A sustainable workplace should be more than a pipedream

Businesses need to focus on employee wellbeing, economic health and the environment

It is about, what sustainability expert John Elkington coined, the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Photograph: iStock

It is about, what sustainability expert John Elkington coined, the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Photograph: iStock

 

Is a sustainable workplace within Ireland achievable or a pipedream? First of all, it means doing business differently across all areas of the organisation. It is about, what sustainability expert John Elkington coined, the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

From a people perspective, we mean social sustainability, with an emphasis on health and safety, wellbeing, human rights and labour rights.

Economic sustainability focuses not only on the profit-making aspects of organisations, but also considers whether employees are making enough money to survive and thrive. What are the social and economic consequences, for example, of the gig economy, zero hour contracts and low pay?

Environmental sustainability focuses on the protection of our planet.

Getting all three to align is not an easy challenge but, with collaboration, partnerships and joined-up thinking, it is not insurmountable.

Let’s explore some examples, from an environmental sustainability perspective.

Being an environmentally sustainable business is complex and, most importantly, cannot be achieved by any one business alone. It requires total transformation in how we do business, and is the primary challenge facing business today.

Businesses will need to change their own business models. Bord na Móna, for instance, is totally transforming by moving away from its origins as a peat extraction company to developing a sustainability plan which focuses on producing sustainable energy.

Tackling the issue at industry level is also necessary, and industries are already coming together to address environmental challenges. Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme is a good illustration of this.

Ultimately, being an environmentally sustainable business requires us to examine what we produce, how we produce it, how it is used and how it is eventually disposed of. This requires an assessment of our extraction and production processes; the energy efficiency of our production plants and office buildings; the transportation systems we utilise, both in terms of distributing our goods for final resale and in considering how our employees travel to work.

Disposable coffee cups

And, when our employees are at work, what sustainability initiatives are in place for them? For example, do employees have to rely on disposable coffee cups and/or drinking water from plastic bottles, because no alternatives exist?

In short, there is no part of a business left untouched by the challenges of environmental sustainability.

Consequently, while we need businesses to tackle global environmental challenges, both individually and by coming together with their competitors, we also require governments and policymakers to provide regulations, supporting infrastructure, resources and incentives.

Setting out his vision for Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar emphasised how climate change is one of our “greatest challenges”. Ireland, however, is not meeting its EU climate change targets. Our greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased since 2015, and the most recent budget was criticised by environmental groups for its lack of sustainability initiatives.

Thus, while the government is doing some things, environmental campaigners say this is not enough, and we would argue a more sustained and integrated effort is required.

At the same time, we need universities to further build on our research and do a much better job of integrating sustainability into our curriculums. We need consumers to think about what they buy, how they (re)use and ultimately dispose of their purchases. We need civil society organisations to continue to challenge everyone to do better.

But mostly we need everyone to work together. Then, and only then, do we have a chance of becoming a State known for protecting our planet rather than exploiting it.

Science Foundation Ireland recently awarded significant funding to a bioeconomy research centre (Beacon). Led by UCD, Beacon aims to address the challenges of developing a sustainable economy, utilising renewable biological resources.

Partnerships

One of Beacon’s strengths lies in its partnerships – between academics in different disciplines, but also with industry, policymakers and communities. If the Government is serious about tackling global challenges, it needs to forge further partnerships to allow this to happen.

If we think big, it can provide opportunities not only for economic growth but also for protecting our planet and improving the health and wellbeing of our citizens. One potential avenue to further develop collaborations is for the various stakeholder groups to utilise the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These recognise that tackling sustainability is not only about climate action, but also reducing poverty and inequalities, improving health and wellbeing, and developing sustainable communities.

We are a small island on the periphery of Europe. We have many advantages, but we have to ensure we are sustainable. We are competing against many other countries with much better sustainability records than ours.

We already have the “green” and “slaínte” brands, now we have to live up to that through our actions as a State. Not only do we expect this to radically change the world of work – if successful, it will also change how we live our lives.

Andrea Prothero, Donna Marshall and Colm McLaughlin are co-directors of the UCD Centre for Business and Society

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