Environmental sustainability: a basic pillar
We use the term “sustainability” to indicate an equilibrium that can be maintained over time and in which we are able to make the best use of the resources we have. We can analyze it under three fundamental aspects: environmental, social, and economic. Naturally, these three pillars are closely related to each other in an interdependent connection, one where their coexistence is essential and without which the individual aspects could not develop properly and sustainably.
Among these, environmental sustainability consists of an ongoing commitment to interacting responsibly with the environment and implementing a range of strategies that can improve the present condition but also ensure continuity for future generations. According to award-winning economist Herman Daly, three conditions must occur for human society to be considered sustainable:
- The rate at which renewable resources are used must not exceed the rate at which they regenerate.
- The rate at which non-renewable resources are used must not be greater than the rate at which the corresponding renewable substitutes can be used.
- The emission of pollution and waste must not be greater than the rate at which the environment can absorb them, assimilate them, and render them harmless.
Closely related to the concept of environmental sustainability is that of circular economy, “a model of production and consumption that involves sharing, lending, reusing, repairing, reconditioning, and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible,” as defined by the European Parliament. It is a type of economy, then, that has the potential to persist forever and with infinite resources, working, as the name implies, by cycles.
And that is precisely the concept behind environmental sustainability: reducing waste and making sure that every object and product in circulation is used to its fullest and best capacity. But to do this, it is not enough to recycle: it is necessary to implement a profound mindset change both as individuals and as a community.
Companies’ commitment to sustainability
Today, more and more companies are deciding to join programs that promote environmental sustainability, as a result of the demands coming from citizens and consequently from the media and public institutions.
The sustainability of companies is first and foremost about reducing the impact they cause on the environment in terms of energy, thus optimizing and saving as well as utilizing alternative energy sources, as well as the consequences of the production of waste and scrap from industrial activity.
Optimizing the management of incoming energy flows and consumption and outgoing waste requires a rationalization of the management of these processes within the enterprise so that significant goals can be achieved in this regard.
An advantage for companies
It may seem obvious, but becoming part of a system marked by eco-sustainable choices is not easy and immediate, especially for companies. They must review their internal organization, updating and adding standards and practices that are necessary to embark on such a path. But even before they can do this, there must be an initial change on the part of companies: greater awareness and sensitivity to these issues is the basis for greater involvement and better success in meeting goals established for these purposes.
Businesses that decide to enter this world may therefore feel underachieved and disoriented, not knowing exactly what strategy to put in place to adapt to a market that is increasingly geared toward green choices. In addition, another obstacle might just be the lack of sufficient resources they can deploy to actually implement sustainable strategies.
However, in this day and age, it is almost necessary for a company to embark on a path toward environmental sustainability, and not only that, as not doing so could pose serious risks in terms of credibility, value creation, and lasting relationships with consumers. It is crucial for a company to understand the needs of the market and keep up with them, or else risk falling into oblivion.
Planning for sustainability
The first step a company takes is to create an action plan through which it can communicate to stakeholders its strategy, goals, and all that is needed for their realization in an optimal timeframe.
An internal company analysis must be conducted in order to define the mission to be put into practice, depending on the time period and the sector. This should be followed by an external market analysis in order to analyze the current trends and the regulatory environment. The second phase is the actual strategy phase, where a concrete plan is outlined in line with the goals they have set. The constant involvement of committed members is essential in this phase. The last is the implementation phase, where a series of actions are put in place. Again, it is very important that everyone believes in the values they want to spread, so that a sense of sincerity and social credibility can be conveyed to consumers.
Institutions and sustainability
The issues inherent in environmental sustainability also concern public and private institutions, the former being guarantors of the sector’s legislative processes and enforcement, and the latter as custodians of environmental culture, acting as civic intermediaries with the media in order to disseminate the values and the innovation of such ecological approaches.
Public entities are in charge of calling for and promoting specific studies to serve as a basis for the legislature, with the aim of producing current and technically consistent standards and codes to support the development of whatever initiatives fall within the scope of improved environmental performance by legal entities. In addition, public agencies are responsible for granting permits for sustainability-oriented activities and the related monitoring of the implementation and execution phases of these activities.
Private entities, having the promotion and development of environmental initiatives in their corporate purpose, act partly as cultural vehicles of related values and partly as mediators and civic controllers, with the means for sharing information and for the proper implementation of public and private projects.
There are five common certifications that a company can obtain:
- ISO 14001 Certification: is applicable to any public or private organization; it establishes the requirements of an Environmental Management System, which allows monitoring of environmental impacts and implementation of performance improvement policies.
- EMAS certification: The Eco Management and Audit Scheme is an internationally recognized certification whose achievement allows the company to be listed among the most responsible organizations.
- ISO 50001 Certification: defines the management requirements for energy and allows for the implementation of policies for energy improvement and cost reduction.
- Ecolabel certification: a European environmental label that signifies environmentally preferable products and services and can serve to distinguish between competitors.
- Environmental footprint certification: demonstrates the company’s commitment to respecting the environment, the impact of its products and services, and the quality of the processes that it has adopted.
Limitations and perplexities
Of course, there are also negative aspects that are not immediately visible within some of the processes aimed at environmental sustainability.
For example, one of the most ambitious goals in the environmental field is the achievement of so-called “net zero emissions,” and the transition to achieve it is obviously fraught with difficulties and costs. Such an effort, however, implies a reorganization of the business model, and among these is the shift to greater digitization of its internal and distribution structure.
However, even such an operational structure involves energy consumption since the ease of digital communication increases the use of such tools: for example, sending a simple 1 Megabyte email emits about 19g. of CO2, in addition to the energy consumption of the PC and that of the servers involved in the traffic. It is clear that the company, if it really wants to make progress in terms of energy, must require its staff to use such tools moderately, in order to obtain an environmental benefit and not incur the opposite of the desired effect.
Also in the area of operations and logistics management, among other things, much attention must be paid to the means used to move goods and people. Here, too, there are contraindications to current trends. The growth of the use of electric cars does not take into account an important fact: for the same output, the electric vehicle pollutes more because the amount of fossil sources needed to produce the energy is greater, and the problem of battery waste at the end of its life has not yet been solved. So, the only advantage here is the lower concentration of pollutants in urban areas.