Who is leading the transformation to a more sustainable future?
Leading the charge
Clearly leading the charge is the corporate sector, and not just the usual suspects. Last Thursday, I was in Brussels for a corporate stakeholder group with Hitachi.
It's a fascinating company – within a year they plan to transform their financial performance by investing in what they call their social investment business.
Globally the company is using its technological skills to deliver smart grids, green data centres, renewable energy and greener transport. The company realises that the future will involve more complex solutions and greater collaboration with the public sector. Leading the charge to this new future is China. Indeed the underlying philosophy for many growing businesses seems to be that we are all living off China at the moment.
On Tuesday, I heard James Murdoch set clear environmental targets for News Corporation, a company many would not put at the head of the wider CSR agenda, embroiled as elements of it are in phone tapping allegations. However, on environmental issues they have set ambitious internal targets including cutting carbon emissions by 15% and vowing to help their 100 largest suppliers become more sustainable.
Murdoch has set the targets, and he expects employees to innovate and use their creativity to achieve them. He freely acknowledged that he was unsure how the ambitions would be met, but he knows there is a business case. However, payback on hitting their environmental targets has been far faster than expected due to soaring energy and fuel prices.
Ministers Chris Huhne and Gregory Barker were also at the event. While Huhne wished he could bottle this commitment and pass it onto other business leaders, he would be better using the magic potion on his own government, which lags behind the corporate sector and whose recent policy gymnastics around the Carbon Reduction Commitment and feed-in tariffs have severely shaken corporate confidence.
Leadership, or lack of...
A lack of government leadership was apparent at the Big Sustainability Summit, which we helped organise. The summit was officially the last event of the excellent Sustainable Development Commission (SDC).
The day before the summit, Defra released their mainstreaming sustainable development policy hoping to persuade people that all would be fine without the watchdog role of the SDC but they are sadly deluded. Although all the speakers had been obviously briefed to treat the event as a celebration rather than a wake, the sound of spitting feathers played under many of their speeches.
We heard Joan Whalley MP say that the Environment Audit Committee simply does not have the resources, remit or skills to replace the SDC. We heard the head of sustainability at the NHS say that when responsibility is passed to everybody it tends to be the responsibility of nobody.
Jonathon Porritt, clearly realising that retaliation is a dish best served cold, waited until his blog the next day when he called Defra's sustainable policy vision the most disgraceful document on sustainable development that he had ever seen. Whether the Department of Energy and Climate Change's recently released draft of its Low Carbon Plan lays out real commitment remains to be seen.
Totally lacking from the government side is the ambition, articulation and target-driven approach demonstrated by corporate leaders. Without this drive it is no wonder that civil servants are scrabbling around for answers and are forced to produce documents that are flimsy fig-leafs covering their embarrassment at a lack of clear vision.
Unfortunately the government is not the biggest green laggard.
A lesson to be learned
In my opinion, that dubious accolade goes to our charitable sector. This sector should be at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice. It is charities who have to cope with the social impact of rising fuel, food and water poverty. It is they who have to deal with the health implications of extreme weather conditions like flooding, and they who will have to cope with the impact of climate refugees.
Charities should be watching every penny and be implementing environmental systems which cut costs and improve environmental performance. Most are just not at the debate.
We have been participating in a tender process with the Big Lottery to provide sustainability support to charities but learnt on Friday that the process has been cancelled. The reason given is that during these uncertain financial times they were unsure that there would be a demand for the service. As forward thinking organisations are progressing plans on how to better invest in sustainability, it seems that the Big Lottery and the charitable sector feel it is a luxury item that can be done without.
This short-sightedness from civic society is astonishing. Perhaps our charitable leaders should take a step back and learn a lesson from the corporate sector, who are the true leaders at the moment.
This week's blog post first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business blog.