16 May 2022

Understanding Sustainability

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It’s impossible to move through modern life without being confronted with the climate emergency happening all around us. Extreme and unprecedented weather is becoming the norm in many parts of the world.

 

This situation has left many individuals and businesses wondering how they can contribute to a better world and what actions they can take to limit their role in climate change.

 

What is sustainability?

This may seem like a moot question, given environmental sustainability has become the decade’s buzzword and appears on almost everything, from large corporations advertising to small scale business collateral. Sustainability is an extensive term under which different people and organisations cluster different types of activity. Still, broadly speaking, sustainability is this: actions that preserve the Earth’s natural balance.

 

What are sustainable practices?

There is no single definition for a sustainable practice or action. Sustainable practices can be any action that contributes to a more sustainable world. They can include small actions, from cycling to work or taking the bus rather than commuting in your private vehicle, to bigger ones like divesting your money from banks, super funds and investment portfolios that invest in fossil fuels.

 

When talking about sustainability, people often refer to the concept of a circular economy.

Circular economy principles are minimal production of new items and waste, with every item produced re-entering the manufacturing cycle at the end of its lifespan and becoming a new product. A circular economy is often held up as the goal for which all sustainable practices should be aiming.

 

Building a circular economy is an essential step toward environmental sustainability and underpins several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

 

What are the sustainable development goals?

The United Nations and its member states developed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The goals serve as a shared vision for a peaceful and prosperous world and are intended to improve health, education, end poverty, and reduce inequality while working towards an environmentally stable world.

 

While all the sustainable development goals are intended to work in harmony, supporting each other and providing footholds for each other, there are several directly linked to environmental sustainability:

 

Clean water and sanitation

Access to water is particularly relevant in drought-prone countries like Australia. Worldwide, two billion people lack safely managed drinking water.

 

Affordable and clean energy

Australia has substantial clean energy potential, thanks in particular to the large amounts of sunshine we get to enjoy almost year-round. Worldwide, 759 million people lack access to electricity.

 

Responsible consumption and production 

Across the globe, a significant waste issue is causing ongoing environmental problems. The global ‘material footprint’ increased by 70 per cent between 2000 and 2017, and in 2019 each individual generated on average 7.3kg of electronic waste, of which only 1.7kg per person was recycled.

 

Sustainable cities and communities

Public transport infrastructure is a big part of sustainable city living, and only half of the world’s population had convenient access to public transport in 2019. More than one billion people reside in slums around the globe, limiting their access to services significantly.

 

Climate action

Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise even as economies urgently need to shift towards carbon neutrality. In 2020 global average temperatures were at 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The other Sustainable Development Goals listed here will help move the world toward carbon neutrality and minimising the impacts of climate change.

 

Life below water

Ocean sustainability is threatened by pollution, warming, overfishing and acidification. This is not only an impending disaster for the oceans themselves, but over 3 billion people rely on the world’s oceans for their livelihoods.

 

Life on land 

One hundred million hectares of forest have been lost in the two decades between 2000 and 2020. Poor forest management is an ongoing problem, and a large number of animal species are threatened with extinction, among them our beloved koala.

 

Organisations and governments have a crucial role to play in realising these goals. No matter how small, each business can make changes that will help move these goals forward.

 

How to make a workplace more sustainable

 

Most people working in modern corporate settings spend most of their day either at work or working from home. Given how much time is spent in this environment and how many people are committed to living sustainable lives, it makes sense to concentrate sustainability efforts here. The scale of potential change is much larger in a work environment, and even small actions, like recycling scale dramatically due to the large amount of individuals they encompass.

 

The good news is that there are plenty of sustainable actions you and your business can start with today that will benefit the planet. If you’ve not thought about sustainability before, begin by thinking about your business’s impact on the world. Start with easy questions and answers like these:

 

  • Do you print significant amounts of paper daily? Change to recycled paper.
  • Do you use disposable coffee cups in the office? Move to reusables in the office; consider gifting your employees a reusable cup for their morning coffee break.
  • Does your business recycle appropriately? Contrary to popular belief, not everything can be thrown in the curbside recycling bin. Check that your recyclables aren’t ending up in landfills by turning to your local council.
  • Do you ship products? Start using a carbon neutral, or even better, carbon positive shipping provider, and invest in sustainable packaging like paper and cardboard rather than plastic or polystyrene.

 

While these actions have an immediate effect, that effect is minimal. There’s more businesses can do to support a cleaner, healthier environment. Once you’ve tackled the small stuff, ask yourself: what are sustainable practices that have bigger impact potential? Start here:

 

  • What kind of banking organisation looks after your money and any investments you might have? What is that money being invested into and does it align with your values?
  • What kind of contractors and other businesses do you work with? If you’re set on becoming a sustainable business, you need to ensure that all these elements align with your values.
  • Do you or your employees fly frequently? Consider whether a video call could take the place of a face to face meeting and avoid flying. Where unavoidable, offset the carbon produced by the flight through the airline directly or an independent offset program.
  • What’s for lunch? If you provide food for your employees on an ongoing basis or for conferences, lunch meetings or similar, consider providing plant-based food rather than meat options. Animal agriculture contributes to deforestation and emits significant amounts of methane. If you do choose meat options, opt for those from a sustainable farming business, ideally locally. Actions like these will increase your business’s food sustainability as locally grown food is more environmentally sustainable than food that has travelled by air, ship or train to reach its final destination.

 

Perhaps most importantly, for your business to become truly sustainable, you’ll have to reduce or altogether remove any reliance you might have on fossil fuels, as the burning of fossil fuels is the number one driver of climate change.

 

For the event industry, in particular, these are significant challenges. Attendees often have to fly to attend conferences, vendors may have to ship or fly materials in, and catering must cater to a wide variety of tastes. Options to reduce the carbon footprint of an event include making virtual tickets available, minimising the amount of meat used in catering and sourcing vendors and suppliers locally.

 

What is carbon neutrality?

 

Carbon neutrality is when the carbon emissions produced by an action are offset, for instance, in the form of carbon credits or other offset actions like tree planting or other regenerative work. Read more about the terminology used to discuss carbon neutrality, carbon positive and carbon negative in our recent article ‘Understanding the Climate Emergency’.

 

How do you become carbon neutral?

 

If you wish your business to become carbon neutral certified, you will need to reach out to the Department of Industry and go through the outlined process to prove that your business is carbon neutral. Depending on what kinds of clients and contractors your business deals with, having your carbon neutrality certified is an excellent way to prove your sustainability credentials and boost your credibility in this space.

 

The climate emergency is a huge and global challenge with complex solutions. No one organisation can turn the tide of climate change, but businesses do have a role to play in minimising harm and stopping the runaway acceleration of climate change.

 

The nature of the event industry may have to change in the face of this unprecedented threat, but if the last two years have shown anything, it’s that this sector is resilient. Events certainly have a role to play in inspiring and challenging existing beliefs and opening doors for innovation. ICMI’s speaker database includes many speakers well-versed in these topics, so get in touch before your next event to book the best and brightest sustainability speakers for your next event.

Browse all environment & climate change speakers Get in contact with us

 

 

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