A short perspective of sustainability - a conversation about communication
Integration and caring for Canberra
Paper by Geoff Pryor
Chair of the Environment Task Force of the Canberra Business Council
Geoff is Chair of the Environment Task Force of the Canberra Business Council. He has been associated with many different efforts over a number of years to foster more action in generating a sustainable ACT economy.
Geoff is a Director of Pryor Knowledge (ACT) Pty Ltd, a private company based in the ACT, with national clients, offering innovative, strategic planning and sustainable process solutions for regional and local communities and private, government and non-government organisations.
Geoff is also a founding Director of Zero Waste Australia and recently brought to this country four internationally recognised practitioners of recycling and managing zero waste systems.
Geoff arrived in the ACT for the first time in 1973. His passion is to see the ACT become, and be recognised internationally as, a genuine sustainable and knowledge-based community. His other interests are sport and physical recreation, relaxed holidays and reading.
The aim of my paper today is to range across ideas about what sustainability really means for Canberra. To do this I would like to provide some background about the way the issue of sustainability has emerged within the Canberra Business Council and more widely, in the local industry sector.
The Canberra Business Council has had a Task Force looking at the environment industry since 1997.
This Task Force came about as a result of two forums, one held in 1996 and one in early in 1997. As a member of the then Capital Regional Economic Development Board, and with a number of people, including representatives from the ACT Government, the Canberra Business Council and other private enterprise organisations, almost 80 people turned up at the Kurrajong Hotel.
We called the forum ‘Landcare means Business in 1996’. Its objective was to identify the lessons derived from the Landcare program so that these lessons might be taken up by individuals as a basis for establishing, or extending existing, small businesses. A follow-up forum was held some months later, early in 1997, organised this time by the then Executive Director of the Canberra Business Council, Ossie Kleinig. These two forums led to the Business Council taking up the task of exploring ways to foster a local environment industry. .
I believe now, as I did then, that this was an important step because it brought the local business sector into the sustainability debate, in a coordinated way. It had been a matter of some concern to me that in the years before this, local businesses and local economic development bodies, had really only paid at most lip service to the then growing awareness of environment as part of business. There was not at the time a local environmental business association or group. This was in the context of it being a period when, according to Roger Burritt of the ANU, “the link between economic growth and environmental impacts grew in interest in the nineteen eighties and nineties.
Within Australia the issue of sustainability and business had been taken up and reflected though the considerable interest shown by the former Labor Governments at a Commonwealth level, under Hawke and Keating, as they had been active in generating debate on sustainable development. Also, internationally, there had been a lot of activity through the UN and associated organisations such as the then Business Council for Sustainable Development. However, by and large, most small to medium size Australian businesses had really not been an active part of this debate. The decision by the Canberra Business Council to establish an Environment Task Force was therefore timely, even if a bit late within a wider context.
Not long after this, and together with a colleague Rod Brown, I undertook a study into the potential to generate a Capital Region environment industry. This had not been done before to my knowledge, despite the range of people (overwhelmingly I believe in government and academia) with knowledge and expertise in, and connected to, the wider environment debate and who were living and working in the ACT.
Previous studies had been undertaken in the ACT which considered the potential for products under the broad banner of the ‘environment’ market. These forecast a market size with a multi billion dollar opportunity world wide and even a multi million dollar business opportunity in Australia. Although some questioned these forecasts as being too optimistic, the existence of the opportunity was not questioned denied.
A quick overview of some figures on the size of the environment industry follows. In 1994 the Australian market for environmental goods and services was estimated to be about $2.7billion, while the international market was $295 billion,, and growing, at a rate of 7-10%. These were then regarded as high figures by the Environmental Manufacturers Industry Association of Australia (EMIAA) now Environment Business Australia (EBA).
However by 2002, in a paper prepared for a parliamentary committee, EBA stated:
The environment industry in Australia is a $16.7 billion dollar industry (Environment Australia commissioned Industry Capability study, September 2001, to date unpublished) tracking strongly towards its goal of being a $40 billion sector by the end of the decade. This is approximately 2.7% of GDP. The industry comprises some 5,640 companies who employ 146,200 people (these figures are significant updates on those included in the Environment Industry Action Agenda and which date from 1996-97). Global figures peg the industry between $500 and $750 billion ($ US) (US Department of Commerce and Globe Foundation, Canada). A 1999 PMSEIC report identified a potential $750 billion of business from combating global warming alone
Recently, I re-read the Commonwealth Government’s Environment Industry Action Agenda of 2001. According to the Commonwealth Government, the annual rate of growth of the Environment Industry has been around 7% per annum and it is estimated to employ 127,000 people in around 2000 firms. Expenditure was $8.6 billion in 1996-97 so we assume it must be over $10 billion nowadays, although it is very hard to find an industry figure more up-to-date.
