Reflections on eco-innovation as a theme in Australian business since 1989

The current issue (October 2014) of WME Environment Business Magazine carries a series of reflections covering the past 25 years of work on environment management and sustainable development in Australia. There is an excellent timeline which captures most of the major moments in the development of modern environmentalism in Australia, including key regulatory initiatives. One of the moments was the establishment of the Environment Management Industry Association of Australia, launched by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in May 1991, just moments before he was challenged by Treasurer Paul Keating for the leadership of the Labor Party and the Government. While the challenge was unsuccessful on that occasion, it did succeed in completely eclipsing for the purposes of media coverage the launch of a collaboration involving industry, government, research and education institutions and small business. EMIAA was a pioneer in multi-sectoral collaboration for achieving national interest, public good and pre-competitive business goals. Richard Collins’ piece in WME this month is repeated below. You can find the original here and also source other articles and the timeline.

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On the edge

At times over the past 25 years the environment has seemed to be a sunrise sector, but at others more like a sunset one. Richard Collins tracks the themes.

Language reveals a lot about an era, as do industry association names given they try so hard to evoke their mission in the title. So it is with Sustainable Business Australia, which was launched by former Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1991 as the Environment Management Industry Association.

Inaugural CEO John Cole was never a big fan of the name, but it was selected because the presiding vision was to create a body for environment professionals.

They were heady days, with the environment sector seen as a sunrise industry by the Hawke/Keating governments. Hawke launched WME.

In 2000 EMIAA rebranded as Environment Business Australia, reflecting a rise in business interest, risk and opportunity around environmental issues.

We’re lucky then-CEO Fiona Wain didn’t flirt with Corporate Social Responsibility Australia given all the talk at the time about social licence to operate. Current CEO Andrew Petersen today describes CSR as a “noble or not-for profit enterprise that was not necessarily part of the DNA of the business” – in other words, a sideline.

A decade later EBA became Sustainable Business Australia as the agenda evolved beyond a limited environment focus to a mission that includes fostering “new markets, new industries and new jobs”.

While that has definite echoes of the early years, the new conception is not of sustainability as mere cleantech industry but as a fundamental engine for economic growth.

“Increasingly the issue of environmental protection is seen as an opportunity to grow an economy rather than reduce the economic return, as it used to be perceived,” Petersen said.

“If you look at the economic policies of Wales, British Columbia, the Catalonia region, the state of California, a lot have been moving beyond the rhetoric and looking at the powerful lessons for developing a green economy.”

The rise of resilience

Cole, who is now head of the new Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland, argues the agenda has moved on yet further.

“Sustainability was the word of the 1990s and 2000s, the new word is resilience. That is partly because the word ‘sustainable’ became caught up in the toxicity of green politics,” he said.

“The rise of the Greens did not actually help the broader cause of sustainable development because it parked the issues on the moral high ground the Greens claimed for themselves and created a profile for conservatives to fire at.

“We’ve seen that with the carbon tax and climate change and even the word sustainability, which the Right [wing] do not like to use.”

Is this pure semantics, or does the language again matter? The precepts are broadly similar – collaboration, innovation, efficiency, agility, transparency – but they do speak of a different psychology.

Resilience is implicitly about risk management. Sustainability and resilience are perhaps crudely equivalent to the pairing of mitigation and adaptation, where one is about getting ahead of the risk curve and the other is building the capacity to survive it.

Petersen hasn’t given over sustainability for resilience, but he does talk risk.

“A lot of businesses, particularly publicly listed business, are increasingly building in the relevance of sustainability to the way in which they assess and appraise risk in the future, and therefore are beginning to remodel their financial operation to respond to that,” he said.

So while Australia moves against the global tide on carbon pricing, many large companies build a shadow carbon price into their deliberations, as do some governments overseas when considering policy settings.

It is also easy to take for granted developments such as the greening of the building sector, the step change in energy consumption in Australia and the sheer pace of technological development.

Still, Cole sees it as ultimately about social values and believes we’re half way through a multi-generation transition to a new paradigm. Petersen, on the other hand, contends “forward thinking businesses are beginning to say ‘we don’t care where our competitors are [on the journey], because they won’t be around in 20 years’.” Maybe it is about resilience after all.

WME October 2014 accessed at http://www.wme.com.au/categories/sustainable/october4_2014.php

Copyright © Aspermont Limited – courtesy of WME Magazine. All Rights Reserved

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