Embedding Sustainability

Government changes in the wake of Brexit to share responsibility for green issues across multiple departments echo a practice that has been promoted for years in the corporate world, says Tom Idle.

All change at Whitehall

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union triggered a series of changes at the heart of government. With David Cameron swiftly exiting his post, a new prime minister is in place. And the former home secretary Theresa May wasted no time in bringing about significant changes to the make-up of the top cabinet team, as well as switching out key ministerial posts. Central to this whirlwind of Whitehall activity was a decision to streamline government departments – a move that saw the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) scrapped.

What, no more DECC?

Yes, that’s right. And the move wasn’t without its critics in the hours and days that followed the announcement. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband described the abolishment of DECC as “just plain stupid”. “Climate not even mentioned in new department title. [It] matters because departments shape priorities, shape outcomes,” he wrote on Twitter.

Not all commentators decried the decision, which will see an expanded department – the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) – take on responsibility for energy and climate policy development.

What about DEFRA?

DEFRA stays and its remit – to safeguard the natural environment, and support the farming sector and rural economy – remains unchanged. Andrea Leadsom, one of the leave campaign’s most active advocates, takes on the role of environment secretary, replacing Liz Truss, who becomes justice secretary.

How do we know the abolishment of DECC will sideline sustainability issues?

We don’t. But the likes of Ed Davey, who served as Liberal Democrat secretary of state at DECC between 2012 and 2015, claim that downgrading the Whitehall status of climate change sends out all the wrong signals, particularly to businesses and investors in need of confidence to invest in a low-carbon future.

It won’t help that the government has previous form in sidelining environmental policies. Take waste, for example: one could argue that without a dedicated team focusing on building policy mechanisms to deal with waste, recycling and taking advantage of the benefits of a circular economy, the UK has faltered.

What’s the alternative view?

The optimists suggest that filtering issues, such as energy and climate change, through other government departments that potentially have bigger budgets is a sign of embedding sustainability thinking across the political landscape.

What does that mean?

Just as risks associated with raw material sourcing, security of supply and a changing climate will affect every function of a food business from HR and procurement to finance, sales and marketing, the same could be said about energy and climate policies and the rest of government.

Think of it this way: if an individual department fails to secure the correct policy framework that builds resilience into our energy infrastructure and plays a significant role in the global effort to curb damaging greenhouse gas emissions, all other departments – those responsible for creating jobs, maintaining healthcare or building homes – will not be able to function properly.

Or like this: by embedding the responsibility of dealing with sustainability issues – which touch upon so many aspects of society and business – across multiple departments, there is a better chance of successfully implementing effective policy.

Haven’t we heard the term ‘embedding sustainability’ before?

Yes, it is a concept promoted and developed by the likes of Chris Laszlo and Nadya Zhexembayeva (authors of “Embedded Sustainability: The Next Big Competitive Advantage”) and has been championed by businesses everywhere for decades now. The most famous examples include Unilever and its Sustainable Living Plan and Nestlé and its Creating Shared Value approach.

Guided by enlightened and progressive CEOs, like Paul Polman of Unilever, these businesses aim to inform their strategic decision-making through a lens of sustainability – understanding and assessing their environmental and social risks, and steering the business on a course that takes into account a need to protect the planet and its people, while turning a profit.

So it’s all about leadership, right?

You could say that. Without a vision from the top, embedding sustainability is really tough. With the UK Climate Change Act still very much in force and the global Paris agreement looming large, May’s move to shake up government departments is a bold one. Whether she will retrospectively be considered as a progressive leader, championing sustainability in a similar vein to the likes of Polman, remains to be seen.

Tom Idle is a journalist and content creator specialising in sustainable business storytelling.

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