by David Capel

Sustaining sustainability

The sustainability debate is gaining greater momentum on an almost daily basis


How sustainable are we? That, in essence, is one of the most pressing questions of our times. In South Africa, and across the globe, moving towards sustainability entails a social challenge that encompasses several crucial domains, including international and national law, transport, urban planning and ethical consumerism, to name but a few.

Not too many decades ago, the word “sustainability” was unheard of. Used for the first time as relatively recently as 1972, today it is on everyone’s lips, as environmental degradation, climate change, population growth and overconsumption are the order of the day.

Gordon Brown, CEO of Alive2Green, organisers of one of the biggest events on the Green calendar – Sustainability Week, at the CSIR in Pretoria last month – says the event seeks to advance the Green Economy through the sharing of knowledge and experience across disciplines, sectors, and markets, actively looking to develop and accelerate sustainability-oriented project pipelines.

“This is a convergence of government officials, private sector investors, business operators, professionals, researchers, and NGOs under one roof to re-engage on key challenges and solutions, with the objective of having a catalytic effect on the Green Economy,” he says.

Sustainability Week, says Brown, essentially aims to provide a platform for the Green Economy and for stakeholders within it, and its principal objective is to bring together experts to share their experiences, their case studies, their perspectives with leading companies, practitioners, government departments and municipalities – “to catch up on or update one another on what the key issues are and then to discuss the solutions in each case.”

It’s by no means just about talking but, rather, about best practice, particularly in a sector such as this, which speaks so directly to change.

Brown says changing how we do things, by definition requires innovation. “It requires out of the box thinking, new solutions, new technology and new approaches. For example, architects are typically all about things that look beautiful, but now, in this context, it’s all about designed buildings that actually perform well, passively (without mechanical intervention) that are warm when it’s cold outside, and cool when it’s hot outside. If you achieve this through passive measures then it means that you need to spend less money and require less energy to cool the building or heat the building, as the case may be. “

Advancing the green economy

Sustainability Week, says Brown, is an event that seeks to consolidate and advance the green economy as a sector, through the creation of a single market place, the bringing together of buyers and sellers in that market place, and ultimately taking forward these ideas in the hope that this triggers and accelerates the number of projects entering the sustainability projects pipeline.

The event’s partnership with the City of Tshwane positions it strongly at government level and that, says Brown, “is where the rubber hits the tar, in terms of service delivery”.

One of the most important topics discussed at the event was water security, while energy security, the gas economy and climate change agreements and commitments were also top of the agenda.

Another major highlight of the event this year was the African Capital Cities and Sustainability Forum which is an event hosted by the Executive Mayor of the City of Tshwane Kgosientso Ramokgopa, and involves inviting mayors from African capital cities all over the continent to talk about the opportunities and responsibilities of capital cities in leading the way as far as sustainable initiatives and, indeed, sustainable cities are concerned.

The Forum sought to build on the foundation laid in 2015 to develop African cooperation to address the sustainability imperative arising from the current and numerous challenges African cities and urban areas face on a daily basis.

Population explosion

Recent reports suggest that Africa’s population will reach 2.4 billion by 2050 – so clearly the time to invest in the sustainable development of African cities is now.

According to the United Nations, more than half of global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa. Of the additional 2.4 billion people projected to be added to the global population in the next 35 years, 1.3 billion will be added in Africa (that’s four times the current population). This means that the continent will house approximately 25% of the global population by 2050.

“This projected growth may pose the greatest threat globally to climate change and other looming crises, as these future generations enter the economy needing food, water and energy, and generating waste. Changing the developmental paradigm of Africans now towards a circular green economy could therefore be regarded as the single most important endeavour in the world today,” says Brown.

“Significantly changing the social and environmental outlook of Africans also offers tremendous economic opportunities for innovators and early adopters, as the process of technological leap-frogging heralds in a true Green Economy. Our hope for Sustainability Week 2016 is to highlight the need to develop and accelerate the pipeline of sustainability-oriented projects and contribute to igniting a green revolution in Africa.

“It has never been more pertinent for businesses, thought-leaders, policy-makers, practitioners, producers and investors across Africa and beyond to re-evaluate their respective areas and the cause and effect of their actions.”

When it comes to food security, around 11 million South Africans are food insecure and it is estimated that a further 15 million in other Southern African countries (including Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana) also go to bed hungry.

This is being exacerbated by a number of factors including climate change, the current severe drought, water shortages in some regions and floods in others, as well as the 2008 global and current South African financial crisis, which is causing ever more poverty. As a result, food prices continue to increase and will spike further in the coming year.

