Of late, the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ have become an integral part of our parlance. Be it an exercise routine or a diet or the environment, prefixing
it with the word ‘sustainable’ adds a completely new dimension to them. That’s how profound the word has become! Sustainable choices are invading every space of life making ‘sustainability’ the new mantra! A mantra to swear by…a mantra to live by..! Having said that, what does sustainability mean? Does it always mean acceptable, dependable or reliable? No! Sometimes it also means maintainable, manageable and workable. And all the excitement today is about the second set of connotations.
From lifestyles to development and from resources to reporting everyone and everything seeks sustainability.
Before we delve into why sustainability has become so crucial today, it would be worthwhile to understand how sustainability has evolved over the years. It is claimed that the concept of sustainability was first spoken about after the advent of the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). The Industrial Revolution marked a key turning point in history. It influenced in some way, almost every aspect of daily life. It was characterised by rapid industrialisation starting with mechanized textiles spinning in the 1780s with high rates of growth in steam power and iron production occurring after 1800. Environment, Society and Governance (ESG) emerged as the three pillars of sustainability. Of this, it is the ‘E’ which is by far the most crucial. Environment is the biggest inheritance of the human race. We did nothing to create it, but do everything in our might to destroy it. It is true that prior to the industrial revolution, the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases were far below what the world was set to witness consequently. The graph below is self-explanatory and stands testament to this.
As alarming and terrifying these numbers already are, they are set to increase even more frighteningly in the coming years. Emissions touched over 40 billion tons in 2023 recording 1.1% increase over 2022. If emissions were a yardstick of the growth and progress of the human race, then we’ve done very well for ourselves over the last few centuries – progressed and grown enough to destroy our biggest ever inheritance! A few more decades and we’ll have nothing to show of our legacy!
Sadly this realization has dawned late. After decades of indiscriminate and brutal mutation of our environment, today we are extremely concerned about leaving carbon foot prints and earning carbon credits. Though this panic and haste to preserve and protect the environment may seem as love for the environment and the forthcoming generation – today it’s all a matter of survival for the present generation too. This is definitely an afterthought and a knee jerk response to nature’s retaliation manifesting through tsunamis, earthquakes, melting of glacial masses and other horrors unleashed which have wiped out masses of the world population.
Nevertheless, as the maxim goes, it’s better late than never. Damage control is definitely the need of the hour, but also equally important is devising sustainable means of conserving nature. For sustainable means, let’s go back to basics – let’s start at the very beginning – Love for the environment and love for everything that nature has bestowed on us. When you teach a child to love his home and family, let’s also inculcate in the same child love for his environment – to care for the flora and fauna that are around him, the rivers and lakes that give him water, the earth that grows his food. He will never learn the same when it’s only part of his books at school. Memorizing a few lines as part of the World Environment Day celebrations at school, seldom teaches a child love for the environment. He may be able to speak loftily about nature conservation, but never be able understand and imbibe the finer nuances of it. He needs to see it to believe it. Allow him to water the plants in his garden, walk his pet dog each day, teach him to switch off all lights and fans in his home when they are not serving a purpose, use water carefully, participate in all environment protection drives organized by his apartment association or his school, encourage him to plant saplings (and not just on ‘Plant a Tree day’), so on and so forth. A child, who grows up with these kinds of life lessons, will always be humane and care for nature and everything around him. He in turn is able to influence his peers thereby nurturing a generation which is naturally inclined to conserving and preserving the environment rather than being forced to do it as a measure of damage control to reduce carbon footprint.
And society is our extension, so expressive and inevitable. Having the inner space to accommodate and contain the society within is all that is needed to stay committed to it. When one believes that the society is only an extension of his own home and family, he would never do anything to its disadvantage. He would not want to throw paper bits/empty water bottles from his moving car onto the road or dump his garbage on the road or in front of his neighbor’s door. This simple realization can work wonders when applied consistently to everyone and everything. Once again, it’s just back to basics and having a keen civic sense. Let’s first achieve this, before we can talk about complex terminologies like upliftment of the society, social empowerment etc. Those are distant dreams when one barely knows who lives in the apartment next to him. And societal improvements can be brought about only through sustainable mass effort. Each one of us needs to feel the urge to contribute towards achieving it in whatever little ways possible. It cannot be left solely to corporates to achieve this as part of their corporate social responsibility goals. In a country like ours there’s far more to do and achieve than the 2% of cumulative profits of corporates that goes towards CSR contribution.
As professionals, it is we who need to have an acute sense of responsibility and commitment towards the environment and the society and so being, advise the corporates on ways and means of sustainable environment protection and social empowerment. Honestly, what happens today as part of environment protection is mostly compliance driven – driven by section 135 and Schedule VII of the Companies Act, 2013 and other Environment laws of the country. And this barely scratches the surface of caring for the environment in its true essence and spirit. To go above and beyond the requirement of the law, which goes way beyond exchanging and buying carbon credits, is sustainability in its ideal sense. This can be achieved only through governance and not compliance. There’s only so much that can be achieved through compliance. It’s like with the traffic lights – you stop when the light turns red, only because that’s the law of the land and you know there is a penalty if you don’t. How much of it do you actually imbibe? And voluntarily stop for a pedestrian or for another vehicle to pass by? It’s for this reason that no one applauds you for being merely compliant. That’s the bare minimum and toeing the line is hardly anything to be proud of. It’s the least that is expected.
In the same vein, it’s only when corporates go above and beyond compliance and progress towards effective governance, can they become sustainable. Devising sustainable objects, sustainable plans and policies and achieving sustainable progress through each of these. Yes, it is essential that they perform the routine compliance and follow the letter of the law. But actual growth and success can only come from looking beyond – by making effective governance the mantra and applying it consistently to everything, from the smallest element of detail to the biggest blueprint that they create.
This is barely the tip of the ice berg. Experts have thought deeply, spoken eloquently and written ad infinitum about sustainability and its three pillars – Environment, Society and Governance. And there is no denying that sustainability is the only constant hereon – there’s no ‘us’ without ‘them’. Now that there has been enough thinking, speaking and listening about it, it’s time that we really get cracking on the toughest part – the doing. Let’s start today, let’s start now. By making those small little changes that will revolutionize the cause of sustainability. It could be about choosing a little expensive but sustainable product for your home, or buying a gift for your friend’s birthday from an artist who works with sustainable gifting solutions rather than from a swanky store, or supporting the education of your house help’s child, choosing to walk to the nearby store each time rather than bringing out your fancy car, or even spending that extra lakh on a social cause though you have already met your CSR threshold! If you look around and look hard enough, you will find a zillion ways to contribute to sustainability. Let’s all hope to get there…slowly but surely.
Written By- Jayan K & Lekha Ashok