It’s people like this that give sustainability a bad name

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I’m itching to tell you this story. But before I talk about it, I’d like to get some things out of the way.

Let me confess, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in sustainability projects. But like others in the business to be professional and successful in sustainability, I’ve had to sweat out worrying nights, put in hard work against skepticism, cynicism, resistance and even ridicule in selling sustainability and sustainability projects.

And it’s not only been from start-ups and small business…

With that out of the way, let me tell you a story.

An organisation in one of the country’s provinces (I’d rather not disclose the name of the organisation and its location) was given a pile of cash by an international donor to make a low-to-middle income housing development “sustainable”. Now some time down the track things have gone awry. The organisation has been forced to bring in outside help – but perhaps too late.

So what happened? Well, for starters in a country that has a scarcity of energy and rocketing energy costs, the development has not got one bit of renewable energy. Not even one solar water heater was installed.

Let me go on. Consultants and suppliers were contracted from another city increasing the carbon footprint. And making it impossible to create local employment opportunities.

Take one example: the landscaping was meant to be a model of eco-friendly, green living. However, the plants and trees were transported from suppliers 500 km away. Get that? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The plants are unsuitable for growing in this region. Many are now dead and what’s left is not even being cared for because there’s no site maintenance.

Unsustainable practices are all around us – this isn’t the only example.

In today’s society where people seem to have forgotten about frugality (even in an uncertain economy), waste of productive sources doesn’t appear to matter. Perhaps it’s because there are no consequences for such squandering behaviour.

I don’t buy into the argument that sustainability is so hard to practice. Sustainability has been around for longer than people think but because of self-interest not everyone wants to acknowledge it.

Sustainability means not focusing only on self-interest. It means taking a look around – perhaps hard look around – and considering other people’s interests. This may include several constituencies such as employees, customers, people who are going to live in that housing development, investors, donors, local government and central government.

I know what you’re thinking. Who cares? This happens all the time. Well, that’s short-term thinking. No one is an island; we are all part of the same community and society. Eventually all of this will catch up with us.

So what can we do? Sustainability advocates can spread the message of good practice. Small businesses can lead by example. And leaders can walk the talk by practicing sustainability not only in their businesses but also at home and in their communities.

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