Finding common ground towards sustainable living

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am


Today, we hear 'sustainable development' mentioned everywhere, at the promotion of the latest app, a shoe launch, or painted across billboards in Central. Based on the number of times we hear the word 'sustainable', we would think sustainability lies at the heart of Hong Kong. Or, perhaps, the best thing about the zeitgeist of our environmentally aware age is that sustainability can and must be all things to all people.

An oft-quoted definition of sustainable development is that defined in Our Common Future, a landmark UN report published in 1987; it is 'development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. This rather abstract and noble definition has come to mean balancing the interdependent pillars of economic growth, environmental protection and social development. To some champions of economic growth, it is simply an oxymoron.

Understandably, it took time for the concept of 'sustainable development' to wing its way out of the corridors of the United Nations into government policy, and even longer to be considered seriously in business boardrooms. Possibly, it took so long because of the overwhelming task of working out how best to consider so many contradictory issues simultaneously, in the short-term world of business models and financing.

How far have we come? Next year, the Rio Earth Summit will celebrate its 20th anniversary, and the UN will organise another summit, also in Rio. Developing countries want the Rio Plus 20 to consider what has gone wrong in the past two decades, including addressing issues such as the persistent 'implementation gap', and how little of the pledged financial and technology transfers have actually taken place.

There is also the underlying fear that sustainable development has been hijacked by the environmental agenda, which is sidestepping the development needs of developing countries. Many developed nations don't want the summit to focus on past failures and are more concerned with what kind of institutions should govern future sustainable development.

While some would argue that we have not progressed much on sustainable development, I'd say considerable progress has been made, but the challenge of embedding long-term economic and environmental thinking in any organisation is extremely tough.

That said, more and more businesses do have sustainability strategies, partly because of a shift in consumer attitudes and how such strategies can enhance a company's competitive edge and boost its brand and reputation. Other important factors include the potential for revenue growth, personal motivation and employee engagement. There is also a rise in sustainability reporting as investors now look at sustainability as a form of risk management.

Most encouraging of all is that various stock exchanges in Asia have produced sustainability guidelines (mostly voluntary), including Bursa Malaysia, which introduced a framework for corporate social responsibility in 2006 and every year rewards the best performers. Singapore's stock exchange has also started to encourage sustainability reporting, and the Hong Kong stock exchange is considering introducing an environmental, social and governance code for listed issuers.

Sustainable development will increasingly be about thinking long-term to help us manage our capacity to cope with and adapt to the changes ahead. In hindsight, sustainability's abstract definition is wise as it allows for evolution and flexibility. Anything more defined may hinder progress, and impede the innovations that can help us thrive in harmony with the environment.

The question of whether we can be sustainable is no longer valid. Instead, more of us just need to work towards it, and be supportive of the learning process. We must not become a society where businesses or governments are too petrified to change for fear of being named and shamed for trying.

Ciara Shannon is the founder of Eden Ventures