NES Digital Roundtable: ‘Everything must change for everything to stay the same’

Collaborating with Libby Stonell, editor at Letsrecycle.com, the Environmental Services and Solutions Expo (ESS) recently hosted an expert-led, virtual roundtable, bringing together prominent industry professionals to dive into the critical issue of business sustainability and explore solutions and best practices with reference to the National Environmental Services Survey.

Taking part in the discussion was Charlotte Rule, head of policy at Environmental Services Association, Judy Ling-Wong, honorary president at Black Environment Network and Tim Walker, acting chief executive officer at arc21 and president of the CIWM.

Sustainability is undoubtedly one of the most pressing challenges facing the planet today. Climate change, pollution, and loss of biodiversity (among a huge range of other issues) are just a few areas where we drastically need to see change to foster a more sustainable future.

Undermining credibility – perceptions of greenwashing

The survey demonstrated that 81% of respondents believed greenwashing to be somewhat or very prevalent across industries. The experts offered nuanced perspectives on this issue.

While Rule doesn’t believe that greenwashing is commonplace, she can see why many people in the industry are concerned. She reiterated that practising what you preach and ensuring that actions match what you say when it comes to net zero. She added that the majority of organisations need overarching support from regulations and the government to drive any real change.

Ling-Wong suggested that the concept of greenwashing can become cyclical. She highlighted that the general public is becoming more aware of the environmental situation and increasingly choosing green companies. This is spooking many organisations, which may in fact lead to more greenwashing. On a more positive note, however, she noted: “greenwashing is an indicator that being green has arrived as a societal theme.”

Walker explained that many people are now using greenwashing “almost as a gaslighting phrase,” whereby, if a company is taking action that another party doesn’t agree with or is outside of an idealised “green narrative” they may be accused of greenwashing. Therefore, it’s a very flexible phrase, but danger lies in ambiguity.

Despite public perception that greenwashing is prevalent, the experts offered a mixed view, highlighting the need for clear regulations and acknowledging both the risk of increased greenwashing due to consumer pressure and the positive sign that ‘being green’ is a societal priority.

Driving change from the top down

Without a doubt, government policy and legislation have a hugely important role to play in the proliferation of sustainable practices throughout the business economy.

Despite this, the results of the survey found that 1 in 10 respondents felt unsupported by the related government policies. Meanwhile, 15% of respondents agreed that environmental policy and governance were some of the biggest issues in sustainability. The panel discussed these findings and shared their perspectives on government policy.

Ling-Wong agreed that environmental policy and governance were rightly high up in the survey responses. After all, policymakers have the power to drive change when it comes to climate change.

Technology won’t be a silver bullet

The experts echoed the survey findings, highlighting technology’s potential to contribute significantly to sustainable solutions. However, Ling-Wong offered a cautionary note, expressing concern that an overreliance on technology could breed a “false confidence” and hinder the urgency of addressing environmental issues.

Rule agreed that technology has a critical role to play in this area but mentioned that new technologies must be designed “in a way that ensures circularity.” She also warned that we can’t rely on technology to deliver net zero, and it shouldn’t be seen as a silver bullet.

Walker argued that, as a society, we should be wary of solutions that allow people to ignore the issue, a

nd not have to make lifestyle changes. He advised that for everything to stay the same, everything must change. Though technologies like AI will have a role to play, he noted that people will still be required to drive solutions and change.

An evolving workforce

The survey revealed a significant green skills gap, with 58% of respondents feeling UK businesses are unprepared for the transition to a sustainable future, with one in four (25.69%) calling for training in waste management and building a circular economy.

Ling-Wong explained that green jobs are approaching and in significant numbers. However, she cautioned that industries must ensure that all potential candidates have equal access to opportunities. Additionally, she suggested that to encourage people to take an interest, they need to be able to visualise themselves in the roles.

Meanwhile, Walker emphasised the importance of encouraging people to take pride in the sector. He explained that we need ambassadors to go out and speak knowledgeably on the sector and the roles, as they’re currently not very visible. He stated: “The sector is developing very fast, and it’s an exciting area to be in.”

The roundtable discussion highlighted the urgency and complexity of achieving business sustainability in the UK. While the path forward is not without challenges, there are reasons for optimism. For example, the growing public awareness of greenwashing and environmental issues has the potential to incentivise businesses to be more transparent and accountable in their sustainability efforts. Additionally, the emerging green economy presents exciting career possibilities, but it requires investment in skills development and ensuring inclusivity in these opportunities.

The onus lies not only with businesses and policymakers but also with individuals to stay informed, advocate for change, and support companies that prioritise genuine environmental responsibility. Ultimately, a sustainable future requires a collective effort.

Download the full report for free on the ESS Expo website here.

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