In a paper prepared not so long ago for the ACT’s former Economic White Paper, entitled, Environment Business in the ACT - Mapping the Landscape, by Thorburn L and Houghton J, it is stated that “The best estimates derived for the recent National Capability Statement on the Environment Industry show that Australian environment industry activities totalled about $16.7 billion in 1999-2000 and employed about 146,000 in some 5,700 specialist organisations.”
The Commonwealth Action Agenda document suggests that an annual growth rate of 10% on average is required to meet the industry aspiration of $41 billion worth of industry sales by 2011.
To place this in context, the estimated global market for environmental goods and services was $500 billion in 1996/97, and well past the $750 billion figure by 2001.
Exports are estimated to grow by more 20% on average over the next decade. Quite some optimistic forecast one would have to say.
Returning now to the work that Rod and I undertook. Our report which we called “Turning Green to Gold” was principally funded by the ACT government. Sadly, the primary action which arose from its production was that our title appeared on a publicly released government strategy policy document. There was little action on this strategy.
This lack of action both on our report and on the then government’s strategy was astonishing to us. Our study was undertaken collaboratively. It was designed to identify a series of practical steps which, with some modicum of support from government in the form of facilitation efforts, i.e. small outlays, and I mean small, the actions would have been achieved with support from stakeholders.
Briefly some examples of the type of proposals we made
- Developing a joint venture club of local companies
- Partnering for Defence contracts
- Using public buildings to showcase environmental knowledge and products.
- Marketing our region as a sustainable region
- Establishing a local R&D teaming centre for collaboration on environmental research and commercialisation
- Developing export consortia
- Developing a centre for regional environmental excellence
- Improving collaboration amongst businesses in the environment industry.
- Initiating a technology development zone.
One result from discussion of marketing package proposed in our report was the potential for a Declaration to be made by ACT Government stating that the ACT would become a sustainable city.
I think it is hard to disagree that the actions proposed in our report are still relevant and warranted. In fact a number of our proposals are now starting to re-emerge through actions taken by bodies such as the Canberra Business Council, the Nature and Society Forum and the present ACT government.
What is good about reflecting on our past history is that we see that things have not stood still. While I might think that they could have gone much faster and more successfully, they are not stagnant.
However, in moving to remind ourselves of the value of forums such as this one of Manning Clarke House, we need to reflect further on what has happened in the ACT and the reasons for what has and has not happened.
In September 2002, a study was made of the environment industry in the ACT as part of the first Stanhope Labor government’s Canberra Plan. I briefly referred to its conclusions about the Australian market size earlier. What I did not provide as information were the characteristics identified in the report of the environment industry Australia wide. The Australian Environment industry is characterised in this report by the following:
- it delivers improved environmental outcomes often without direct cost to those who benefit eg clean rivers, clean air etc;
- it enables other businesses to meet community expectations with respect to the environment;
- a large part of it is in government hands; and
- there is an extreme diversity in the scale of the enterprise and the services provided.
The authors of this report suggest our local ACT environmental sector is characterised by:
- simple service providers, which number about 220 firms and which offer standardised services, mainly to consumers. These firms include providers of waste management, energy ratings, some construction services, site cleanup and some automotive pollution management services;
- providers of specialised environmental products, which number about 40 firms and which sell mainly to other firms. These firms sell industrial filters and equipment, some of which may be imported; and.
- providers of environmental management services, which number about 100 firms and which sell to other firms and government agencies. These firms offer a range of services including some agricultural consulting, satellite data analysis, environmental impact statements and specialised pollution management.
The above is scene setting to provide a very quick overview of where we have come from and what is the context from a business perspective. Now in this second part of my talk today I want to move onto the issues of Making Canberra Sustainable.
What I take from this history are a number of points and I will briefly discuss each of these:
Much of the knowledge to be able to make Canberra a sustainable city already exists and where it does not, it can be found. The other day a colleague commented that they understood knowledge was growing at a rate which doubled every eight months. Unfortunately I cannot confirm this figure but in the ACT we have an enormous knowledge base. Sustainable solutions to problems are not beyond our understanding.
If we wish to make Canberra a sustainable city, the challenge is to bring this knowledge together and to apply it. Let us take one of the obvious difficulties in making Canberra a sustainable city, which is the way in which Canberra has been developed, focussed on the use of the private car. Yet even here there are possible useful steps. For example, the Business Council is proposing financial support be offered by government through positively supporting fuel efficient cars and within a context of improved collaboration between public transport and existing financial institutions. These cars are also the precursor of the technology which will be highly efficient.
