Sustainable thinking – just look up!

I’d like you to imagine this: you’re rolling through the Wessex countryside. In front of you the road stretches out for about half a mile – and it’s all uphill. Oh, and you’re on a pushbike.
The best piece of advice that I ever received for this situation is simple – just look at your front wheel, don’t look up – and keep peddling.
There . . . a typical day at the office.

If only it were that simple. Watching the front wheel is what most of us do most of the time. It gets us to the top of the hill and that’s all we care about. The problem is, you forget to look at the view and, if you’re really struggling, you also miss the potholes and . . . in extremis . . . the parked van in front of you (yes, that’s happened). Like it or not, it’s a good thing to look up, even if the distance to the summit makes your heart sink.


And now that I’ve done the typical Thought for the Day opening, let’s get to the meat of this. For most of the time, the daily business of business involves staring at the front wheel, whereas the really important thing to do is to keep an eye the horizon – because that tells us two things; what’s coming over the top towards us, and what opportunities might exist to avoid it.

This is really about the things that go on around the edges of business; things that we need to see early and negotiate accordingly.

In December: a legal case was launched against a clutch of tech companies; Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla have been accused of breaching the human rights of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The lawsuit accuses the companies of aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children who, it is claimed, were working in cobalt mines in their supply chain.

In December: Tesco halted production of Christmas cards after claims that forced labour was being used in a Chinese factory making them.

There are 45 million enslaved people around the world. Forget the romantic Spartacus image of the noble proletarian; these are ordinary men, women and children trying to find a way out of crushing poverty by becoming bonded labour. We see it throughout the Middle East. The World Cup stadia in Qatar are the highest profile examples, where ten workers died in 2018 alone. The men were aged between 26 and 49 and were from Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

Be aware: things are going on just over the horizon that will have an enormous impact on the reputation of the businesses that ultimately profit from this kind of exploitation. And, in a way, it doesn’t matter whether lawsuits are won or lost – the reputational damage is already done.

Lifting your vision above the front wheel means paying attention to the future as well as the (possibly muscle-burning) present. There is an organisation that I hadn’t heard of until a couple of weeks ago. The B Corporation offers certification for businesses that meet the highest standard of verified social and environmental performance. It promotes the ‘triple bottom line’ that adds social and environmental criteria to that of financial performance. It’s this broader understanding of doing business that will make the biggest difference in the years to come.

The RIBA has agreed to commit to the UN Global Compact. In doing so, architects are committing to tackling the 17 Sustainable Developmental Goals established by the UN.

The only way that this can make a difference is by the RIBA convincing their client base to adopt the same goals, and when that happens we will finally start to see a shift in the way that specifications are produced and delivered. Supply companies will be obliged to confirm their oversight of supply chains, from raw material extraction (cobalt mining in DRC) to overseas manufacture (greetings cards in China).

The Supply Chain Sustainability School is a collaborative resource, with member companies – all within the UK construction industry – sharing knowledge on the best ways to deliver a sustainable built environment.

We’ve talked about all this on various conference platforms before and I’ve made the point that this is something that won’t go away. And while we stare at the front wheel, we won’t see it coming towards us. And if we don’t look up then, eventually, we hit it head on and wonder what the hell just happened.

Amazon’s biophilic head office at Seattle.



Recolight is hosting a one-day conference on Lighting and the Circular Economy in London on Tuesday 24 March 2020. DETAILS HERE

About John Bullock

John Bullock is the editor of The Light Review

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