Most businesses, organisations and governments agree that there is an impending crisis we have created for ourselves vis-a-vis environmental degradation. This is a problem of enormous proportions and everyone intuitively understands the need for sustainable business practices. There! The first step has been taken, and we have successfully recognised the problem. Yet, taking substantial proactive steps to remedy the situation have for decades, proven to be a Herculean task.
Among those in the know-how of structuring and running businesses, there is seemingly a sense of resignation as they have come to terms with the fact that sustainability is a romantic, far-reaching idea that ultimately betrays reality. Why is it though, that sustainability is often such a pipe dream? This conundrum is especially befuddling as even entrepreneurs who are only concerned about their business and not the fate of the planet understand that the viability of their business itself depends on the resources a healthy ecosystem can offer—fresh water, clean air and productive land.
The answer to this puzzle perhaps lies in two simple phenomena: a) our deep-rooted belief that what we see around us in nature is waiting to be claimed by us and b) our undying propensity to prioritise profit over everything else. The second aspect is particularly crucial as often what benefits the balance sheets is directly in conflict with the interests of our planet. It is this delicate issue that hampers sustainability, which is a 360° process and demands that we redesign our businesses at every stage. From the products we use and consume, to the processes we follow, the style of our functioning and even aspects like hiring and man-hours, all of these would need to change. This means that there is a great deal of cost involved, and the demand for these changes is minimal.
That there isn’t a demand for eco-friendly products and practices is due to another daunting vicious circle. Often, individuals, entities and small businesses do not know about the magnitude of problems we cause our environment when we flood the market with products that offer value for money in the short term. This issue centered around the economy of scale is a poignant one for, as long as we keep getting better and fancier products at lower prices, barely anyone would be interested in a sustainable product that may even be of slightly lesser quality. Case in point: When we can import high-quality, pristine paper at cheaper rates, why bother recycling paper? Yes, studies have shown that one region in India can generate enough pulp from recycled paper to satisfy a large proportion of the country’s needs. Yes, the thick, crisp paper we often lust for comes to us at the cost of a tree! Yet, these two facts seldom change the outcome as economics takes over. Perhaps it is time we pay heed to studies that concluded that recycling one tonne of waste paper can help save 60% of coal, 43% energy and 70% water that is used in the making of paper from wood. Especially when it has been estimated that the demand for paper by 2025 would be close to 2.5 crore metric tons, sustainability is no longer one of the options. It is the only option.
However, as always, there is room for hope. Individuals and companies foraying towards sustainability need not feel disheartened as, gradually, more and more routes are opening towards this goal. Maintaining a positive attitude and having an open mind is crucial. Like the greatest thinkers say, looking inwards and making a start by remodelling internal processes could be a massive step towards the goal. These could include steps like adhering to ethical practices in business operations, striving for transparency in one’s dealings and small things like keeping one’s promises. It is also pertinent to note that sustainability is a massive umbrella and houses several concepts such as compassion, employee care, gender sensitivity and diversity. It is when we think about these things that we realise that, daunting as the challenge is, there are solid grounds for optimism as there has also been a growing consensus among policymakers and members of academia that this problem needs immediate attention.
There are few businesses that function on the passion of a few individuals who are keen to make a difference to our planet. What is also encouraging is that the current generation has a lot of clarity when it comes to social causes like this. Millennials know that they have inherited an unhealthy world, and they are intent on fixing it. In addition, social media influencers and bloggers have been doing their part in spreading ideas such as zero wastage, receding carbon footprint, green and sustainable products. At the very least, their contribution has been the fact these terms and concepts are now commonplace.
In a country like India, along with trusting our youth, it might even be fruitful to look at our cultural heritage as sustainable practices were intrinsic to us. From Mahatma Gandhi to our own Mothers who carry sustainable practices in our household, have always valued compassion over consumption. It is for this reason that ‘Vocal for Local’, might not actually be a pipe dream after all. As a matter of fact, if a large group of people take small steps together, progress is inevitable. Small steps also have a tendency to follow the domino effect as gentle nudges can over time, transform society. The next step—helping ‘Mother Nature’ heal.