By Srilal Miththapala
Introduced in 1992 in the book Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment, by industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny and the world Business Council for Sustainable Development, eco-efficiency was a natural extension of the concepts of cleaner and leaner production. It incorporated all of the pollution and waste prevention notions of these earlier ideas, and then went beyond them to begin to look more closely at how products are actually produced and the processes involved in their manufacture.
In the 1980’s, Swedish physician Karl Henrik Robert and a group of Swedish scientists developed a new and more scientific and systematic approach to looking at business sustainability issues.
The natural world should not be subjected to increased concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust (i.e. minerals, oil, gas, etc.)
The natural world should not be subjected to increased concentrations of substances produced by society (such as PCBs, insecticides, nuclear waste and other chemicals or compounds not found in nature)
The natural world should not be subjected to degradation of its capacity for renewal (such as by over-fishing the oceans, destroying topsoil, deforestation, mountain top removal mining and other similar activities)
Humanity should not be subjected to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs (most particularly abject poverty)
This strategy envisions the actual redesign of products or processes on more biologically based designs, thus enabling closed-loop systems of production and the elimination of toxic and hazardous substances-production that mimics the biology and design of nature.
To achieve sustainability, the human production of goods requires a re-examination from the ground up (in fact, from below the ground in the case of oil, gas and mineral production) in a concentrated effort to dramatically reduce the environmental impact of all products’ material use. Architect William McDonough and scientist Mechael Braungart expanded on this principle by introducing the cradle-to-cradle concept, explained in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We make Things. This idea is meant to replace the current ‘cradle-to grave’ analysis of product life that looks at a product from genesis (cradle) to disposal (grave), and attempts to lessen the environmental impact along this linear lifespan.
With the rise in concern for the environment, and the publicity that it attracts today, and the goodwill that CSR impacts began to have on businesses, there is a rush by all and sundry to embrace such activities, and ‘climb on the environment bandwagon’. However this can have its downside as well.
Greenwashing is a term used to describe the deceptive use of poorly implemented environment practices in order to promote and mislead the public that the business is environment friendly and ethical. It is a form of fraudulent marketing spin.
The damage to a businesses’ reputation when ‘caught out’ under such circumstances is very detrimental. With more and more transparency being called for, and with environmental ‘watch dogs’ large and small (such as the now world famous Greenpeace organization) focusing their attention on the corporate world, it is indeed rather difficult to carry out a bluff for too long.
There are many examples of green washing in the corporate world. British petroleum, the world’s second largest oil company, entered the greenwashing playing field, spending 200 million dollars on rebranding their company. Part of their rebranding was use of the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” and a new green and yellow sunburst design for their BP logo. However in 1991 BP was cited as the most polluting company in the US based on EPA toxic release data. BP has been charged with burning polluted gases at its Ohio refinery (for which it was fined $1.7 million), and in July 2000 BP paid a $10 million fine to the EPA for its management of its US refineries. Of course the fait accompli was the disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which according to analysts’ “… damaged the environment and with it the economy of the United States, which impact could last for decades”
Hotels are also culpable of greenwashing. Many hotels today have a little card on the bathroom counter telling it’s guests that the hotel is very concerned about the environment, and asking the guest to do their part to help save the earth by hanging up wet towels and re-using them again the next day. But in many hotels regardless of what the guest does, housekeeping staff replace the towels each day. Many hotels will not even know how much water they have saved due to this initiative.
In fact today there are annual Corporate Greenwashing Awards, organized by various ‘environment watchdog’ organizations, which are “presented to companies that have pushed profits higher while investing millions of dollars into covering up environmentally damaging practices with corporate social responsibility projects”. The Coca-Cola Company was a recent winner of the Polaris Institute Greenwash award. There is also the Greenpeace “Emerald Paintbrush” paintbrush award which was ‘won’ by BP.
