Sustainable development bandwagon to run and run

What could be better than making a real effort to engage all the best brains to prove that it really is possible to continue to enjoy economic growth without trashing the environment?

We’ve heard of increasing numbers of companies putting forward a manifesto for sustainable development over the past year or so, and very worthy and laudable it is too.

What could be better than making a real effort to engage all the best brains to prove that it really is possible to continue to enjoy economic growth without trashing the environment for future generations?

This week it was the turn of the oil and gas industry to launch a sustainability strategy. Yes, the oil and gas industry – whose business is largely built on extracting the earth’s finite reserves of fossil fuels until they are all gone. Not much sustainability there, you might think.

But if you take a look at the UK Offshore Operators Association’s report on the subject, ‘Striking a Balance,’ what you quickly spot is that much of what’s classed as ‘sustainable development strategy’ is really good old-fashioned and thoroughly sensible management practice that could apply to any industrial company or sector.

Take some of the worthy-sounding subject headings in that report: ‘Economic sustainability’, for example, becomes another term for keeping down costs throughout the supply chain, and lobbying for a sensible regulatory environment. ‘Social sustainability’ seems to be about decent workforce training, and ensuring good relations with the local community, which is after all the source of new recruits in the future. ‘Stewardship’ is, well, a tricky one for an extractive industry, but boils down to finding new technology to get oil from the parts other drills couldn’t reach. An activity driven by economic considerations.

This is all eminently sensible. But the question is: why bother to dress up what is basically the practice of business management in this vague and often woolly language of sustainable development?

For the oil and gas sector, it looks slightly incongruous.

And for many other industry sectors and manufacturing companies who feel compelled to draw up sustainable development strategies of their own, the risk is that is all becomes an expensive side-show: even more time-consuming than the creation of all those cheesy ‘mission statements’ in the 1990s.