A dangerous word to mention in the wrong company

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“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” ? Alvin Toffler

I was talking to a young sustainability practitioner this week who told me his biggest challenge: he’s trying to introduce a recycling program but managers have stopped him because they say they won’t pay for the cost.

You’d think managers in an industrial research company would be forward thinking.

I wondered what this organisation’s shareholders would say about this resistance to change, to halt progress.

The word “sustainability” is often looked upon as a nice-to-have but is attacked when its proponents recommend changes, especially changes to the status quo that might inconvenience people or require some small initial capital outlay.

Research carried out for the ultra-conservative and over-sensitive, recommends that the “S” word is not to be mentioned in business circles or in companies. Forbidden words are “zero waste”. Instead, one must use “lean production”. Another word that requires censorship is “greenhouse gas emissions”. Rather use the term “reduce energy spend”, they say.

It makes sense to couch language in terms that will be understood an appeal to end users or customers as any effective salesperson will know. But to tip-toe around words that have to do with sustainability is perhaps taking things too far.

Sustainability, the term by the way has been around for almost 40 years, is not supposed to be familiar to start-ups and small businesses. The word is seem to be mainly used by large corporate enterprises and public organisations. However, while the term “sustainability” points to an ideal future state, the practice of sustainability is something that small businesses do all the time. Not all of them, mind you, but a large number.

  • Why is then that small businesses buy second-hand office furniture rather than new?
  • How come they are the first to support local community charity drives?
  • Why is it that they look at every way possible to save energy costs?
  • How come they substitute existing raw materials with more eco-friendly raw materials?
  • What motivates them to provide entry-level jobs to young people in local communities?

Yes, start-ups and small businesses could do more when it comes to sustainability but I don’t buy the argument that they are doing nothing or very little.

In this economy lean and green make business sense.

Smaller companies are much more expert at saving costs, reusing materials such as stationery and packaging and buying new only when they absolutely have to than giant businesses.

Sustainability is not only about resource reduction, using less to do more (although this is very important) but it’s also about helping reduce poverty and inequality (as many small businesses help do) and responding to a new economy that increasingly requires new and innovative thinking.

This includes opportunities for sharp ecopreneurs, start-ups and on-line entrepreneurs to take advantage and seize the opportunities that green consumer buying is making available and will increasingly make present in the future.

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