The Role of Business in Sustainable Development; Professor David Brooksbank, Director of Enterprise at the Cardiff School of Management, Looks at the Difficulties of Sustainable Development

Article excerpt

Byline: David Brooksbank

WHILE business traditionally seeks precision and practicality as the basis for its planning efforts, sustainable development is a concept that is not amenable to simple and universal definition.

It is fluid, and changes over time in response to increased information and society's evolving priorities.

The role of business in contributing to sustainable development remains indefinite. While all businesses can make a contribution towards its attainment, the ability to make a difference varies by sector and size.

Some executives consider the principal objective of business to be making money. Others recognise a broader social role.

There is no consensus among business leaders as to the best balance between narrow self-interest and actions taken for the good of society. Companies continually face the need to trade off what they would 'like' to do and what they 'must' do in pursuit of financial survival.

Businesses also face trade-offs when dealing with the transition to sustainable practices. For example, a chemical company whose plant has excessive effluent discharges might decide to opt for a more effective treatment facility.

But should the company close the existing plant over the two or three-year construction period and risk losing market share? Or should it continue to run the polluting plant despite the cost of fines and adverse public relations? Which is the better course of action in terms of economy, social wellbeing and the environment? Moreover, many areas of sustainable development remain technically ambiguous, making it difficult to plan an effective course of action. For example, the forestry industry has had difficulty defining what constitutes sustainable forest management.

Some critics believe that simply replacing trees is not enough, because harvesting destroys the biodiversity of the forest.

Clearly, more research will be needed to resolve such technical issues.

From a broader perspective, however, it is clearly in the interest of business to operate within a healthy environment and economy.

It is equally plain that, on a global basis, growing and sustainable economies in the developing countries will provide the best opportunities for expanding markets.

To some, sustainable development and environmental stewardship are synonymous.

In the short term, sound environmental performance is probably a reasonable aim for most businesses, with sustainable development as a longer term goal.

However, this can lead to confusion.

In the developed world, the focus is on environmental management, while in developing countries, rapid and sustainable development is paramount.

The global economy is coming under growing pressure to pay for the restoration of damaged environments.

But this economic engine is being asked to help solve other pressing problems at the same time.

The challenge is to solve these problems in a sustainable manner, so as to generate continuing development. Despite ambiguities about definitions, there is now widespread support for such sustainable development principles within the business community. …