless we turn over large amounts of agricultural land to start growing energy crops instead of food, which has its own drawbacks. It also puts £millions of green investment at risk.

What this quite neatly illustrates is how policy clashes can have unintended consequences that are far from desireable. Clearly, a policy of maximising the use of food waste in renewable energy generation is inconsistent with a policy of reducing the amount of food waste that’s produced.

But it’s not just national governments that have to manage this tension, businesses do too.

Taking a holistic view

One of the biggest mistakes companies make when embarking on sustainability initiatives is the tendency to view their business operations (and the environmental consequences that they’re responsible for) in isolation.

This sort of silo-thinking can lead to beneficial changes being made in one part of the business that unintentionally create undesirable business and environmental impacts elsewhere.

That’s why it makes sense to look at the organisation holistically first.

At Remsol, our unique maturity model does just that, benchmarking organisational performance across up to 30 separate sustainability and resilience measures and defining performance in each area as either Beginning, Improving, Succeeding or Leading. It makes for a great understanding of how your business is doing overall before you start thinking about specific improvements.

See also: Measure It

Of course, there are other tools and methodologies that you can use – we just think ours is one of the best!

Let the team work

However you do it, it’s vital that you involve all parts of your business before setting out to make changes.

Not only will this help to avoid strategic and operational blunders, but it will help to embed sustainability practices in the culture of your business by making people feel involved and, as a result, more valued.

You’ll also find that your colleagues are much more likely to take ownership of driving change once you start, if they’re part of the team from the outset.

Tough choices

Sometimes, in the pursuit of our sustainability goals, we inevitably have to make tough choices.

Occasionally, it means not doing things that otherwise feel right, or doing things that instinctively feel wrong.

It means we have to manage our efforts with the hope of achieving the best overall economic and environmental outcomes we can, but where the perfect doesn’t become the enemy of the good.

And it means accepting the trade-offs that sometimes arise in the process of improving what we do.

In essence, it’s a constant tightrope walk where success relies on maintaining the right balance.

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