This is according to Jeunesse Park, LLD Honoris Causa, facilitator of the Food Security Summit, another integral part of Sustainability Week.

“There are many concerns and challenges in feeding our growing and fast urbanising populations as climate changes and resources become increasingly scarce. More support and attention should be focused on better land and resource use, improving production and distribution,” says Park.

Responsible farming

At present only 3% of South African land is considered high potential. But there is hope, as Agro-ecology and more responsible farming provide many opportunities.

“More focus on bringing youth into farming and food production, since currently farming is only at around 10% of our employment, and more clever use of technology can introduce innovation and growth into the industry,” says Park.

With around 70% of the population under 30 years of age, Africa is the world’s youngest continent, and despite pockets of advancement in economic growth, there are many challenges facing the youth of the African continent – with poor education and unemployment being arguably the greatest among these while, more insidiously, unsustainable practices in many industries are threatening future resources and triggering problems the youth with inherit, such as climate change.

Courtney Gehle, a BSc Geography student at the University of Pretoria, co-founder and chairperson of the campus environmental society called The Greenline, who works with the university to improve the environmental sustainability of the campus as well as to educate students about important issues and opportunities in the sector, is an agent for sustainable change in South Africa – and nominee for the 2016 Eco-Youth Award in the Eco-Logic Awards.

She is also a champion of the Earth Day cause, observed each year on 22 April. Gehle is doing her part by leading The Greenline team in an Earth Day project to plant 50 trees at a Primary School in Mamelodi Township, in the City of Tshwane.

Gehle believes that the youth of South Africa are the future: “It is from our ranks that many of our sustainability and economic questions will be answered, and it is therefore our role to show an interest in our future and combat the challenges we face as the youth of today. When considering global trends it is clear that the Green Economy across South Africa, the continent and the world is set to explode with a wealth of opportunities, including entrepreneurship, innovation, advancement and job creation across all sectors working within the environmental sphere, and there is unlimited potential for success whilst not being limited by finite resources like other industries.”

But, she adds, to get this right, “we need to start with the basics. I therefore challenge each and every person in South Africa to do their part this Earth Day by participating in at least one initiative. Every little bit helps, and contributes to the larger cause – saving our planet for our children and future generations.”

Trevor Manuel

Former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel has also entered the sustainability debate in a big way.

Addressing the recent first ever Sustainable Brands Conference in Cape Town, he said that, since the adoption of the standards on the ‘triple bottom line’ by the United Nations in 2007, he had styled himself “as a bit of a cheerleader for the cause.”

He said the launch of a reporting system encapsulated in the phrase, “People, Planet, Profit”, that draws attention to the environment in which business is conducted was a huge step forward.

“This means that we continue to have a responsibility to ensure that the practice and metrics remain current and that each and every loophole is closed. We must also work hard to broaden the discussion and the ownership of the work and outputs and to create new frontiers where development checks itself. This is necessary, if only because resources are finite,” Manuel said.

He told the gathering he was struck by a recent report titled, “How to make Green Growth the new Normal,” which states that in 1900, the world used 35 exajoules of energy (the equivalent of the current annual electricity consumption of South Korea). By 2000, that had risen to 500 exajoules, and it could be 700 exajoules by 2030 – requiring about 3 000 additional 1 gigawatt power-stations (one GW can power about as many as I million US homes.)

“That is just one example of the 20-th century dynamic. As the global economy expanded almost 20-fold, resource requirements also expanded anywhere between 600 to 2 000 percent, depending on the resource. Even as demand for resources expanded, supply expanded even more,” he said.

The world, said Manuel, needed to check itself. “And people working in the particular field of data gathering and report-writing have an obligation to ensure that your ‘dance routines’ do not grow ritualistic and tired. In fact, you need to grow a bit impatient and ask tougher questions of yourselves operating in this sector. As the great economist, John Maynard Keynes argued at one time, ‘once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we’ve begun to change our civilisation.’ My plea is that we think about the mode of sustainability accounting differently and recognise that if the only achievement is a contest to see how many boxes a corporation can tick in a particular column, then the endeavour for sustainability would have floundered on the sharp pencil of the accountant”.

He said the challenge now was ‘to create a strong cadre of activists, some of whom would be required to wear a suit and even a tie in their day jobs, but live by the norms of activism.”


Manuel said people needed to “examine the rate of destruction of the eco-balances of our ocean, where the consequences of illegal and unrecorded overfishing wreak havoc, where plastic pollution is both visible from outer space and present in micro particles in the digestive tracts of the seafood we consume, where the extraction of biological materials for the production of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics destroys the necessary biodiversity and where the production of too much CO2 has changed the acidity of the water and resulted in much warmer waters and melting icebergs. Where does the calculus of ocean destruction start? And if you answer that it has to be with the artisanal fisher who removed too big a catch, I am afraid that the answer is incorrect.”

