In theory... sustainability

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

Squeezing the most out of every penny is a strategy the third sector has long been familiar with. Always use a teabag twice, take advantage of both sides of the toilet paper and only switch on the heating if you can see your breath, for example. Balancing the books on meagre resources is often achieved by charities through a mix of ingenuity and frugality that the corporate sector would do well to emulate. Sustainability goes hand in hand with this considered approach to consumption and is a concept long familiar to the voluntary world.

The corporate world - comprising the dealers and junkies of our throwaway consumer economy - has been slow to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. Now that it's on board, it's certainly making a big noise about its green credentials. Recent legal changes to the duties of company directors to report on the social and environmental impact of their business has reinforced this. Take oil firm BP, which now uses the slogan 'Beyond Petroleum', and Marks & Spencer's carbon-neutral Plan A drive to carry out its business in a more sustainable fashion.

To cynics, these initiatives are plain greenwashing, but that underestimates how far the private sector has progressed in its concern for saving the planet. Who would have guessed five years ago that FTSE 250 directors would be talking about reducing their carbon footprints?

The onus is now on environmental charities such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to monitor UK companies and make sure they actually deliver on the promises they are making. Short-term profit can certainly be made from tapping into the middle class yearning for organic, locally raised, sustainable olives, but long-term sustainability will mean a degree of sacrifice - be it the cutting back on transatlantic flights or trading in the company SUV for an electric car. Charity workers, meanwhile, will continue to lead the way by pedalling to work on their trusty bicycles and using both sides of A4 in the photocopier.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.

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