Debating sustainability: 10 talking points

Anna Heikkinen from the Faculty of Management gave a lecture on sustainability for the Leadership for Change students. The students wrote short talking point memos in response to the lecture. How do they see the role of sustainability in bringing about change?

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Sustainable development is often defined, quoting the “Our Common Future” report (1987), as development that meets our needs without compromising the needs of future generations.

Intergenerational equality is a good place to start from, but the discussion goes to a wrong direction if the three pillars of sustainability – ecological, economic and social/cultural development – are presented as equal. Without ecological balance, we can have neither functioning societies nor thriving economies.

In businesses, corporate responsibility has shifted to talking about overall corporate sustainability. Sustainability has become a marketing tool, and too often it is just an empty word. In a Harvard Business Review article, Unilever is praised for being a leader in engaging United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their business. The sustainable living brands of Unilever are growing 30 percent faster than those of other business.

Without a doubt, including SDGs in corporate values can lead to remarkable improvements. However, when the largest factors behind greenhouse gas emissions are population and economic growth, it is reasonable to ask if all this is just a greenwash. In the present society, success is measured in growth, but constant growth inevitably conflicts with limited natural resources.

It is easy to distract consumers from the real problems when some other environmental or social contributions are vocally brought to public attention.

The circular economy is a term that often pops up when discussing substitutes to the current economic model. Still, until all product development is based purely on life-cycle thinking, it has little to do with reality. By replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, it is often possible to reduce environmental impact. But if renewable energy is then used to generate growth, the false scent has been followed again.

Some believe that technological innovations will ease the fight against environmental problems, but we are not there yet. Action must be taken now.

Even though all this may cause frustration or even anger, Heikkinen who has done research on climate change engagement in business organisations argues that it is important to praise every action towards more sustainable business. According to her, every step — even a small one — is a step forward. Also talking about sustainability is important. It forces companies to respond to the growing demand.

Environmental catastrophes have shaped the history of environmental awakening,  Bansal and Hoffman argue. The sustainability revolution is the biggest cultural phenomenon after the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions — and it is ongoing. The environmental concern is here to stay but so are all the questions and wicked problems related to it. Eve Vuorela

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It is very important to take into account sustainability when thinking in the long-term. But it is a hard task, especially nowadays, when decisions can be made by just clicking a button. By contrast, planning in the right direction takes time.

Lately, corporate sustainability has developed a lot. A good example to quickly check this out is to compare some 1980’s-90’s and contemporary movies. You can watch a movie like Wall Street or The Matrix — and they kind of give you the same vibes of huge corporate companies that only exist to make profit while human beings work somewhat meaninglessly for the companies in tiny cubicles.

However, if you look at the movies of our time, they hardly portray anything like that. They rather show an almost dystopian, incredibly clean and eco-friendly company that might or not have some shady agenda on the background. As a matter of fact, what has happened to companies has also happened to our society. Everywhere we go, we can now see “eco friendly” “organic” shops.

Companies have realized that they can perform much better and are much more welcoming when the way in which they interact with their environment is friendlier.

Competition is no more based only on profits. Companies need to be more innovative and offer a difference if they want their share of the market. However, they have it easier now than ever as they can follow frameworks developed by governmental organizations, such as the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Unilever is an example of a company, which has increased profit by taking a much more sustainable approach in its recent decisions.

It is not very hard to achieve some level of sustainability in your company, you just have to focus in one of the branches. Even if you have a coffee/tea shop you can already make an impact when you make decisions on who to hire, what suppliers to get, how to transport goods, etc.

As a member of the startup community in Tampere, I do not only see innovation but real change and long term thinking in all the actions being taken by the companies and the City of Tampere for the betterment of the society.

Should they be focusing on profit? I must say yes, especially in the beginning. You can’t be sustainable if you can not even sustain yourself. Enrique Montano Carranza

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Consumption is the main engine that foments the economic system. If consumption increases, production must rise to meet the demand and more capital circulates in the system. Even though technology has gradually been taking the position of human beings, the growth of consumption still generates jobs.

Since more people are employed, the buying power automatically goes up as well as consumption. Every good produced requires some or many kinds of natural resources and production itself also demands these resources. Obviously, when consumption increases, the use of natural resources also goes up.

Natural resources have been irresponsibly exploited, and cooperation with nature has not been considered. Consequently, environmental issues have drastically arisen along with social problems. Therefore, worldwide awareness regarding sustainable development has become a hot topic. But, is it possible to live in cooperation with nature in our current economic system? How can corporations be profitable and at the same time be environmentally and socially responsible?

The growth of societal engagement regarding environmental issues has affected companies’ policies. The most cited reason why companies have considered tackling environmental issues is reputation damage. In other words, corporations who do not prioritize sustainability may lose customers and decrease profits.

However, shouldn’t this process be the other way round? Shouldn’t corporations prioritize social well-being and the environment?

Although social responsibility has become a trend and many new social enterprises have gained relevance, profits still play an important role. Surely, it is important that corporations are concerned about sustainability, even if their main purpose is to achieve a better image. Private corporations have a considerable influence in people’s lives and are responsible for natural resources extraction.

Overall, in some ways it is possible to minimize environmental impacts. But, in a capitalist system, how much further can we go? Will that be enough for us to live in harmony with nature? Even when consumption reaches high levels, social inequality doesn’t come to an end, and in many cases this scenario has intensified the social gap.

I strongly believe that we need to think about new or different ways to live in a fairer society that doesn’t act against the nature. A change of mentality regarding consumption is fundamental and civil society has to work towards sustainable development. Circular economy, cooperatives and solidarity economy are valuable initiatives that aim to reduce waste and stimulate conscious consumption. Gabriel Esber Elias

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Sustainability is a popular and important concept in the fields of politics, business management and governance. On the one hand, it may help us take into account the social, economic and environmental sustainability of our everyday lives. On the other hand, the popularity of the concept has made many companies and politicians do “greenwashing”: they may give a false impression of being environmentally friendly.

The concept of sustainability comes from the idea of “sustainable development” which refers to the needs of the world’s poor and to the limitations on the environment´s ability to meet these needs. We should fulfil our needs without restricting future generations’ possibilities to do the same.

It has been long known that our ways of living and consuming are not sustainable. Mass extinction, pollution of air and water and child poverty were on the agenda already in the 1980s and 1990s, but still little has been done and the problems remain. However, there are individuals, organizations and states that realize the seriousness of the situation and are ready to act. Together they have the capacity to start the sustainability revolution.

For this revolution, a strong sustainability view emphasizing radical changes in our habits is needed. According to the strong view, the economy is a subset of society and society is a subset of the environment. Thus all pillars of sustainability are interlinked.

In business organizations, sustainability ideas have led to changes in performance measurement: the triple bottom line consists of social, environmental and economic responsibility. Many companies have transformed their policies from regulatory compliance to strategic environmentalism and further towards a sustainability where all the three pillars are considered together.

Climate change is a global problem that also influences business organizations. They can construct climate change in different discursive ways: some see it as a strategic issue, forming thus a rational discourse; others consider it a moral question, building a moral discourse. Climate change and other environmental questions are so much discussed at the moment that they can be seen as a trend or a fashion. Some companies try to benefit from it by marketing their products as environmentally friendly or socially sustainable. This kind of advertisement may be totally misleading greenwashing but it can also imply prominent first steps towards sustainability. Saana Tarhanen

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Back in 1992, a speech given by Severn Suzuki at UN Earth Summit represented a set of “wicked problems” in the world of a young girl. In her speech, many issues — e.g. animal distinction, waste of resources, explosion of wars — were mentioned. Unfortunately, those issues still exist now and there is no general outline for how to solve them.

It is time to take sustainable revolution seriously. Andrés Edwards illustrates that the development of individuals, organizations and societies should be socio-economically and environmentally sustainable. According to the Brundtland Report, “[s]ustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Two key concepts of sustainable development are need and limitations. According to Plan of Implementation of the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, there are three pillars of sustainability: economic development, social development and environmental protection. Also, in a sustainable view, society is a subset of environment and economy is a subset of both society and the environment. But many of today’s practices are unsustainable.

Because people have realized that sustainability is significant in different aspects of the society nowadays, business organizations — as a part of the society — should take responsibility for society’s sustainable development.

In the new era, resource and pollution prices, climate change and natural events, national security and terrorism and information technology are becoming new topics in the business environment.

