Wednesday, 4 June 2014

IFLAS public lecture: Time for business to put the planet before profit

Jane Burston speaking at IFLAS

The fate of our planet is in the hands of businesses – and they urgently need to kick their addiction to profit if we’re to avoid environmental disaster.

That was the stark message from leading environmentalist Jane Burston, who appeared at our Ambleside campus as part of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability public lecture series.

Jane is the head of the National Physical Laboratory’s Centre for Carbon Measurement, which works to improve climate data, develop measurement science to underpin carbon trading, and support developers of low carbon technologies.

Speaking to an audience of members of the local business community and Leadership and Sustainability MBA students from the University of Cumbria and Robert Kennedy College, she outlined the dangers in current attitudes to sustainability and explained the threats they pose.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it clear that human activity is the most likely cause of global warming.

If we carry on as we are, the world could warm up by more than four degrees Celsius in the next 100 years. But if we take decisive action now, that could be limited to around one degree of additional warming.

Jane believes that instead of waiting for governments to take the lead on reducing carbon outputs, businesses should be taking responsibility – and that’s where the profit problem rears its head.

She said: “I feel quite sad when people talk about where the impetus for change is going to come from, and they look to governments.

“That’s not where the power lies – the real power lies with business. Businesses need to act themselves, and make space for governments to act. What are they doing? Not enough. Take the latest report from the Carbon Disclosure Project for example: it tells us businesses aren’t doing great and there’s very little transparency around the biggest impacts - they’re not even telling us how great they’re not doing.”

As long as profit is the primary motivation for businesses, sustainable practices will at some point be compromised and companies will inevitably end up doing something unethical.

A new philosophy is needed, Jane says, where doing social good is the main objective and profit becomes a secondary motivation.

She said: “Thinking about sustainability in the wrong way can be quite dangerous. If people think about sustainability being instrumental to getting more profit we’ll never get anywhere.

“Not every situation is a win-win. When you get to difficult decisions, if profit is the driver you’re going to make the wrong choice.

“Profit needs to become the means but not the end, and in most businesses it has become the end in itself.”

Jane cites chocolate company Cadbury as a historical example of how a business thrived while making social responsibility its principal motivation.

John Cadbury founded the company in 1824, selling tea, coffee and drinking chocolate from a shop in Birmingham. He was inspired to offer the products as a healthy alternative to alcohol, which was consumed in high volumes because the city’s water supplies were often contaminated. 

Later generations of the Cadbury family continued to act with social responsibility in mind, building Bournville village to house their employees and ‘inventing the weekend’ by being the first company to give workers half a day off every Saturday.

The company’s socially-responsible policies contributed to its success – but were not devised with profit as the main driver.

So how do we bring about change? Jane believes the answer lies in business leaders choosing to use their power responsibly.

There’s a role for individuals too: together we can influence business leaders by investing our money in banks, funds and businesses that commit to ethical policies.

Jane said: “I don’t think that we don’t need profit. To run a business where the aim is social impact you need to make a significant amount of profit.

“The difficulty for business leaders, which I think is the one worth tackling, is about managing decisions where, for example, the conflict is between depth of impact and scale of impact, rather than how much profit you’ll make.

“Despite the challenges ahead there are many opportunities for real systemic thinkers and leaders, and your leadership through these challenges is one of the biggest levers we can pull.”
Scholarship awards
Scholarship winners Tom Shakli and Emily Oliver
(centre) receive their certificates from guest lecturer
Jane Burston and IFLAS director Professor Jem Bendell.
Following her lecture, Jane presented scholarship certificates to two new IFLAS students who will soon be starting postgraduate study with the university.
The scholarships have been funded by the Robert Kennedy College, which is based in Switzerland. Together with the University of Cumbria, RKC jointly delivers an MBA in Leadership and Sustainability, which regularly brings executives from around the world for a week’s residential study in the Lake District.
Emily Oliver and Tom Shakhli, both from London, have been accepted onto the Postgraduate Certificate for Sustainable Leadership which will be delivered at both Ambleside and the university’s campus in the capital.
Tom Shakhli is co-manager of the Brixton Pound, perhaps one of the best-known community currencies in the UK.
He said: “It is an exciting area of work to be in, because it feels like it’s the start of something bigger. There isn’t really a blueprint for success. That’s why I think it’s important that there are academic institutions such as the University of Cumbria that have departments dedicated to this area of work.
“The Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Leadership seems ideal because it can give organisations such as ours the requisite knowledge to take our initiatives and have them really make a difference.”
Amongst other freelance projects, Emily Oliver has recently founded and currently co-manages FoodCycle Wandsworth and is keen to begin her studies.
She said: “I'm aware that in order to further develop skills in organisational leadership, an understanding of sustainable strategy, and ability to nurture impactful results, I need to study them effectively.
“As I learn best through practice, this course's experiential approach is an ideal opportunity to do that - as well as build a support network.”
To find out more about courses offered by IFLAS, including the new Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Leadership, visit