Written by Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas
For several months in a row average temperatures have been the highest ever recorded. Climate change presents a multi-levelled challenge to individuals, organisations, communities and governments. The 18th World Congress on Environment Management will look beyond global warming and other environmental issues and threats and consider options and opportunities. How engaged should the CSR community be with this event and environmental policies, strategies and practices? How involved should it be in decisions concerning infrastructure and the built environment? What questions should CSR practitioners be asking?
My theme paper for the forthcoming world congress raises questions for consumers, investors and employees, as well as directors, public officials and elected politicians. It suggests a shift of focus and imaginative responses from entrepreneurs could create new business opportunities and lead to more sustainable and affordable lifestyles. It also identifies areas in which businesses can demonstrate their social responsibility, help to address social issues and further an inclusion agenda.
Developments in technology provide opportunities to revolutionise production and distribution activities. What will the environmental and social impacts be? Take the adoption of 3D printing. This could help or harm the environment according to how we use it. The decentralisation of production activities could reduce the environmental impact of large scale production at certain sites, but will this be done in such a way as to disperse the harm? Will people treat more items as disposable or easily replaceable if they fancy a different model? Alternatively, will the adoption of the technology be at particular shared sites? In rural locations, this could allow the delivery of raw materials and waste collection to be concentrated at a single site within a village, town or district.
Developments in robotics, artificial intelligence and drone technology could have implications for the built environment and reduce the requirement for production and office workers. This could free up time for other activities such as the creative arts, leisure and sporting activities. In some countries each of these are significant industrial sectors in their own right. They can be fulfilling for those concerned and also rewarding for individuals, teams and communities that excel in these areas. Should CSR support developments in these areas for social as well as business reasons?
If standard goods can be produced cheaply, either locally or in the home, by 3D printer, will people want to express their individuality in other ways? Will we see an explosion in the arts and crafts? Could this lead to greater self-sufficiency at a local level as with a degree of specialisation people accept individual commissions and craft items for each other? Will they use local materials to produce items that are distinctive and which could be traded, bartered or otherwise exchanged over the internet? People who might otherwise be unemployed or under-employed could develop enough skill in certain arts, crafts, sports or leisure activities to teach or otherwise help others.
Customers who might be willing to pay for a better alternative are less likely to be up for funding a company’s restructuring, retrenchment or withdrawal from areas that are challenged and in decline. Directors need to read the road ahead and act before crawl out costs become excessive. Would a different business model be more cost-effective? How might a technology such as 3D printing benefit a company’s customers? What diversification opportunities are there in current markets and possible growth areas such as the creative arts, leisure and sports? What new offerings could corporate capabilities provide? What steps should a socially responsible company take to support the transition to more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyles?
Today we still benefit from our inheritance from the past, whether bridges for railways or water canals for irrigation. In India’s past engineers planted trees at intervals along roads to provide shade for travellers. They thought about the implications of what they did for others? What legacy will we leave for future generations? Will we be remembered for mountains of rubbish, depleted natural resources and lost species? Are we planting trees that in time will reduce harmful emissions and lower temperatures in the garden cities that could result? Are we creating an infrastructure and built environment that will enable people to lead less stressful but more fulfilling lives? Our responses could create new opportunities to demonstrate a socially responsible and caring capitalism and engage customers and communities.
Involvement in creative and sporting activities can energise people and stimulate their imaginations, yet many city and other urban environments seem to give precedence to consumption, traffic congestion and pollution. If provision is made for the creative arts it sometimes seems to have been an afterthought and/or the initiative of a concerned philanthropist. Sporting venues are often on the outskirts and designed for people to be sedentary spectators rather than active participants. A new initiative Bridges of Sports is seeking to increase participation in sports, starting with athletics and football in India. While one trigger may have been India’s relatively low haul of medals in relation to its population at the last Olympic Games, more sporting activity offers the prospect of other benefits such as reducing the incidence of diabetes. Boards and CSR practitioners could consider how companies and their people might become involved in sports and creative activities.
Environmental strategies can address problem areas and seek to reduce negative impacts, but there are also opportunities to be pro-active and positive. How could the built environment better cope with the needs of those who are visually impaired? Do corporate premises allow easy wheel chair access? Who are being excluded by your current policies and practices? The repeal of the 1898 Lepers Act is an encouraging development, but over 120,000 people each year are diagnosed with leprosy in India, one every four minutes. Do public and corporate infrastructure and services take account of their particular requirements? What more could be done to remove discrimination against those afflicted with leprosy and their families and increase their inclusion in society?
Will displays of material wealth such as expensive and fuel-guzzling fast cars come to be seen as evidence of shallow self-obsession, concern with superficial appearance and ignorance of environmental issues? Could the manufacture and use of some products be considered a “crime against the environment”? Will business leaders have the courage to exercise restraint in how they advertise and promote offerings, to reduce impulse and unnecessary purchases of items whose production and use are environmentally harmful? Will they adopt cleaner technologies and develop more sustainable portfolios of offerings? Will business decision criteria embrace social and environmental costs?
Could one envision an inversion of life chances? Will the new quality of life poor be composed of urban dwellers trapped in their solitary lives in apartments high above the life shortening pollution of congested and dangerous cities? Will rural dwellers revel in being close to nature and valued members of vibrant and healthy communities, living longer, healthier, simpler and less materialistic but more fulfilling lives? We have choices. Rather than create new wants, socially responsible entrepreneurs could contribute to the greater well being of many people by devising innovative and affordable solutions to address basic needs such as shelter, sanitation facilities and fresh water.
How we manage the relationship with the environment will be discussed at the forthcoming 18th world congress on environment management. Details of the congress which is organised by India’s Institute of Directors can be obtained from:http://www.iodonline.com/wcem-2016.html.
A theme paper by Prof. Coulson-Thomas to encourage discussion ahead of the event can be downloaded from: http://www.iodonline.com/images/wcem2016/wcem-2016-theme-paper.pdf. Further information on Bridges of Sports can be obtained from: http://www.bridgesofsports.com/.
In addition to board roles, Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas is Director-General, IOD India, UK and Europe, leads the International Governance Initiative of the Order of St Lazarus and is Chancellor of the School for the Creative Arts and chair of the Audit and Risk Committee of United Learning. He has served on public sector boards at national and local level and has helped directors and boards in over 40 countries to achieve their objectives. Author of over 60 books and reports he has held professorial appointments in Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India and China. He was educated at the London School of Economics, the London Business School, UNISA and the Universities of Aston, Chicago and Southern California, and is a fellow of seven chartered bodies. His latest books and reports on quicker and more affordable and sustainable routes to high performance organisations are available from www.policypublications.com
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Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR.