Sustainability expressed in the language of business

One of the great problems of getting business to take the sustainability movement seriously is that the language that sustainability professionals use is not the language of business. Often, it sounds like the language of philanthropy, calling on business to do good, and to invest in ideas that are not always rooted in science or profit, but more in sociology. Business leaders meanwhile are committed by their number one duty: to maximize profits for shareholders. Now, however, the language of sustainability and the language of business are starting to converge.

The key word in the new vocabulary is “risk”. That one word covers a multitude of ideas, but it is a great way of thinking about sustainability.

Talk to many chemical executives and you will find that they do not believe in man-made global warming. Starting a discussion about greenhouse gases from this angle will often take you nowhere. But start the discussion from the point of view of the vulnerability of coastal plants to flooding and freakish weather conditions, and you are immediately in the territory of managing business risk, which is a natural vocabulary for the commercial community. And that natural vocabulary takes you to the same outcomes that the sustainability community wants — limiting use of resources, protecting communities, acting to prevent hazards of all kinds.

A short interview on this subject with Tom Burke, Environmental Policy Advisor to Rio Tinto, published by The Ethical Corp., makes stimulating reading. Note that Burke expects to see climate change as a growing issue, not just because of renewed political interest in the subject, but also because businesses will start to manage the risks associated with the threat. Note also the growing interest in tomorrow’s big challenge — water management.

Read the interview here: