Sustainability. A word to the wise

Caroline Williams, Chief Executive, Norfolk Chamber of Commerce

The fact that language constantly evolves is obviously related to how society itself changes and develops. If there is one word that typifies, and links, these two strands it has to be ‘sustainability’. Only a few years ago the verb ‘to sustain’ was seldom used other than to mean lengthening or extending something, such as a discussion, and in a particular application, a musical note.  Or, in another context we spoke of having ‘sustained’ an injury.

By 2005 The World Conference on Social Development had not only embraced the concept of what we now know as ‘Sustainability’, but it had gone further in setting down some goals for it. They included ‘economic development, social development and environmental protection’. These three overlapping, but not mutually exclusive, areas have emerged as key factors in defining the concept of Sustainable Development as ‘local and global efforts for basic human needs without destroying or degrading the natural environment’.

In retrospect it’s probably true to say that, for a period at least, these goals and definitions were perceived, by some, as rather esoteric. Right now they’re anything but. They’ve retained their integrity as a means to protect the planet’s resources for the coming generations, but they’ve gained the commercial reality of being the catalysts for emergent technologies that drive innovation, competition and cost savings.

To put the relationship between commerce and conservation into sharp focus consider the profound and provocative question posed by ecological economist Herman Daly  when he asked, "What use is a sawmill without a forest?"

The reality is that successful companies are already embracing low carbon innovation and sustainable strategies knowing that they will deliver on the bottom line, and that they will affect the world for the better.

The issue is constantly high on our agenda at The Norfolk Chamber of Commerce which is why we’re hosting our now annual conference on Sustainability at The John Innes Centre on June 12th. The line-up of speakers, from national companies, reflects not just the significance of the event, but also the importance, and benefits, of the sustainable economy to today’s business world.

Here in Norfolk we have leading companies who are actively engaged in sustainable development, and it’s working for them. They are big thinking organisations who realise that demonstrable transition to a sustainable economy will contribute to economic recovery, create employment, protect resources and help make the UK increasingly competitive on the global stage.

Even now, the concept is referred to at times as ‘The New Economy’. It does take time for big ideas to be adopted. The Agricultural, and subsequent Industrial Revolutions were once ‘the new way’. The emergence of the ‘Digital Age’ was inevitably labelled as the ‘new era’. The realisation that we now have another direction to take, because failing to do so will endanger what we now understand as less than finite resources, is of course a huge shift in thinking. But the really big bit of thinking comes with seeing that ‘sustainability’ is both an environmental essential and business benefit. It will extend the life of our planet; it will extend the life of our commerce. ‘Lengthening and extending’ – not far away from that original definition then. Nor that other usage, because without this thinking our world, and our business world, will sustain injury.

So, a word to the wise. And whilst I’m referring to definitions you’ll find that the meaning of that phrase is that ‘you only have to hint something to wise people to get them to understand it’. Sustainability. Enough said?

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