Take the influence of climate change in different dimensions as an example, some companies may benefit from climate change and some companies may suffer from climate change because the earth is getting warmer.

The impact of climate change depends on different values and beliefs of the communities and individuals in different situations and cultural meanings. Managers and business professors should interpret and talk about climate change and the importance of sustainability. Also, it requires balancing and making sense of competing discourses. Hongchuan Chen

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According to Anna Heikkinen, sustainability is a buzzword and companies often use it as a marketing tool to create a good image for themselves. In reality, however, the companies claiming sustainability may not necessarily be sustainable.

Sustainability is meeting today’s needs — the needs of the less fortunate and poor — without compromising the needs of future generations. From moral and ethical points of view, we cannot be that selfish to think the world and life on this planet is only for us.

Corporate environmentalism, which is about integrating environmental concerns into decision making, started to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s. Initially it meant acting based on mandated regulations. Later organisations also initiated their own environmental strategies, and finally in the 2000s there occurred a sustainability revolution described By Andrés Edwards as “the movement of individuals, organisations and societies toward developing a socio-economically and environmentally sustainable society.”

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as well as corporate responsibility have a different meaning than sustainability. The concepts should thus be differentiated. CSR, according to Bansal and DesJardine, is about organisations acknowledging their responsibility for their impact on environment and society.

How can organisations then focus also on becoming sustainable? When corporations focus on sustainability, they sometimes focus on tangible problems such as resource efficiency and environmental management. While this is also meaningful, it is easy for them to focus on concrete problems instead of more complex problems.

Anna Heikkinen argued that that the discourses of an organisation are important, namely how organisations interpret and talk about existing environmental problems, for example. It is necessary to reach a discourse encouraging or facilitating sustainability. In addition, as Bansal and DesJardine also argue, organisations need to recognize the importance of both long-term and short-term thinking over short-termism. Sustainability should not be considered a passing trend but its value and value creating capabilities for businesses should be recognized. Eveliina Siukola

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According to Brundtland Report (1987), the concept of sustainability refers to action, which meets the needs of the present without compromising the future. The conference video from EU Earth Summit 1992 is striking. The extinction of species and other environmental crises brought sustainability to attention.

However, when looking at developments regarding sustainability, a major disaster has been needed to bring the issue to our attention. Thus, I would consider our current attitude towards the environment reactive rather than sustainable.

Talking from the business aspect, corporate responsibility plays a crucial role in boosting sustainability, not only environmental sustainability but also social and economic. However, there are also contradictions: The Coca-Cola case study is a prime example. The company emphasizes their environmentally friendly production and energy savings. The company is using “sustainability strategy” to promote their brand image and to market themselves rather than actually addressing corporate responsibility. The plastic bottles used by Coca-Cola are a severe polluters in the world. In addition to the eco-friendly production, replacing plastic material should thus be the main focus of the company regarding environmental sustainability. By contrast, a massive furniture production company like Ikea while destroying dozens of forests is conducting their business in a more responsible and sustainable way. They source the wood from responsibly managed forest, which significantly mitigates their main “crime”.

Regardless of how companies perceive and carry out their corporate responsibilities, the positive influences of these developments on the environment and social and economic development are undeniable. Fulfilling the demands for responsibility not only improves companies’ reputation but also passes on the ideas of sustainability to the customers as well as the media. This is extremely valuable, especially as climate change is one of the most popular topic around the world. Therefore, public pressure, from my perspective, stimulates the enforcement of the corporate responsibility, which could create mutual benefits both for companies and every individual. Zheng Zhao

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As sustainability issues are the concern of the whole society, companies have been recognized to have a significant impact in meeting goals and objectives (The Guardian).The sustainable development goals (SDGs) are set by the UN members and designed to address today’s challenges. The SDGs framework provides an agenda to plan and invest in long-term sustainable development, as part of core business strategies and own business interest.

According to McKinsey, more than 50 percent of managers consider sustainability as an important aspect. Yet, according to The Guardian, more than half of all businesses around the world seem to ignore the UN’s SDGs.

The first regulatory compliance was established during the 1970s. The Brundtland Report from 1987 defines sustainability as development that meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Hence, we cannot take what is not ours and we have to consider the long-term effect.