2. Systemic solutions
The second point is that action taken at a less than system level is unlikely to succeed. One might think that this view is an all or nothing strategy. It is And it is challenging. The pragmatists among you may wilt at this. But we need systemic change. Otherwise the small steps we have been taking will remain just that and will be the modus vivendi of the future. This of course does not preclude taking the many small steps which are being taken as we speak and which will take place in the future. But in the end, unless comprehensive systemic approaches are taken then Canberra will not become sustainable.
One industry where we can lead the way is the housing industry. The knowledge to make the development industry and the local housing industry sustainable is patently available. We have the first 5 star green rated building at the airport. This should be the base standard from now on for all developers.
Not unrelated is the recent media debate about a so-called boring Civic, which largely overlooked the issue of sustainability, despite the fact that before this debate became public, quite a number of meetings and discussions had been held regarding sustainable solutions on this subject. A so-called boring city centre is not resolved by a shop-till-you-drop approach to development.
There are people in the ACT researching, lecturing, producing books, producing products, offering services all with regard to sustainable practices in building, retrofitting, operating around the house etc. So the knowledge is very much there to enable us to change our approach to development in this city
Not so long ago I saw a film called Goodbye Lenin. It was a very poignant film showing how important a border can be in the lives of a family. The film was set in what was then East Germany and it tells the story of a mother who falls into a coma but awakes, much weakened, months later, and after the Berlin Wall had fallen. The son worries about the state of the mother’s health, which the doctors say is precarious and she needs very gentle treatment and no shocks. The possibility of being shocked is significant if she finds out the Berlin Wall has fallen and ‘westie’ culture has taken over from her previously socialist existence, to which she had become deeply attached.
This film is not just a story of how a son manages to keep his mother from knowing the real truth of a lost culture, but is a lot about how a physical boundary can embody a set of ideas and behaviours. This film also demonstrates both how powerful, yet how ephemeral the barriers we erect to change can be. Likewise, erected barriers around the concept we have of an environment industry can be affected by our preconceptions. Such an industry is real but our concept of it can be difficult to grasp and can make the industry itself seem ephemeral. We need to explore the results of this dichotomy if we are to expand our own local sector and cross our borders — both physical and psychological.
The question I ponder is whether the local Canberra environment industry might be seen to be the same as the mother of our East German family. She lives in a world framed initially by a rigid physical and political border but which is now in reality no longer an inhibitor because times have changed. If this is true, how do we bring about change and expand out industry, break down our wall and cross the border?
To start with, people say Canberra is different from the rest of Australia. And they often say this with some degree of distain, thinking of the city only in terms of its role as the national capital. My view is that we should accept the difference this role brings to Canberra as a city and build on it.
In historical terms Canberra has come from reliance on government as its biggest industry and the city’s reason for being, to where it has an economy which, while still very much dependent on government, now supports a vibrant private sector. It is however still an economy dependent upon big institutions.
My suggestion is that a third phase of growth for Canberra ought to be the stage where the ACT has its own recognised economy — i.e. recognised nationally and internationally as a self-generating, knowledge-based, sustainable economy where smart things are happening. The environment industry is potentially a catalyst for this lift-off.
Professor Allan Rodgers, formerly of Melbourne University, in a talk at a Business Council Task Force forum in 2004, made it clear that the opportunity exists for Canberra to become a recognised new economy. This would mean that our traditional role as a national capital would be an extra benefit which is willingly and proudly supported by all Australians. Professor Rodgers’ thesis was that we should be the leading edge sustainable city in Australia where the new globalised economy is most evident and a show case for the nation. He stated that our manageable size and inherent qualities are great attributes for achieving this.
We will however be unable to achieve the aspiration of being a leading knowledge-based and sustainable economy if we continue dong things as we presently do. This includes importing development models from others (the former ACT White paper for example is redolent of ideas of international experts), not being helped by ‘institutional thickness’ and where relating to government is a very mixed bag of experience. In other words I am suggesting that we ought to find a way forward which is our own. To do what I am suggesting we, the local business sector in conjunction with the government, and a wide range of other significant organisations, must do the driving for this change ourselves. We must have a change our social and business culture.
4. Business drivers
Business today is an integral element of the ACT economy and has to be a component to any strategy to make Canberra sustainable. The role of sustainability both in business and as a type of business is gaining considerable attention. Many governments are producing information which can be used by businesses in considering these issues.
I was interested in a summary of such a debate in a paper I recently received at a presentation delivered at a seminar by Roger Burritt of the ANU. He suggested that the debate had moved from the need for the issue to be accepted as a matter for business to consider, to the circumstance where the debate was between notions of strong and weak sustainability. “Weak sustainable development …allows for substitution between environmental economic and social assets, …(so that) all types of capital and the services and welfare generated by them (can) be expressed in the same monetary unit for comparison.”, while “strong sustainability …considers that natural capital should not be diminished by human activity. ”.
