Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Economic Growth with Social Benefits and a Clean Environment

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, May 11 / 15

Zack Gross

A relatively new job title in many educational institutions, corporations, government departments and even hospitals is “sustainability” officer or coordinator.  Manitoba sees itself as a leader in this regard, with competent, passionate people filling these positions in all three levels of government, on all major post-secondary campuses, and in large crown corporations, such as Manitoba Hydro and Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries.First of all, you might ask, what is sustainability?

The Three Pillars of Sustainability are the economy, society and the environment.  A generation ago, the World Commission on Environment & Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, authored a report called “Our Common Future,” stating that “sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is measured by looking at how “economic progress,” which we measure in growth, impacts on our society and our natural world, and how these factors interact.  Thus, we need economic growth to create jobs and wealth.  At the same time, we need to understand if and how that growth benefits all of our citizens, and what impact growth has on conserving our environment.  A lack of environmental sustainability in the impact of our economic growth would seem to have led to our challenges with climate change.  The lack of a social benefit when wealth is created is associated with concerns such as child labour.

The role of sustainability staff can be narrow or broad.  For some, it is a matter of figuring out how much energy (and money) is spent on lights or heating, and how to make that situation more efficient.  Another task might be introducing more recycled paper content into daily operations and getting people to cut back on printing every email or article they receive.  At the output end of the office process, staff would be encouraged to recycle used paper, possibly shredding anything confidential.

Another initiative might be to encourage staff members to take public transit, bicycle or walk to work and back.  There are workplaces that provide bus passes to staff who commit to taking public transit.  Some offices institute having a compost container available for organic materials left over from lunches, coffee grounds, tea bags, etc. and then deposit this in community, neighbourhood or personal composters.  Choosing green and safe products is also a consideration, as institutions and businesses consider the safety of staff, for instance in cleaning products, and the contribution of harsh chemicals to water and ground pollution.  To fight air pollution, anti-idling signs are prominent in many parking lots and entry-ways.

Moving along this continuum toward the social side, there are those who see sustainability as a way to not only support the environment but also to contribute toward poverty alleviation and the rights of children, women and marginalized groups.  Thus, sustainability also means using fair trade products from the Global South, and sourcing local products and services.  In Winnipeg, the Social Purchasing Portal offers a guide to what aboriginal, immigrant and economically marginalized communities can offer, from social enterprises to small business, from catering services to publishing firms.

The U.S.-based Atlantic Monthly magazine recently ran a story asking what chief sustainability officers do.  The article states that over the past decade, dozens of large American companies have created these positions yet continue to be implicated in natural and human-made disasters, such as the Rana textile factory collapse.  A challenge for such staff members is that often their job descriptions connect to policies that are internal to the administrative working of a company, for example using more efficient lighting.

Another challenge for some companies – although this is changing somewhat – is taking on the social and environmental challenges as they keep a close eye on the financial side of their operation.  Thus, doing the right thing is a lesser priority – saving money or bringing in a certain return is the priority.  The example used in the article is of a project that would have created much needed jobs in Haiti but financially was too risky for the external company involved.  The question there might be about who can step in, at the global level, to make the match work.  An example to study is how Cadbury’s has worked with West African cocoa and sugar farmers and the United Nations to bring in a line of fair trade certified Dairy Milk and other bars.

An institution in Manitoba told me that while they understood and supported fair trade, their main concern was bottom-line.  Of course, others who have taken the step (leap?) to fair trade products have said that good negotiating skills when dealing with suppliers can yield an acceptable price.  What the sustainability supporters talk about is “triple bottom line” – does your idea or operation take into account all three pillars:  economics, the social side and the environmental impact?

There is progress being made toward sustainable development, but there is also much to be done.  Taking a broader view than analyzing paper or energy use will lead to needed change in our world.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.

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