Bridging the Gap between Business and the Environment

Article excerpt

I doubt there are many challenges more complex or pervasive than that of reconciling human economic activity with the natural environment. As a first step, though, we need to acknowledge that the two poles can and indeed must be reconciled for the good of both. Sustaining economic well being over future generations requires the same care and stewardship as maintaining our biological well being.

To many, the idea of re-examining our use of natural resources poses a crisis because it calls into question basic assumptions about the relationship between humans and their world. Overturning the accepted way of doing things can be a daunting, even paralyzing, prospect. But no group is better equipped to accomplish that than the international business community, which has the resources to explore and develop the paths leading to a more sustainable future.

There are a number of specific actions business leaders can take to ensure the wise use of our planer's resources, including:

* Environmental risk management

Industry has a duty to ensure that its products are safely manufactured, handled, transported, used and disposed of without unacceptable risks for the environment.

* "True-cost" accounting

There is a growing sense that today's methods of economic analysis are incomplete. What are now called "external costs" - the costs imposed by environmental damage, for example - need to be internalized. Nature, of course, does not have a price, but we can develop fiscal incentives to encourage more efficient use of scarce resources and increase long-term economic performance around the globe.

* "Life cycle" assessment

Manufacturers should account for the environmental impacts of their products over the entire life cycles of those products - from extraction of resources and manufacture to use and disposal.

* Environmental auditing

To be accountable to the public and to the government, industries should have accurate and available information on the environmental performance of their construction contractors, plants, technologies, waste contractors, products, distribution systems, wholly owned and partly owned businesses and overseas agencies.

* Source reduction

Ideally, products manufactured by industry should either require no disposal at all or be completely recyclabIe. Barring that, industry should find ways to reduce both the quantity and toxicity of environmentally hazardous products and the waste generated by manufacturing.

* Disclosure of information

Successful companies in the 21st century will be those best able to secure public confidence. That means in part a progressive policy on the public release and scrutiny of environmental informa* tion. All too often, "commercial confidentiality" is used as a blanket excuse to arbitrarily limit release of information which belongs in the public domain. Open access to information should be the rule, with restrictions justified - not vice versa.

* Training

Companies must train their employees to become the environmental auditors, risk managers, source reducers who convert policy into ongoing daily action.

It is important to keep in mind that many of these actions are necessarily long-term efforts which involve issues that are currently unresolved-But perhaps more important than any single one of these actions is a change in the very philosophy of business. …