The new rules of sustainability

The new rules of sustainability

Andrew Sharman offers a practical guide to “sustaining” sustainability throughout the whole year – and beyond

Sustainability is becoming an increasingly integral part of doing business. For organisations to balance their financial, social, safety and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities, sustainability must move from being an add-on to “the way we do things around here”.

Big Bangs

Many of us will have started the New Year with a bang. In December 2016, the British Fireworks Association advised that sales of “New Year’s fireworks” had increased to record levels. A spokesperson from the British Pyrotechnists Association anticipated that New Year’s Eve displays would “reach new heights”.

I spent the festive holidays in San Francisco and can confirm that, stateside, sunny Californian skies were transformed into sparkling disco mirror balls at night, with members of both the American Pyrotechnics Association and the National Fireworks Association gleefully suggesting that fireworks “make the New Year celebrations magnificent”.

In the United States (US) the fireworks industry generates an annual revenue of almost US$ 1,1 billion (R14,8 billion), while in Rome the value of fireworks locally is around €3 million (R43,3 million).

Of course, we know that fireworks are inherently hazardous. In the US last year there were four deaths and 9 300 injuries caused by fireworks, of which 40 percent involved illegal fireworks. In Italy, two died and around 350 were injured. While each accident is sad news, to put the numbers in perspective, they each represent far less than a tenth of one percent of the population.

The days following the celebrations are not the best time to remind ourselves how to be safe around fireworks (although if you haven’t used up all of your Catherine Wheels yet, please do read the label first).

Talking about a resolution

The New Year provides us more opportunities than just colouring the skies. Research and anecdotal discussion reminds us that more than 75 percent of people around the world make New Year’s resolutions, so there’s a fair chance that you may have done so, too. How did you get on?

As the fireworks dimmed down, and the New Year began to open up, did you sit down with paper and pen and consider how you would make 2017 a good year? Setting resolutions has become a time-honoured tradition for many of us, and the usual stuff tops the popularity charts – eating better, going to the gym more, avoiding alcohol for a month, losing weight, and learning a language often feature in top ten lists around the world.

While most of us make lists, research from Harvard University in the US reveals that less than ten percent of us actually stick to our resolutions. Most of us don’t even make it to the end of February!

How have you got on so far? (Cards on the table here, my plans for a “dry month” in January didn’t quite work out the way I’d intended. They say you can take the man out of Scotland, but can’t take Scotland out of the man…)

Looking back

On December 23, I was getting ready for the festive holidays – that last mad rush to the finish line, trying to tick off as many items as I could from my to-do list before racing to the airport for the flight.

Now, following a bit of downtime, and a couple of weeks back at work, I realise that I have this “sprint to the finish” not just in December, but almost every month throughout the whole year.

This got me thinking. In a world that craves instant gratification, do we really take enough time to reflect fully upon the work we’ve done? Those problems that seemed impossible, but somehow worked
out, the technical issues that seemed beyond our grasp … despite the challenges, we somehow managed to succeed.

Scientists at the University of California found that the act of reflecting on what we’ve done deepens our learning, makes us more appreciative, and increases our positive bias. Sounds good, right? I’m sure that I am not alone in living a warp-speed life; it seems to be the norm for so many of us nowadays.

Perhaps that’s the reason why the success rate for New Year’s resolutions is so low: we set audacious goals that we anticipate we’ll feel good about reaching, but then life somehow seems to get in the way.

So, this year, look back before you look forward: What did last year teach you? What new skills did you develop? What business lessons did you learn? In which areas do you want to focus more attention this year? How can you build in some regular reflection time each month?

Looking ahead

According to the recent United Nations global study entitled: A New Era of Sustainability, 93 percent of CEOs see sustainability as important to their company’s future success, but only 17 percent feel confident that they are ready to face these challenges.

The global recession and subsequent re-growth of the world as we know it, means that values and behaviours matter more now than ever before. Society now places greater scrutiny on how organisations do what they do, and the media looks on ready to report on issues of foul-play, unethical behaviour, environmental pollution, workplace accidents and much more.

News stories, accident investigations and external governance frequently reveal stark disconnects between what many companies say they stand for, and what actually happens on a daily basis. How we do what we do has always mattered, but it matters more now than perhaps ever before.


Over the last decade, sustainability – including the disciplines of safety, health and environment – has become an increasingly important part of doing business, no matter which industry sector we look at.

For organisations to balance their financial, social and environmental risks, obligations and opportunities, sustainability needs to shift from being an add-on to truly being “the way we do things around here”. In my book From Accidents to Zero I use this line as a simple definition of culture.

Business leaders have recently started to recognise that organisational culture plays a fundamental part in the very necessary shift toward sustainability, but, despite myriad corporate sustainability reports that describe sustainability as “the way we do business”, most business leaders lack a clear understanding of how, where and why to embed sustainability in their day-to-day decisions and processes.

There’s an opportunity for all of us here. The big question, for us as practitioners, is how can we maximise our efforts and expand our impact, so that our good intentions turn into real, positive change? As you reflect and think about recalibrating, here’s a simple framework to consider:

Engage – How do you connect with your stakeholders on the topic of sustainability? Do you tailor your communication to suit their needs? Think about fishing: you would use different bait, hook sizes and techniques depending on whether you’re after grouper or sardines. Make sure you prepare your actions aimed at sustainability in the same way.

Educate – Recall that unforgettable quote from former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld: “There are things we know we know … and things we don’t know we don’t know…” What new information could you share with your stakeholders? What don’t they know that might surprise and delight them?

Leverage – “Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow” says the old saying, and it’s true for us in sustainability, too. This year, think about how you can leverage the actions of others, particularly those at grass-roots level. Highlighting the great efforts of those who may not expect it can be a great way to amplify the focus and create positivity.

Collaborate – Business and markets no longer operate in isolation. Multiple stakeholders – shareholders, suppliers, regulatory bodies, local communities – now have a greater impact than ever before on how organisations work. Where are the opportunities for collaboration this year? Think broadly – look within the business, as well as to the industry sector as a whole and your own network.

Support – We all like to make things easy. Is it easy for employees within the organisation to make choices that enhance sustainability? What can you do to help others make progress?

Capture – Identifying “quick wins” builds momentum for change by building confidence among stakeholders that progress is real and happening. It also galvanises ongoing support. What “low-hanging fruit” have you identified to “capture” this year, and how will you share the news of this success?

Review – “Doing it differently” can be fun and bring about new results. How effective is the way you engage, share information and provide support and guidance?

Don’t wait for the changing of the year before you sit down and reflect. Try scheduling an appointment with yourself at the end of each month to critically reflect on how you’re doing what you do. Don’t forget to celebrate the fireworks you create every month in 2017.

Sharman on Safety is based on ideas and concepts from Andrew Sharman’s new book: From Accidents to Zero: a practical guide to improving your workplace safety culture. Andrew is an international member of the South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (SAIOSH) and the Chief Executive of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. More at

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