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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

How do you know when you are a Sophisticated Sustainability Player?

BT came across an unanticipated conflict a couple of years back between components of our CSR approach. We had commissioned Forum for The Future to conduct a CSR assessment of the impact of our rollout of broadband. Against key dimensions of social sustainability (wellbeing, education, health, etc.) and economic sustainability (digital divide, level playing field for small and medium businesses, etc.) the impact ranged from neutral to positive. But, against the dimension of environmental sustainability they assessed the impact as neutral at best and pretty bad in some cases. This, because broadband had enabled, and to some extent encouraged, our customers to have a slew of equipment that they previously didn’t need and that was ‘always on’. Computers, routers, fancy phones, hubs and modems. You can see the report here.

There are mitigating factors that the report didn’t take into account such as the potential for ICT services to reduce carbon footprint at an order of magnitude significantly greater than the deficit from such services, but lets put those aside for the moment. The report identified an underlying tension between components of our sustainability agenda.

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with the SVP, Corporate Affairs for Cadbury Americas. There was a bowl of Cadbury chocolate on the table and as a Brit I couldn’t turn down the opportunity of a bite of genuine British made Cadbury chocolate. It was packaged in those dinky little one bite bars (well barely even a bite actually for someone with my appetite for chocolate!). Cadbury Americas has a commitment to a reduction of between 10 and 25% on packaging for different types of product. I asked my counterpart at Cadbury Americas why they didn’t stop making and packaging these smaller bars altogether. (I asked politely of course – they are a customer!). Well, I learned that it is because diet and consumer portion control are a significant component of Cadbury America’s approach to CSR. Hopefully the tension between these two sustainability issues is obvious to the reader. Small bars = good for portion control, larger bars = better for the environment.

Seems to me that it is a sign of a sophisticated approach to sustainability when a company has identified these conflicts and is prepared to discuss and address them internally and externally. Now we need to work out how we balance them correctly. I would be interested in hearing about other such conflicts between different sustainability priorities.

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