He said it was important to recognise that systemically there was the absence of enforceable controls, “and in the consequence, there is the destruction all around us. “

We must ignite a larger, more intense and much wider discussion as part of recalibrating the calculus of sustainability. We need to recast the tough questions such as who measures? Where do they start?

“What is the purpose of the measurement? And who cares enough to query? If sustainability merely means ticking the boxes to make the company that employs you look good, I am afraid that you are embarking on an exercise of global delusion, and we are allowing you to get away with it.”

Getting involved

Guy Bigwood, Group Sustainability Director of MCI, calls for more and more companies to get actively involved in sustainability. He says there is a difference between living one’s brand’s sustainability story and simply talking about it. “Launch your big sustainability challenge, define an enemy and involve your audience to get involved to fix it and then participate in its storytelling.

Rather than just presenting how your company is committed to Sustainable Development Goal No 13 and Climate Change for instance, partner with an NGO to train children to be climate ambassadors during your event while involving delegates to participate in activities and commit to climate action.

“When building your sustainable brand you cannot organise an event without thinking about how you are going to minimise its environmental impact, maximise its social legacy and optimise its economic effectiveness,” says Bigwood.

“Start by considering the attendees’ experience at your event, and consider all the key contact points where you can make your sustainability commitment real, tangible, and visible. For example:

Procure your food locally; make your menus healthier by reducing sugar and meat, and increase ingredients that stimulate positive brain activity; put your chef on stage to explain his efforts to increase wellbeing and sustainability

Choose eco-certified hotels and venues; design your event so that your participants can easily walk, bike and use public transport

Work with your designers and suppliers so all your branding, stage sets and booths are made from sustainable materials (delete the PVC) to be recycled

‘‘Story-do” your actions and results (with numbers) to all your partners, suppliers and delegates. Make it relevant to them, and then inspire them to make suggestions and get into the action”.

The role of small businesses

Another speaker at the Sustainable Brands Conference, Carla Higgs, said small businesses also had a significant role to play in the environmental protection arena.

“Despite their economic significance and critical role in job creation, when it comes to environmental management and their impact on the environment, the small business sector has been largely overlooked.

“When compared to their larger counterparts, smaller enterprises (in their individual capacity) may have a lesser environmental impact. However, collectively the large number of small businesses means that their environmental impact is substantial,” said North.

“Small business are typically unaware of their environmental impacts and do not know enough about environmental legislation to ensure that they are compliant.

“This lack of awareness is the most significant factor preventing the uptake of environmental management by small business. Other barriers include a lack of time as well as financial and human resources.

“This has implications for the broader environmental responsibility of larger corporations that outsource the supply of products and services to numerous small businesses. Contemporary corporate social responsibility frameworks necessitate that corporations account for the environmental and social performance of their suppliers and partners. Additionally, regulatory mechanisms such as extended producer responsibility encourage environmental responsibility throughout the product lifecycle.

“This trend of outsourcing, coupled with the corporate social responsibility agenda have caused corporations to function on a supply chain level and organisations are being held responsible for the environmental and social performance of their suppliers. This means that the environmental performance requirements of large corporations must move both up and down-stream in the supply chain. Indeed, the demand from larger corporations for environmentally responsible practices in their suppliers has been shown to be one of the primary drivers for the uptake of environmental responsibility in small business.”

“Common practice in this regard, is limited to screening and monitoring small business suppliers and contractors for compliance with minimum environmental requirements. Larger corporations are key because they play a much bigger role in the environmental responsibility of their supply chain. In doing so they will make a significantly positive contribution to environmentally sustainable development by negating the environmental damage caused collectively by their numerous small business suppliers. In addition to environmental compliance requirements, larger corporations can engage with their supply chain with capacity building strategies, contributing to suppliers’ awareness building and training on the corporation’s policy regarding environmental issues. They can also promote efficiency and synergy among small business in their supply chain, thereby enhancing environmental performance and minimising waste and emissions”.

When adopting this approach, says North, larger corporations must consider the distinctiveness of the small business sector. “Small businesses are subject to, and function differently to larger corporations and will differ in the resources available, strategies, drivers, managerial roles and values, level of involvement and stakeholder prioritisation.

This will impact on the way that small business perceive and practice environmental management. Corporate environmentally responsible frameworks that have developed for large corporations cannot simply be transferred to small business, and a tailored, consultative approach is necessary.”

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