It has been a sobering few weeks for the green business movement with a raft of reports revealing the gaping chasm that currently lies between the environmental rhetoric of business and, more pertinently, political leaders and the action they are actually taking.
Last week may have ended well for the government's climate change strategy with European leaders agreeing to new targets for reducing carbon emissions and building renewable energy capacity, but it started badly when an independent audit commissioned by the Channel 4 documentary Dispatches concluded that a combination of lax regulations, weak policing and optimistic government projections meant that the UK was set to fall well short of its target of reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2020.
It was followed by a report from the government's own environmental watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission, which found that while the government has been happy to lecture businesses on the need for environmentally sustainable behaviour its own civil servants have largely failed to embrace green practices. The report revealed that many departments were guilty of not keeping the most simple environmental performance data and concluded that the government is unlikely to meet targets to reduce carbon emissions by 12.5 percent by 2010.
It was hard to argue with Commission Chairman Jonathon Porritt's conclusion that the government's performance was "simply not good enough".
Two further surveys from the Labour Research Department (LRD) and j2 Global Communications only added to the sense that green business models are very much the exception rather than the norm, revealing that a majority of workplaces do not have even basic green initiatives such as recycling or energy efficiency programmes in place.
What is particularly discouraging about these various reports is that with the exception of the Dispatches study they are assessing the adoption of relatively simple, low investment green measures.
The revelation from the LRD survey that only one in five organisations had comprehensive recycling schemes in place, while just 11 percent had an energy efficiency programme, is staggering given that you could probably claim to have such an initiative by simply drawing up a policy and giving someone responsibility for policing it.
You also have to ask why Whitehall is set to miss its carbon emission reduction targets when the civil service is meant to being streamlined over the next few years? Or how the level of waste the government produces is rising when relatively simple changes in procurment and recycling could reverse the trend? Furthermore, it is a disgrace that at the same time as ministers are trumpeting the government's environmental credentials some of their key departments are not even keeping records on the amount of waste they produce and the carbon emissions associated with civil servants' travel.
It is difficult not to look at these reports and conclude that if we can't make progress through the green business foothills of recycling programmes and PC turn off campaigns what chance do we have when we start to embark on the Himalayan task of major transformational projects?
The key question is why - given several years of political and business leaders claiming they regard environmental sustainability as criticially important - are so many organisations making such slow progress?
The answer lies in the fact that for many businesses and public sector organisations environmental considerations are simply not core to the business. Sure, they are growing in importance, but they are rarely a top priority.
In the private sector performance is measured first and foremost on profits and sales, while in the public sector efficiency and service quality continue to dominate managers' thinking. Environmental considerations, if they appear at all, are way down the list.
Even in areas where there is a clear business case for action, like improving energy efficiency, it is hard to make a case for investments when any savings account for such a small proportion of the overall budget. A multinational bank or a Whitehall department may be able to save millions through a properly run energy efficiency programme, but it is loose change compared to their multi-billion pound budgets.
There are echoes here of the problems found in that other great non-core corporate silo, the IT department.
For years executives have bemoaned the high proportion of IT projects that fail, while completely failing to address the fact that IT departments are frequently ostracised from the rest of the business, lack a presence on the board, and are treated as a cost centre rather than a means of driving efficiency. What's more, IT departments spend much of their time being told by management to deliver on set targets without executives necessarily understanding the initiatives and investments that are required to achieve those goals.
It is the exact same scenario experienced by many environmental or CSR managers, where they are instructed to deliver green initiatives but are frequently not given the senior management backing, corporate influence and financial resources to make them work.
So how do you tackle this problem of an essential part of the business being pushed to the managerial periphery - as has happened with IT departments for years and is clearly now happening with environmental initiatives in Whitehall and many other organisations?
The answer is leadership. Not in the lead by example sense of the word - although it would be nice if the European Commissioner would give up his SUV or Tony Blair would limit his jet setting - but in the managerial sense.
Just as the best IT departments tend to be found at businesses where the top execs treat them as a core component of the business, the companies with the most mature green initiatives are those where the board has explicitly decided that environmental initiatives are central to their operations.
Once the environment is deemed a top corporate priority all the management structures and incentive programmes should shift to reflect the new found importance of green initiatives. Projects that may not have made sense to execs from a purely financial perspective will begin to make sense if those execs know the board wants to see them and they will be rewarded accordingly.
Currently, this is a pretty rare occurrence. I recently attended a press conference at the Office of Government Commerce, where assorted civil servants unveiled the latest strategy for government procurement. The entire strategy was dominated by the concept of value for money, with value for the environment barely warranting a mention.
You could hardly blame the civil servants as their performance was clearly being gauged on their ability to find a bargain. They were in danger of getting fired if they procured products they could have got far cheaper somewhere else, but it is hard to imagine anyone getting fired for buying a product that polluted more than another.
Had the civil servants been told they were being measured equally on value for money and ability to deliver carbon savings the whole strategy would have looked very different.
Jonathon Porritt, chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, highlighted this discrepancy between the government's claim that it is committed to driving down carbon emissions and the priority given to emissions within Whitehall when he said the government "must ratchet up responsibility [for green initiatives] to the most senior level," adding that "it's time Permanent Secretaries were held accountable for meeting these targets".
He's absolutely right – no government targets on emissions are going to be met until senior managers with the ability to make wide-reaching decisions are held accountable for them.
The message from this week's various reports is stark: if organisations in both the public and private sector wish to undertake successful green initiatives they can not be treated as a nice little CSR add-on to the rest of the business. They have to be embedded into the business with incentives, management reporting lines and even disciplinary procedures worthy of their status as a top corporate priority.
Unless business and political leaders back up their green rhetoric with such changes to organisational structure we are doomed to read far more reports in the coming years detailing the failure of green initiatives.
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