This article investigates the key ingredients of a great sustainability vision.


Visions can be powerful things. They can inspire people, organisations, countries and even continents.  The type of vision that I will talk about here is distinct from a corporate vision statement. These can often be shallow regurgitations of corporate-speak, rarely seen or heard outside of business pamphlets and landing pages.

The type of vision I seek to explore is the type of vision that has the possibility of changing society, the environment and in the process change the world.

Some of the best writing I have come across on the power of visions is by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline. His quotation below makes clear the distinction between a great vision and a vision statement.

When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-too-familiar “vision statement”), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.

For those without time to read The Fifth Discipline Rana Lahiri has helpfully picked out some of the best quotations from the book and put them in one place. You can find this via the link below. I would still recommend reading the original text as it contains some powerful insights.

Some of the Fifth Discipline Quotes ― Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Let’s now turn to the key ingredients of a great sustainability vision.

1.     Energy

A commitment to sustainable energy should be a core component of any sustainability vision.

I don’t think that this should be referenced in terms of “cutting our carbon footprint by X by X date.” I think we can afford to be a bit more ambitious than that.

In terms of the energy used on fixed sites, this should be referenced in terms of procuring 100% of the energy used from renewable sources by X date. A couple of years ago, this would have been a quantum leap, but now is the time to start making ambitious goals like this a reality.

It is interesting how fossil fuels are often portrayed as needed because of energy independence issues. When renewable energy offers these same independence benefits, in a distributed manner and creates sustainable jobs and industries in the process. A better world is possible and action taken on energy procurement is needed to make it a reality.

In terms of energy used on mobile sites, there should be a commitment to having all transport take place on electric vehicles by X date. This might sound extraordinarily ambitious, but it actually isn’t. Recent developments within the electric vehicle market have begun to snowball and the transition could happen quicker than you think.

The key is to look for joined up thinking as by supporting renewable energy production, this has a spin off benefit that the electricity used to power vehicles will be more sustainable too.

The key takeaway is that nothing less than a commitment to 100% renewable energy and 100% electric vehicles is needed for a great sustainability vision.

2.   Water

Water is a key component of the sustainability equation and so should be central to any sustainability vision.

If you operate in the food and drink industry then water will be front and centre in your sustainability vision. However if you operate in other industries it will still be very important.

The key is to look for ways of reconstituting your operations. Water that doesn’t need to be used doesn’t need to be extracted.

This could take the form of highly efficient irrigation techniques & construction techniques that are less water intensive. There is also significant scope to look for techniques that maximise reuse of the same water many times.

For service sector businesses, there is certainly the opportunity to invest in waterless sanitation infrastructure. This is the sort of technology which offers the possibility for exponential cuts in water use, admittedly from a low amount.

There is more leverage available to service sector businesses if they link their vision to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These are ambitious targets covering all aspects of sustainability. Goal 6 to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” is particularly relevant. By attaching your business to achieving this and other goals, you can have an enormous impact. This can be done via partner organisations and charities and those relationships can be enormously valuable.

The key takeaway is that water, being a critical component of the sustainability equation needs to be included in any sustainability vision. To make a vision great, it must include radical goals for reducing the use of water and reusing it where possible.

3.   Waste

A bold commitment on waste needs to be included to make a sustainability vision great.

This comes in two parts. It should include following the waste hierarchy to prevent the creation of waste altogether. It would therefore make sense to make becoming zero waste an organisational priority by X date. Although it may sound fantastical to some readers, with the right mind-set and a determination to eliminate and segregate wherever necessary, it is definitely possible.

The second part covers recycling. There should be a commitment to recycling every Kg of material possible. In the beginning as an intermediate target that would look like an 85% recycling target. But as you work towards becoming zero waste, the flip side of that is that you would become a 100% recycling business.

Achieving both of these targets involves a lot of work with suppliers and changing suppliers when they are not sufficiently interested in sustainability. Preference should be shown towards suppliers who supply goods with a high recycled content, who design for disassembly or who incorporate some form of reverse logistics into their business model.

The key takeaway is that ambitious targets around zero waste and 100% recycling are the cornerstone of any great sustainability vision. They are things that people can see and understand intuitively. But they will not happen unless there are ambitious targets, employees are galvanised and waste is removed from processes by design.

4.   A commitment to being good

A commitment to being good is an essential ingredient to making any sustainability vision great. At first this might sound obvious, but this is not the case.

Many sustainability vison’s make the mistake of aiming to be “less bad.” This is certainly better than doing nothing at all. But the real prize is to use sustainability to be a good business.

A good business does all of the things we have mentioned to ensure they have a very low or no environmental impact. They also seek to operate in a responsible manner so that their actions do not take from society.

But good businesses go further than this and seek to actively make the world a better place. They engage themselves directly in building a better world and enlist their customers in this process.

Seeing as a video is worth a million words, I encourage readers to watch the We First video on exactly this topic by clicking the link below.

The We First Manifesto 2017

The key takeaway is that being less bad is not enough to make a sustainability vision great, it must contain an explicit commitment to being a good business.

What you need to know

This article investigated the key ingredients of a great sustainability vision. The key elements of a great sustainability vision are bold action on the following areas.

1.     Energy

2.    Water

3.    Waste

4.    A commitment to being good

Visions need to be bold and ambitious if they are to inspire employees, attract customers and gain traction within the media.

The biggest crime that many visions commit is to lack ambition and to aim too low. These visions don’t affect any change and they pass like a ship in the night.

In summary, the most important element of a great sustainability vison is commitments to bold and far reaching action. These commitments then need to be followed up with hard work and bold action.

I will leave you with a cryptic message from Peter Senge that will hopefully inspire readers to create their own great sustainability vision.

It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. It’s great to hear about other people’s experiences in taking sustainability forward.

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby 




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