Burritt goes on to suggest that even these themes have now been overtaken “by the approach of “balanced or sensible sustainability”.” This covers: “non-declining human welfare over time, the consideration of the three — social, environmental and economic — dimensions and harmonization of goals as well as intragenerational and intergenerational justice.”
Other authors have put this into a more dramatic form: “Corporations as an institution are facing the prospect of an evolutionary leap to sustainable value — or face irrelevance and extinction.”
Turning back to Burritt, he goes on to list a number of contextual challenges for the practice of corporate sustainability. The types of issues he lists include the following:
- moving from seeing sustainable development as a technological problem to a business challenge and opportunity;
- increasing eco-effectiveness or reductions in the absolute scale of environmental impacts of their production processes, products investments etc;
- taking a business orientation towards the future — how choices made today affect future generations;
- company development is itself a sustainable process through its organisation and learning process;
- integrating environmental and social activities in core business practice;
- participating in the broader social debate to find solutions and sustainable practices; and
- adopting sustainability as a high priority business goal.
These are fine sentiments and matters which many larger organisations can take up. According to a KPMG survey (quoted in the Commonwealth government’s Global Sustainability Services report of 2002, “45 percent of the world’s top 250 companies now publish separate corporate reports with details of environmental and/or social performance, up from 35 percent in 1999.”.
However the local ACT economy is not dominated by large enterprise but rather by micro and small businesses as well as government departments and agencies. Can such entities take up the challenges of the types that Roger Burritt suggests are being considered by larger companies? This is debateable, but not impossible, because some do. They do however need assistance to achieve this and there are examples where this has been provided. One example includes the No-waste seminars that the CIT has run on behalf of ACT No-WASTE which were for SME’s in the ACT. I also brought four internationally recognised people from overseas, where they implement zero waste practices, to run workshops. These were especially valuable for a number of participants who proposed establishing new businesses — in much the same way as our ‘Landcare-means-Business’ forum of 1996.
Especially in the ACT, our economy is dependent on the retail sectors covering housing and retail shopping. As a generalisation, these sectors are not addressing sustainability, even if there are some outstanding examples of successes, notably the Airport 5 star Green rated building, and which, as I have already mentioned, should now become the very minimum for all developers throughout the region.
In summing this section of this part, it is worth quoting from an EBA paper:
“EBA believes that the single biggest issue for sustainability and the environment industry, its science, innovation and engineering, is the current lack of ability - or willingness - by governments, industry or the community in Australia to value the environment as the resource asset and the ultimate capital which it is. There is an urgent need for a framework for sustainability that will fast-track the commercialisation of innovation and we believe that this will serve Australia’s long-term self interest.” This is a statement worthy of support.
5. Measurements including pricing
The idea that we measure sustainability is not new. The ACT government for example, raised the issue in its original Discussion Paper of June 2002 Towards Sustainability and its subsequent three volume document entitled Measuring our Progress.
Business is used to measuring, as the title to a chapter in a book called The Sustainable Company notes “What gets measured gets managed”.
Triple bottom line reporting is also widely acknowledged, as there even are Commonwealth Government publications on this subject.
Nevertheless, we need to reflect on whether we are measuring the right things, or whether we are implementing measurement regimes in the best possible way. The way we go about measuring matters is a core part of sustainable practice.
Measurement includes financial issues. Environment Business Australia, for example, identified a number of financial issues which it sees as impediments to enhancing sustainable practice at a systems level. These are:
“There needs to be an enabling framework that makes full use of the powerful tools available such as taxation, regulation, procurement and investment, education, and economic instruments.
Competitive neutrality is being compromised because the companies who invest in positive change that is at the forefront of sustainability are being undermined by competing companies - or in some cases competing government entities - who do not base their decision making or their future competitive edge on sustainability. Externalities, outsourced onto the environment, are a hidden and perverse subsidy which in many cases the market is largely unaware of. This is a fundamental area of market failure which is having significant impact on the development of the environment and sustainability industry”.
6. What practical actions should we taken?
It is possible to see where actions that make a difference can be taken. Some examples follow.
- The Business Council proposed the government release a Declaration that the ACT be a sustainable city.
- In the government at the moment consideration is being given to an environment industry strategy, but perhaps we should make this a sustainable solutions strategy led by those with the interest in achieving it.
- There is clearly a need for significant attitude changes by finance departments.
- We need an ongoing media and public debate.
- There are interesting examples to support sustainability in practice such as the proposed community-based West Kambah Innovative Sustainability and Well Being Precinct.
- We should maintain Canberra’s Zero Waste by 2010 goal.
This paper concludes that making Canberra a sustainable city would be a challenging task. It requires bringing together knowledge that we already have. But it also requires taking a holistic view and therefore systemic action, which would in all likelihood require a fundamental change in our culture — one where taking more of a risk is required to achieve this worthwhile goal.