Sustainability is no longer seen as a marginal or indeed optional element of business strategy. On the contrary, it has in recent years established itself as a key route for any company towards viability and profitability in the medium and long terms.
Defined in Our Common Future as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Sustainable development first drew widespread attention in the United Nations report in 1987.
The report had to spell out what today sounds like common sense. But as Gro Harlem Brundtland, chair of the report commission, noted in the preface to that document, back then the idea of the ‘environment’ had a tendency to be treated ‘as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions and needs’ and carried, in consequence, ‘a connotation of naivety in some political circles’.
Today the opposite is the case: all agree that it is naive to overlook the environmental implications of any human action - and that includes within the domain of business development.
Companies that are seen and known to care about sustainability are, especially these days, more likely to enjoy higher brand status, than those out of kilter with emerging social trends. It’s a pivotal point of interest that has significant repercussions not just for client bases, but also for a company’s potential to attract and engage with both employees and investors.
It has become a question of social expectations: in short, that all businesses take at least reasonable care over issues such as avoidance of excessive energy use, reduction of waste material and meaningful carbon accounting. These expectations are here and there reflected in various penalties and incentives within governmental regulatory policy.
But sustainability in business is not just a case of doing right by the planet because we have to. It’s the understanding that environmentally sensitive practices, speaking as they do of a responsible use of materials and resources and of long, rather than short-term thinking, tend to imply healthier, more durable business structures.
Waste, after all, is not just an environmental problem. It’s also material loss.
Whether it’s lights left on in empty rooms, overordered inventory or empty warehouse space: all companies will recognise the ease with which resources can be paid for and then not used appropriately. Mindful planning alone can minimise the leakage of capital brought about by human miscalculation or negligence. Essentially, being vigilant is especially important in the manufacturing arena.
Example: In terms of efficiency margins, repair time and actual machine replacement, the levels of waste associated with malfunctioning machinery can be far-reaching; and regimes of preventative maintenance are now an unquestioned aspect of shrewd business management.
The problem of waste has stimulated much creative thinking in recent years. Some businesses have been inspired to simplify or streamline their product or packaging designs, using fewer or different raw materials, for example. The same thinking is reflected, particularly post-pandemic, in the trimming and localization of supply chains.
Others have sought ways to realise value in the waste they generate - such as the consumer goods manufacturers who sell organic waste to horticultural companies for use as compost. And the recovery of energy from organic waste - through technologies such as anaerobic digestion or gasification - is enabling certain producers of agricultural or industrial waste to become more energy independent, lowering their utility costs as well as their reliance on waste disposal and management services.
If the thinking that lies behind sustainable business strategy is sometimes prudent, sometimes innovative, it is on every level forward-focused. It is, in essence, the philosophy of investment now in order to create - and safeguard - future value.
It’s not always a straightforward sell. Shareholder culture, in particular, exerts considerable pressure on companies to realise short-term gains, sometimes to the detriment of long-term growth. But a steadily accumulating body of research suggests that companies who since the turn of the century have invested most carefully in long-term approaches are the strongest-performing today.
Back in 1987, Harlem Brundtland pointed out that the environment, far from being a ‘separate’ sphere, is, simply, ‘where we all live’. So too with the long run: tempting though it may be to regard it only in the abstract, the future is - immediately - where we are all going to live.
Sustainability in business is perhaps merely an awareness of knock-on effects, the kind - whether they be on the environment, on employees, on society, on our own future - that run the risk of undermining a company’s efforts at any one moment; and a marshalling of that awareness to pre-empt such fallout.
Sustainability thinking, of course, shares much territory with the work of the automation engineer. Whether it be in the form of a simple moving application that uses a variable speed drive to modify incoming electrical current, or that of an intelligent indoor farm that uses sensors to dispense light and water only as needed, the principles are the same: less waste, more efficiency.
Just like sustainability strategists, too, automation engineers pursue the unified vision: opened-up, reconciled systems in which machine work is interconnected and coordinated no less than a sustainable company’s suppliers or stakeholders.
It’s all the more fitting, then, that more and more businesses seeking enhanced sustainability in their ways of working - in everything from streamlined manufacturing operations to the digital rationalisation of office work - are benefiting directly from the fruits of automation.
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