However, as the Humanities Education Centre highlights, the definition of sustainability is not universally agreed upon, and there are different opinions on what sustainability is and how it can and should be accomplished. McKinsey’s report argues that most businesses take insignificant and almost meaningless approaches in order to comply with the regulations within sustainability. As an addition to the enforced regulations, the moral obligations and responsibilities are therefore critical to achieve a sustainable society.

Short-termism lies at the heart of many of today’s problems. Bansal and DesJardine argue that businesses should plan for the long-term and challenge the assumptions of short-termism that are central in the current business strategy. They explains that managers may feel restricted and unable to make the investments needed to preserve the long-term viability of their companies.

On the other hand, it is argued in the Harvard Business Review that companies just have a hard time figuring out where to begin. As there are major risks, so there are great possibilities being in the forefront of the so-called sustainable business era. For example Keith Weed, Unilever’s CMO, acknowledges that the road to a sustainable business is somewhat a trial and error session and it takes time for sustainability to be mainstream and the core agenda that goes through the whole value chain. In the end the key matter concerning change is that businesses have realized, as Weed has it, that “one cannot have a healthy business in an unhealthy society”. Ann-Charlotte Johansson

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In 2004 United Nations released a security report “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility” where climate change was described as a multiplier of threats and crisis. This was the first time when the UN stated that global warming not only creates new problems but also escalates the old ones such as poverty, famine, gender inequality, child mortality and military conflicts.

Given that climate change is one of the most crucial problems today it is unacceptable how little we are doing to stop or at least decelerate it. I guess one reason is that the discourse concerning climate change has often been too narrow-minded. When NGO’s demand politicians to react, the focus is usually on economic sanctions and regulations that should be set to the private companies. Accusations and regulations often produce high resistance when it is easy for conservative politicians to argue that we need to create jobs instead of saving the environment.

However, according to the RESPMAN Research Group‘s Anna Heikkinen, the contradiction between economic growth and environment protection is irrelevant because these two aspects are strongly intertwined. Without the environment, we do not have economy: by protecting the environment we are also protecting the economy. Heikkinen argues that companies taking sustainability seriously can actually make profit in the future.

Sustainability is defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Bansal and DesJardine argue that companies should be more long-term-minded by investing less for less for smaller profits sooner and investing more for greater profits later.

Climate change is a long-term global problem with uncertain consequences. The impacts cannot be directly attributed to individual causers, which means there are no easy solutions. Recently, we have taken good steps towards more sustainable economy. Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 was international breakthrough and growing economies such as China and India support solar power instead of using fossil fuels.

However, this is not enough since we are running out of time. Bansal and DesJardine argue that our tendency to short-termism is the greatest threat to sustainable economy. In order to save the planet, future leaders should have more long-term vision and courage to implement the potentially hard decisions. Markus Mäki

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Sustainability plays an important role in the modern society. The meaning of sustainability is that a company – or the society in general – can “sustain” its development and activities in a way that is not harmful to others and ensures that the future generations can enjoy their life as we do now.

Sustainability plays an even more important role in modern business. Many corporations’ scale of operations is enormous and thousands of people are employed at their facilities. Corporate decisions affect many lives. If the decisions are bad, that will have a negative effect on the environment and society. For a business, having a sustainable strategy is a key to making sure that steps towards everyone’s better tomorrow are taken.

Sustainability contains two concepts: need and limitation. The concept of need takes into account the essential needs of less fortunate populations who should be prioritized. The idea of limitations is that the environment should be taken into account.

Sustainability stands on three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection. In business organizations, sustainability is called corporate sustainability. Corporations cannot just concentrate on increasing their profit and ensuring the company’s economic growth. They have to take into account how their operations affect the environment. Corporations have to take care of people as well —their business practices need to be beneficial for the society in general and improve lives.

Climate change is the most well-known modern day environmental issue. Global warming is one of the wicked problems the society is striving to control and resolve. This issue sparks a lot of controversy, and there are many people nowadays who do not believe in global warming at all. Global warming causes irreversible consequences, however, their nature is uncertain.

Climate change cannot be attributed to particular actions of individuals or organizations; it is a sum of actions by all individuals and businesses. To slow down climate change it is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Because the main source of GHG emissions are population and economic growth, mitigation of global warming is a very complex task. Inessa Lotonina

 

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