Sustainability is more important than competitiveness

2011-12-13 00:00

TO most business owners, a statement like “sustainability is more important than competitiveness” sounds intuitively incorrect. However, a side event at the recent COP17 conference in Durban hosted by Conservation South Africa featuring some senior representatives of the business sector, certainly made the case for not working in competitive isolation.

Simon Susman (deputy chairperson of Woolworths and chairperson of Conservation South Africa) stated that business is already ahead of both the government and its customers as far as climate-change adaptation is concerned (adaptation to climate change essentially refers to finding ways to reduce our vulnerability to the effects of climate change and enhance our resilience).

There is much that business can do to make a difference.

According to Susman, in order for business to contribute meaningfully to climate-change adaptation there needs to be a move from the traditional way of working in competitive isolation, to engaging openly with competitors to find ways of doing business more sustainably. In other words, when one considers the threats related to climate change (changing weather patterns, increased incidence of diseases, food scarcity, floods and drought), it is in the interest of business to work together to find ways to find and contribute to adaptation solutions.

Michael Grimm of the Knowledge Allianz ( writes that when we talk about adaptation we are not talking solely about gradual temperature changes, but also about the increasing problems linked to extreme events and societal vulnerability.

This may sound all out of reach to most businesses and many may feel swamped by a sense of powerlessness. Donna Oosthuyse (chief country officer, South Africa, Citigroup) is very enthusiastic about what her company is doing and suggested that there are three areas in which businesses can begin to make a difference.

• Taking a critical look at core operations and making changes towards operating more sustainably (our previous writings have alluded to this and the fact that such an exercise will bring about operational efficiencies and significant cost savings).

• Putting pressure on those in your supply chain to do the same.

• Making sure that any corporate social investments are being made towards initiatives or projects that work towards climate-change adaptation.

Susman cited an example of how Woolworths its introduced a programme for their fresh-produce suppliers known as “Farming for the Future”. Through this, 85% of its suppliers have introduced organic farming principles which are bringing about significant improvements in the production capacity and the condition of their land.

Festus Luboyera (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — Private Sector Initiative, Nairobi Work Programme) manages a database of businesses that have embraced the challenge of climate-change adaptation and encourages businesses to engage with the programme and to enjoy the marketing benefits of being included on the database.

In an interview facilitated by the University of Cambridge Sustainable Leadership Programme, Tasneem Essop (an International climate policy advocate for the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa) and Carlos Manuel Rodriguez (regional vice-president of Conservation International) emphasised that business has a significant role to play in leading the efforts on climate-change adaptation. They motivated this stance by explaining that business generally has a long-term vision, while the vision of politicians is constrained by the term which they can serve.

• Karen Zunckel is a partner at the Hilton-based Zunckel Ecological + Environmental Services and is an independent consultant to the Wilderness Foundation’s Green Leaf Environmental Standard.

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