In My Opinion: Chartered Management Institute Companion Robin Gourlay, Chairman of AWG, Urges Firms to Stress the Cash Benefits of Sustainable Development

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The world seems full of sceptical observers expressing doubts about the commitment of the corporate world to sustainable development. I find this odd when, for very good reasons, every large company proclaims its concern for the environment, its community-friendly policies and its charitable giving. To win and retain a licence to operate in today's business and public arenas, most firms recognise that they have to meet the concerns of their stakeholders in many areas not usually associated with commerce.

The problem is that too little attention is paid to the financial benefits of operating in a sustainable way. Companies seem reluctant to speak openly about the positive contribution that community and environmental initiatives can make to the bottom line.

This might be because there is much confusion about what sustainable development actually means. Often it is assumed to be based simply on altruism, focused only on environmental and social matters. This is quite wrong. In terms accepted by both government and industry, it is about the maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment while operating in ways that protect environmental and social systems.

I can illustrate this in action by taking the example of a piece of research and development carried out by Anglian Water, the water business of AWG, in collaboration with TXU Europe Power. Together, we have created a system that uses membrane filters to clean the final effluent from Peterborough's waste-water treatment works. This is fed into a nearby gas-fuelled power station and has saved about a million litres of fully treated drinking water, which would otherwise go up in steam--enough for 1,500 homes.

In economic terms, AWG benefits through the development of technology that can be sold throughout the world. We have contributed to profits by deferring the need for investment in new water resources. The reduced demand for water protects existing water resources and wildlife sites, while social benefits flow from the enhancement of the economic value of both businesses, protecting jobs and local suppliers.

In a more direct example, we're also developing technology that will allow us to cut our energy consumption, a major issue for Anglian Water. Not only is energy one of our largest costs, but the extensive work we have been doing on eco-foot printing shows it to be our biggest environmental impact too.

Reducing energy consumption clearly produces direct bottom-line benefits for the company, protects the environment from unnecessary pollution and saves precious resources. …