As a Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability professional I couldn’t not respond to the UK’s shiny new 25 year Environment Plan this month, which sets out how the UK will tackle the crisis facing our natural world. There are welcome, lofty aspirations to end plastic waste, create new habitats for endangered species, deliver a ‘green Brexit’, create nature-friendly schools and lead the way for other nations to tackle environmental destruction.
However, as other commentators have rightly noted, there are a number of key concerns around timescales (not ambitious enough), policy (a lack of), financing (ambiguous at best) and some glaring omissions/contradictions (e.g. the Government’s position on fracking). At the same time, I believe it’s another positive marker that builds on the vision that began to take shape in the Clean Growth and Industrial strategies published in the Autumn – it is up to business now to embrace the principles set out and to collaborate with Government and Civil Society to make it happen. After all, this is about future-proofing the economy by safeguarding the environment, significantly improving resource efficiency and transforming productivity. What’s not to like? The welcome news this week of the automotive sector deal – agreed under the objectives of the Industrial Strategy – to drive low-carbon mobility in the UK suggests the Government is serious.
Business would also do well to take note of some of the key themes and talking points both within the Plan and around its launch. The Government has significantly changed its stance on the environment since the election last year when it notoriously failed to attract the young vote. The very fact that Theresa May herself chose her first major speech this year to launch the enhanced plan is notable. Clearly the penny has dropped and the Conservatives have realised that the electorate (or the Government’s customer) – and especially the younger voter – is increasingly concerned about and affected by these issues.
With plastic waste quickly rising up the public agenda – thanks in no small part to Blue Planet 2 beaming the devastating effects of our addiction to throwaway packaging into millions of homes – it was no surprise that this issue stole the headlines, with the Prime Minister describing plastic waste as ‘one of the great environmental scourges of our time’. And it is both heartening and impressive to see the bold ambitions of first mover Iceland (the supermarket chain) which chose this week to announce its intention to be plastic free in its own-label products by 2023. This is a great example of a business using the principles of the plan but going further and faster. For the high profile businesses which committed recently to all-recyclable packaging in the future (but including plastics in the mix) to great fanfare, must now question whether this is enough. What this illustrates is that expectations regarding issues such as this are shifting very rapidly. Businesses without a resource strategy that embraces circular thinking and the principles of the waste hierarchy, and without a public position and ambitious commitments in this area, are risking customers voting with their feet.
I am also delighted to see natural capital as a central concept in the Plan, seeking as it does throughout to enhance the air, water, soil and ecosystems that support life. Finally, our lawmakers have positioned this as an essential basis for economic growth and productivity over the long term. Clearly the Government will need the right mix of public and private financing for projects that protect and enhance natural assets in order to deliver the Plan, as well as the right market mechanisms, policies and incentives for business. Even though much of this is unclear at present, the opportunity is there for business to engage.
Companies would also do well to use this as new impetus to build natural capital accounting – an approach that captures the value of natural capital – into their business strategy and decision-making, as part of a multi-capital approach to business. This context-based approach recognises and accounts for everything that affects the social bottom line (human, social and relationship, and constructed capitals), the economic bottom line (internal and external economic capitals) and the environmental bottom line (natural capital). This is something we at Simply Sustainable are increasingly encouraging our clients towards, using the principles and blueprints developed by the good folk at Reporting 3.0, a next generation sustainability strategy and reporting platform in which the multi-capital approach sits at the heart.
My view therefore is that, despite the valid concerns, the Plan is another step in the right direction.
It sends out some important messages for business, which must now take heed. Furthermore, companies must engage with the Plan and work with each other, Government and Civil Society to drive action and more robust standards in the priorities that the Plan sets out. This is not just about safeguarding our environment but future-proofing our economy.