Regarding sustainability “fragments,” can the sum of the parts equal less than the whole?
Originally posted on the CSRwire website.
By CSRwire Contributing Writer Elaine Cohen
As the sustainability movement grows, we witness the growth of single-focus fragmented sustainability initiatives based on subject-specific cross-sector collaboration platforms. But does the sum of the parts equal less than the whole?
Enter a fledgling member of the Sustainability Club: the Global Phosphorous Network. It’s a an initiative of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, a group of five independent research institutes in Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Canada, supported by the Global Phosphate Forum, itself a non-profit industry association of companies who manufacture phosphates for cleaning applications with a mission to promote use of phosphates in detergents. The Global Phosphorous Network is also supported by Novozymes, a bioinnovation company that markets enzymes to replace phosphates in dishwashing detergents. Phosphorous is a non-renewable resource that is essential for life. Phosphorous scarcity will affect global food security. To ensure reserves don’t run out before we can find sustainable solutions, those with a vested interest in phosphorous being around for a long while are getting their heads together to manage its use more efficiently and its recovery even more efficiently. Phosphate replacement is in everyone’s interest, those that manufacture it and those that replace it. No surprise, then, that industry associations form to protect such interest.
Sustainable Phosphorous joins Sustainable Aluminium, whose industry association has been around a little longer, and the Advanced Sustainable Iron and Steel Making Center, another multi-sector collaboration - which for $25,000 a year promises to give industry access to a new generation of sustainable, economical iron and steel making technologies. Sustainability Club also welcomes the Sustainable Aquarium Industry Association designed to self-regulate marine aquarium trade and contribute to the conservation of natural marine resources, whilst the Sustainable Energy Industry Association of the Pacific Islands was recently launched to foster renewable energy and energy efficiency in the Pacific region. The Environmental Institute for Golf is committed to strengthening the compatibility of the game of golf with our natural environment, whilst Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization is bent on advancing commercialization and global adoption of clean technologies and sustainable industry practices through community building, advocacy and knowledge exchange. The EICC promotes sustainable ICT development in supply chains, and no one could have missed the Equator Principles, the largest sustainable banking initiative created in 2002 by 10 leading banks, soon to be joined by a further 30 or more, to set standards for determining, assessing and managing social and environmental risk in project financing.
Sustainability fragmentation supported by industry interests is not a new concept. One of the earliest and very well-known initiatives was the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which was founded in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund and visionary company Unilever, whose motivation was to protect long-term sources for its frozen food business. MSC now employs over 100 people, and over 1,300 fisheries comply with its sustainable fish ecolabel. The World Bank estimates livelihoods of about 200 million people depend on fishing and associated activities, and MSC has been a leader in setting sustainable standards so future generations can continue the fishing tradition and companies can continue to profit from it. Unilever has now sold most of its fish business, leaving an important legacy for this industry, but continues the fragmentation approach for the protection of food sources with the co-founding of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004, along with The Body Shop, Aarhus Karlshamns (AAK) and others. Unilever is also a member of the Roundtable on Responsible Soy Association for producers, industry and civil society actors involved in the soy value chain.
Fragmenting sustainability is a way to empower focus on anything, anywhere that could benefit companies operating in specific market sectors or regions of the globe. In fact, we are perhaps reaching the point, if an industry sector exists, it needs a sustainability fragment. The day is not too distant when the number of fragmented sustainability initiatives will far outnumber the number of industry sectors, if that is not already the case. It makes sense for businesses to take this approach. Investing funds in dedicated research, advocacy and cross-sector collaboration to promote long-term viability of their sectors is clearly in the commercial interest of corporations, appeases NGOs who fight for the cause and serves to provide impressive sustainability performance content for sustainability reports, reducing reputational risk and elevating status in sustainability indexes. In addition, the world benefits.
But fragmenting is fine up to a point, and that point is where sustainability segments combine in a holistic fashion, where the sustainability of anything affects the sustainability of everything. This bottom-up approach to sustainability cannot live without top-down leadership where initiatives such as Millennium Development Goals examine overriding global sustainability issues which encompass all fragments and the way they impact each other. The danger in fragmenting sustainability is a siloed approach where the sum of the parts equals less than the whole, whilst everyone thinks they are saving the world.
In the meantime, however, the Global Phosphorous Network has its work cut out. With three billion more mouths to feed by 2050 and phosphate reserves, which are controlled by just a few countries, expected to start depleting in the next few decades, this sustainability journey had better move into high gear. At the same time, other businesses will scurry to align themselves with sustainability fragment associations which best serve their long-term needs. Simply put, at this stage in the game, they cannot afford not to.
About Elaine Cohen
Elaine Cohen is a Sustainability Consultant and Reporter at Beyond Business and blogger on sustainability reporting and author of CSR for HR: A necessary business partnership to advance responsible business practices.
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