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Barriers businesses face when adopting sustainability initiatives

Supplier: Mainpac
15 January, 2013

Continuously building new and improved infrastructure is very important for supporting strong economic security and societal well-being.

Unfortunately, the old way of thinking about infrastructure sustainability and project planning that only addresses the economic imperative doesn't cut it any more.

Now, given that the increasing population is causing skyrocketing property values, poor city services, rampant social inequity and environmental devastation, it's time to start thinking about embedding a culture of sustainability throughout infrastructure development and management processes.

If businesses were to adopt these practices, they could not only help achieve positive outcomes for society and the environment, but for their own organisation as well. The only hard part is getting business owners to overcome the following factors that are understood by the prevailing industry culture to be insurmountable barriers.

Too much focus on the short term

In general, the industry culture is very focused on short-term gains and results, which is one of the main reasons why many businesses hold back on accepting sustainability principles. Most managers are still driven mainly by the following:

1. Immediate profit. Like governments with their short-term electoral cycles, businesses also must deliver short-term outcomes to please shareholders. Because of this, they are less likely to look too far into the future to see the eventual benefits of adapting a more sustainable approach.

2. Contractual relationships. The culture of the industry is to develop short-term contractual relationships between financiers, developers, consultants and contractors whereby responsibilities and incentives are split. Without stronger connections and relationships, it's hard to commit to working with other industry players on a long-term solution.

3. High levels of competition. There is a strong view that adopting sustainability principles at the business level will create a disadvantage for one business while other businesses are operating at "business as usual". There is also a valid concern that clients and customers won't pay for improved sustainability performance.

Value is not cut and dry

It is hard to prove that certain sustainability practices directly translate into improved market value for businesses. There are plenty of causal links that can be made, but they are often ambiguous. Not only that, but an initiative that adds market value to one business may not do so for another depending on company ideals, strategy and methods of operation. Since sustainability drivers are unpredictable, it can be hard for businesses to make a solid plan and control the overall business environment. At present, there is no common language of sustainability for businesses, so developing a clear framework is difficult.

Traditional accounting practices

Traditional accounting practices hold the view that if something cannot be empirically measured, it is unimportant. This is the most fundamental obstacle to overcome simply because ecological, social and other intangible benefits of adopting sustainable practices cannot easily be measured.

In fact, trying to calculate these benefits with traditional accounting methods will consistently count against the sustainability actions that result in intangible benefits.

While there are some international tools and rating systems that can help businesses estimate the costs and benefits of sustainability actions, many conclusions could also come from properly mining their own business data — or their business intelligence. There are plenty of business intelligence tools available that can help organisations measure the costs and benefits of their actions, especially when it comes to improvements of their brand strength, ability to attract and retain employees, and the loyalty of customers.

While there are still plenty of hurdles, there are ways that sustainable business practices can benefit the business as well as society and the environment. In the long run, every business will have to end up adopting sustainability initiatives, so businesses that can figure out a way to do it now without undermining their bottom line will be ahead of the game.