Implementing sustainable practices
While certainly the principles of energy and environment conservation are very simple and are easy to implement, it is important for a business to look at the bigger picture in a more analytical manner to have a substantial impact. Of course, at the outset, there are many small scale common sense “housekeeping initiatives” that can be carried out in businesses (and everyday life), which will give some quick results. It is estimated that a quick walk through audit by knowledgeable energy management professionals can recommend changes which will result at least a 5-10% decrease in energy costs almost immediately. Most of these interventions are simple adaptation ideas which cause a change in inefficient operational behaviour and methods, which the organization would have been practicing for several years, but were not aware of. e.g. Reducing thermostats in an office by a few degrees, shutting off electronic items without keeping them on stand- by mode, all add up to making an impact on cost savings.
With the dramatic increase in energy costs in Sri Lanka, the impact of such small scale measures, as well as bigger technical changes (such as solar hot water and electricity, recycling of water, etc.) are all beginning to now make more financial sense than before.
However the process by which a business aspires to becoming more environment conscious in a holistic manner is a slower and long drawn out process. Certainly there are no ‘quick fix solutions’, for the long term transformation towards sustainability. Many companies fail in their efforts because they expect short term results, and in trying to do so, fall into the trap of ‘Greenwashing’.
Therefore to be really effective in the long run, such environmental programmes must have a holistic and analytical frame work.
A proper ‘as-is’ scenario has to be initially mapped out, by the collection of all important consumption parameters, operational systems and methods. (eg. fuel, electricity, waste, water, etc.) These have to be recorded not only for the entire operations, but also be broken up and identified into various sections or departments. This may require installation of sub metering at specific points. These parameters have to be recorded in relation to production out puts, since the entire exercise revolves around obtaining ratio based baselines for analysis. (e.g. Electricity cost per unit of production, waste produced per unit of production, etc.)
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” -Lord Kelvin 1890
Thereafter, there has to be a continuous flow of information of consumption patterns and production outputs, preferably on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. It is only after this that the intervention process should begin, where improvements and cost benefit analysis can be undertaken for specific processes, and ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenarios can be clearly measured.
Above all, it should then be developed into a continuous process, where previous interventions are re-visited, improved and modified if needed. It then becomes a ‘way of life’ in the organizations. This is sometimes referred to as the PDCA cycle- Plan-Do –Check-Act. All environmental certification schemes follow this principle from the early ISO 1400’s to ISO 16001 and the soon to be released ISO 50001.
The icing on cake is that most of such energy, waste and water improvement initiatives can be easily translated into quantifiable carbon emission equivalents, which can then clearly show a business as to how much their carbon foot print has been reduced, due to such interventions. This can today be a powerful marketing tool.
The Greening Hotels SWITCH ASIA EU Project, under the initiative of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, is providing free advice and guidance to help Sri Lankan hotels to reduce energy, water and waste management. Currently over 120 hotels are registered with the programme and walk thru and detailed energy audits, and consumption data collection is being done. The technical team has experienced first hand the number of small scale, but very effective, and result oriented interventions that can be implemented with a simple walk through audit. E.g. it was found that hotel walk-in cold rooms are accessed at random during the entire day. Simply scheduling the times of opening of the cool rooms, coupled with the introduction of flexible plastic insulation curtains, can reduce the electricity consumption of a cold room by a good 20%.
In Sri Lanka today, the garment industry is in the forefront of such activities where some of the companies can break down each element of cost for a particular garment the factory produces, which then makes analysis and intervention quite easy. Some of the bigger garment industries have been able to completely transform themselves into very energy efficient units, enjoying a considerable competitive edge internationally, as well as been able to obtain considerable marketing leverage due to such activities.
It is quite clear from the foregoing that embracing sustainable practices in a business is simply ‘good business strategy’, and not necessarily only a fashionable concept to adopt to ‘save the world’.
If implemented properly and honestly, it can not only save considerable operational costs to the company, but also can help give the business stature as an ethical and responsible corporate entity.
(The writer is a senior tourism professional and was the former Chief Executive Officer of Serendib Leisure Management Ltd. He is now attached to the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce as Project Director of the Greening Hotels SWITCH ASIA