Business needs to communicate sustainability better

Companies that have embraced sustainable practices also tend to be better performers

Canadian businesses must learn how to better communicate their progress in sustainable development, according to Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation in the University of Waterloo’s faculty of environment.

Feltmate was in Winnipeg November 19 to deliver his keynote address, “Emerging sustainable development challenges and drivers,” at the Manitoba Environmental Industries Association’s annual Emerging Issues Conference.

Feltmate’s audience included local entrepreneurs and innovators drawn to topics covering current legislation and regulations, waste management, water quality and climate change at the day-long conference.

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The MEIA, a non-profit organization committed “to connecting business, government and interested stakeholders with environmental issues and opportunities,” promotes innovation across industries related to the environment.

Feltmate emphasized that climate change is a reality driven by human actions, and that businesses need to alter their practices to offset risk.

“We need to adapt to this reality — work to lower GHG emissions and adapt to the new norm of extreme weather. What can we expect going forward?” he asked.

“An organization that’s committed to sustainable development has to be thinking about best practices environmentally, economically and socially,” he said.

One reason why companies should care about sustainable development is that it makes good business sense, he said. Companies that are top practitioners in sustainable development outperform those that are not in terms of share point performance. “Our data shows categorically that sustainable development applied to business is good and smart business, period,” he said.

But a major challenge facing every industry engaged in sustainable development practices is getting the word out. Organizations that are sustainable development practitioners have to be recognized, said Feltmate. In order to achieve recognition, companies must actively engage the media, participate in forums and symposia on sustainable development, and be proactive in addressing environmental, social and economic challenges.

“With the evolving focus of the media, corporate practitioners have to engage with the media. It is 10,000 times more powerful when a story comes out pointing to you as a sustainable development practitioner than if you take out an ad saying how good you are,” he said.

Difficult conversations should be tackled head on instead of avoided, and all potential solutions brought to the table for objective evaluation and discussion.

“A great limitation to advancing sustainability is preconceived views of an area as being all ‘good’ or all ‘bad,’” said Feltmate. “We need to discuss issues like GMOs objectively to assess if they’re the best tools available.”

Challenges for agriculture

In an interview, Feltmate said that agricultural producers are not exempt from these challenges and that local food may become a necessity rather than a fad.

“If you look at the degree to which agricultural supply is being impacted by droughts in California, and I think something like 30 per cent of our food comes from California, what is it we can do such that we’re less dependent on foreign markets and more self-sustaining?”

Producers need to recognize the realities posed by climate change — such as extreme weather events — and work to ensure that we can continue to produce crops under difficult conditions.

“Very often when you talk to farmers they say, ‘We’re used to bad weather. We know what bad weather is.’ And they do know what it is, but they don’t know what it is under the new regime of climate change, how extreme it is,” he said. Rare phenomena such as droughts and flooding will become increasingly more common. “If you assume that going forward you’re going to encounter the same extremes of weather that you did in the past, it’s almost like driving looking in the rear-view mirror.”

Feltmate agreed that producers are often ahead of the curve in mitigating the effects of climate change, by increasing carbon sequestration through zero till, for example, but said the agricultural community must learn to communicate that progress to Canadians.

Part of that communication involves inventing a new language that everyone can understand. “When you say ‘zero till,’ 99 per cent of Canadians have no idea what that means,” he said. “In the ag sector what they need to do is pick two or three actions they’re engaged in to decrease the carbon footprint or lower GHG emissions and come up with a visual for each one of those that can be described in 45 seconds or less.

“If they can’t do that they’re not going to communicate their message.”

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