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Is business the sustainable solution?
Categories: business

Eva Collins

The majority of existing businesses can still be characterised as having a compliance-based relationship with sustainability, but there are hopeful and interesting things happening.

Dr Eva Collins is Associate Professor in Strategy & Human Resource Management at the Waikato Management School. We talk about the tensions of traditional business models (e.g. continued growth) with the concepts of sustainability (e.g. limited natural resources) and explore creative solutions – can business be a solution to sustainability instead of the problem?

Talking points

There was a disconnect between human rights and corporate lobbyists, but it is harder to maintain that disconnect once you know people – past the stereotypes it’s a person with values and beliefs.

Business (in NZ) is often considered a necessary evil

Voluntary environmental programmes…have a role, but are not a replacement for regulation.

Government regulation sets the floor, voluntary environmental programmes are the stretch.

For the leaders it’s showing others what can be done, but you also need that floor, and in New Zealand it’s a very light floor.

I’m a believer that business can do more than just be the problem.

I checked out environmental books from the library, and this librarian said “what is an academic from the management school doing checking out environmental books?” That is absolutely the perception.

We’re seeing in the megatrends..shifting values and transparency. Businesses are now accountable for what their suppliers are doing.

I’m interested in the power of commerce to change these issues.

Part of my work is the incremental side, about business doing the small things. But then there are people who start a business, who are entrepreneurial to solve a social and or environmental problem – I’m very interested in that.

I take a strong sustainability perspective – bounded by the environment.

Self interest is OK if it is a starting point to get us to where you want.

Experience with Fishbanks (simulation game) shows that self interest rules the day until past the tipping point and can’t recover

If we rely solely on self-interest we won’t get to outcomes we’re looking for…government has to have a role

We would be rational, but we can’t because we don’t have all the costs.

People notoriously say that they’ll pay, but when it comes to it, they won’t.

All Good Bananas case study

There is a tension between traditional business model and sustainability: pressure to grow; return to shareholders paramount; short term focus. Absolutely tensions, this is the interesting part for me.

Also how to bring in longer term views, indigenous perspectives, biomimicry…
Biomimicry is a good example – there’s no such thing as waste in nature. We see some companies exploring that – Interface carpets.

Looking at tensions and pressures in business models – circular economy, sharing economy – these things are not threats, rather, different ways of doing business – which is a threat if you don’t want to change.

The notion of the sustainable practitioner in business is highly contested. A values led organisation, long term focus, circular business model, adds to social fabric. Hopefully the workplace infects its individuals. But this is two way, people who have those values bring it – work can help spread those values.

It might not be what you do, but how you do it.

We don’t have enough planets to support the “sell more stuff” in a take/make/waste model, so stuff needs to be made better and last longer.

90% of what we buy is thrown away in six months – this is a huge scope for business opportunity to change from take/make/waste model

We might be getting away with it now, but we won’t be getting away with it for very long.

There is a huge scope for business to be be successful if they look at different ways of doing business, and I believe that change is going to be forced upon them.

We’ve looked at planetary boundaries from a New Zealand perspective. Water, biodiversity and climate change are the top three boundaries for New Zealand.

Businesses have not historically thought about the pricing of environmental services, and the planetary boundaries starts to put it in a language where it makes sense to business.

It changes the language, it changes the mindset.

Self interest might be the starting point but I’m OK with that if it gets us to where we need to go.

Equitable access to water is going to impact businesses and cities. This is just getting on people’s radar. Even in the Waikato, water is going to be fully allocated in the next five years.

There’s no denying that many of the problems are from business. I think though that individual consumers have a role and responsibility, I think that governments have a role and responsibility. But I do think that business has the reach and resources that government no longer has, and increasingly the motivation to do something about these issues.

In this country in particular, business is considered a necessary evil, and that positive aspects of the business are weighted heavily.

Increasingly entrepreneurs, particularly on the social side, but also environmental, saw an issue and wanted to use business to solve that issue. This has the potential to be much more impactful.

New Zealand businesses are much more engaged in social initiatives and that makes sense because they are small businesses embedded in their community – so socially proactive, environmentally compliant.

The majority of existing businesses can still be characterised as having a compliance-based relationship with sustainability, but there are hopeful and interesting things happening.

We have students do a personal sustainability audit, they find that transformational.

Future business leaders are our hope for the future.

(Activist?) Yes, I how in how I teach. I am an activist teacher because I want certain outcomes and I’ll pay attention to how I teach to get those outcomes.

We have learning objectives for them to help change the world. That’s how high a bar I set.

I don’t tell students that there’s only one way, there’s space for different voices – thinking critically is what we are supposed to be teaching them to do.

I tell students what my bias is, then I try to present both sides. I’ve had complaints that I give too much credence to the other side.

(Motivation?) Nature is the source of my inspiration.

(Challenges?) Short-term thinking. I want more change from that, quicker. You can’t discount incremental thinking, but I have less and less time for it.

(Miracle?) More of a global shift, quicker.

(Advice?) It’s worth going out there and getting engaged. Even when you get frustrated about the pace of change, it is still inspirational to get out there. Whether it’s the social or environmental side, there’s still lots to be done.

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