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Sustainability is not a corporate department – it’s everyone’s job

Living a truly sustainable life in 21st-century Ireland is impossible but even small actions will have an impact

Do a quick and dirty online ecological footprint calculation to figure out what your biggest environmental impacts are, and focus on them. Photograph: iStock

Do a quick and dirty online ecological footprint calculation to figure out what your biggest environmental impacts are, and focus on them. Photograph: iStock


The world is changing, as evidenced by people increasingly recognising the need to act sustainably, to recycle more and to respond to a warming world by embracing climate actions that make a difference.

The resulting demand is beginning to be felt throughout every section of the economy and society; including government and big business. It is being driven by those who wish to reduce their negative impact on the Planet   and especially their carbon footprint. 
It is epitomised in Ireland by the seeking of a more urgent response to the threat of climate change. 

This is allied to greater commitment to arresting biodiversity loss and to supporting international efforts to help developing countries in the direct firing line though they have contributed least to global emissions.  

An improved response by Ireland to the threat of climate breakdown is being forged through an imminent whole of Government plan informed by the recent all-party report on climate action. Meanwhile, the 2030 Agenda to which Ireland has signed up to provides a complementary roadmap for a sustainable future under the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

There are obvious indications of change in Ireland.

Unlikely Scenario 1: Leading Irish companies are named and shamed for not reporting their greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet it happened recently, and is a reflection of a new reality where big businesses will soon be routinely brought to book for failure to address their carbon footprint.

CDP, a not-for-profit organisation which measures companies’ environmental impact, highlighted 27 prominent Irish companies for not responding to its annual carbon-emissions survey.

Increasingly, as the world experiences the detrimental effects of climate change, the focus will be on measurable efforts to decarbonise their operations. And there will be greater demands on them to conduct their activities sustainably.

EU directives on the circular economy and single-use plastic will place additional demands on businesses in having to prove their sustainability credentials. In the period up to 2030, demanding recycling targets kick in and the world will become increasingly focused on living up to the 17 UN Sustainability Goals.

David Kelly, group head of customer operations and public affairs with the utilities company Ervia, told the Power Ireland conference recently their activities were linked to six SDGs – one of its core principles is to make a positive impact on our planet. But that kind of connect to sustainability is not the norm.

Unlikely Scenario 2: In many Irish households there are now five separate containers to segregate household waste – for recyclables/green bin; biodegradables/brown bin, general refuse/black bin, a container for bottles, and a receptacle for batteries . Who would have thought it was possible, when 10 years ago, most waste was sent unsorted to landfill?

For those overwhelmed by the prospect of climate breakdown, glaring actions that are non-sustainable and blatant threats to biodiversity, it is hard to work out where to begin. Climate justice campaigner Mary Robinson suggests starting by taking one action.

Repak’s Team Green initiative has a simple effective action: if everyone in Ireland put one extra piece of plastic a week in the recycle bin, we’d recycle 250 million more plastic items a year.

Environmental sustainability doesn’t mean living without luxuries but rather being aware of your resource consumption and reducing unnecessary waste.

Irish Times science columnist Hannah Hamilton attempts to live sustainably – and in doing so goes beyond tokenism. As a conservationist, much of that effort is on preserving biodiversity while living in rural Co Kilkenny. As a sustainability consultant specialising in biodiversity, conservation and the environment, it’s in advising others on how to do so.

Her tips for the individual and for businesses differ, though the overall objective is the same:

Sustainability tips for businesses

1. Sustainability is a critical risk-management issue and not a fluffy nice-to-have. It has significant implications throughout the value chain and should be taken seriously by chief executives, boards and investors, and resourced accordingly.

2. Climate change and biodiversity loss are the most urgent and important sustainability issues and as such, should be at the core of any corporate sustainability initiative.

3. Wherever possible, targets should be science-based and in line with global objectives. Many Irish companies are a long way behind on this. There’s a lot of work to do and the time to get moving is now.

4. Credibility is everything. Consumers and suppliers are increasingly savvy and less easily sold on glossy images and sweeping statements. We need dramatic action, but change is incremental: ambitious goals, well-resourced strategies and transparent reporting based on solid evidence are the best defences against greenwash.

5. Sustainability is not a corporate department, it’s part of everyone’s job. Whether you’re in accounts, marketing, IT, operations or the C-suite, there is something you can do to support the transition to more sustainable business.

Growing demands from workers, communities and individuals means sustainability efforts have to be meaningful and, if being applied to a business, integral to its operations.

The voices of young people are increasingly added to the mix, especially on climate action. They are less tolerant of inaction, so as the big consumers of tomorrow, their clout cannot be ignored if businesses are to be successful.

Sustainability tips for general public

1. Be real. Living a truly sustainable life is basically impossible in 21st-century Ireland, so recalibrate your ambitions and aim for a life less unsustainable.

2. Hold the relevant individuals, bodies and organisations to account for the fact that living a truly sustainable life in 21st-century Ireland is basically impossible.

3. If you’re trying to lose weight, there’s no point giving up a weekly chocolate bar if you’re still eating pizza and chips every day. Do a quick and dirty online ecological footprint calculation to figure out what your biggest environmental impacts are, and focus on them.

4. If you can’t reduce your biggest impacts, try to offset them. This is not an ideal situation, but the less bad shouldn’t be the enemy of the perfect.

5. Keep an open mind and be prepared to change your behaviour based on evidence. New information arrives every day and what we thought was great yesterday might be not so great by tomorrow. Accept the uncertainty.