Sustainability means many things to many people, but it boils down to this: saving Planet Earth.
Mankind, as a species, has been too successful for its own good – the global population is forecast to top nine billion by 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
As a result, there is already a strain on the planet's essential natural resources, particularly food and water, which population growth can only exacerbate.
Meanwhile, our demand for energy – and the life enhancing technologies it powers – has led to the plundering of the earth's hydrocarbons oil, gas and coal, ultimately leading to potentially catastrophic climate change.
In a month-long series of features on the theme of sustainability, Technology of Business will be examining the main challenges facing businesses and asking whether technology – which some would say got us into this mess in the first place – can help get us out.
Most companies are already being affected by climate change today, directly or indirectly, says the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a global not-for-profit organisation specialising in measuring business environmental impact.
Extreme weather, drought and flooding can disrupt production capacity and affect supply chains for a whole range of businesses.
For example, in a CDP survey of 70 European companies, 83% said they had operations in "water-stressed" regions, while 73% said water shortages posed risks to their own operations or those of their suppliers.
"Many businesses rely on basic natural resources like water to make their products," says Zoe Arden, director at think tank SustainAbility. "But it's a depleting resource. The water table in China is plummeting alarmingly and large areas of the country are in drought situations."
In an increasingly globalised economy, few businesses can isolate themselves from the impacts of climate change, population growth and resource depletion, says Emma Price-Thomas, head of sustainability strategy at charity Business in the Community.
"The world is changing very fast. Global megatrends are markedly affecting the business environment. If firms don't address these and think longer-term, they may end up putting themselves out of business," she argues.
A lot of technology and research is being directed towards reducing water usage in industrial processes and designing products that need less water to work, she says.
For companies with long supply chains, like supermarkets, the challenge comes down to: "How can we make sure there are enough fish in the sea so we can make our fish fingers?" says Mike Peirce, director of strategy and communications at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).
Businesses need to adapt to changing consumer demand and become more efficient if they are to survive "the severe challenges" coming their way, he argues.
Justin Keeble, managing director of consultancy Accenture's sustainability services division, agrees: "The business imperative is about mitigating risk and making your business more resilient against resource scarcity and energy insecurity."
But a persistent problem for many businesses has been putting a value on "going green" and justifying the expense of investing in new technologies.
A major survey of 1,000 global chief executives by United Nations Global Compact and Accenture found that nearly two-fifths of bosses thought that the failure to link sustainability with business value was hampering progress.
This is despite the fact that the vast majority understood its importance and the new business opportunities it presented, the survey suggested.
But Accenture's Mr Keeble argues: "It is possible to put numbers on the risks and opportunities associated with sustainability.
"We estimate that UK business could make £100bn [$169bn; 122bn euros] in productivity savings and that there is a £200bn opportunity for businesses offering sustainable products."
Written By: Matthew Wall
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