Practitioner viewpoint - May 22

12 April 2022

Businesses need to adopt an approach to meet their sustainability goals and small incremental changes can make a difference, says Louise Ward.

SUSTAINABILITY IS very much the theme of the moment. The news media, TV and online platforms are packed with scientific reports and commentary which highlight the importance of acting now in order to safeguard the future for our planet, and for generations to come.

Businesses are increasingly aware of the call to action, and are acting to better understand their environmental and social impacts and to deliver programmes of improvement to satisfy legal, contractual and moral imperatives, and individuals are increasingly considering ESG criteria in their personal decision making.

I have recently added sustainability to my leadership portfolio. This is not unusual. Health and safety leaders typically oversee a diverse portfolio of topics, but this one feels quite different, not just because of the breadth, depth and complexity of the subject, but also because it feels as though there is imperative to take swift and decisive action to make significant changes, especially in the field of decarbonisation.

I’m not a sustainability expert. I’m fortunate to be supported by a fantastic team of technical specialists, but this is a complex and wide ranging field where knowledge is still evolving rapidly, and innovation is thriving. I think it’s really challenging for companies to decide how to invest the resources they have available to achieve greatest benefit. Many of the people I chat to are ‘holding on’ waiting to see what happens, what the next ‘revolutionary’ product or service will be. They’re nervous of committing to a particular course of action, aware that something newer and better is likely to be just around the corner. 

I’ve experienced this commitment anxiety too, but it’s recently dawned on me that this doesn’t need to be a revolution. We don’t get just one go at saving the planet, so we don’t need to hold on waiting for the one big answer. In fact lots of small incremental changes can be better. They’re quicker and easier to implement, less resource intensive, and allow you to remain agile so that you can adapt your approach to stay aligned with innovation and development. The cumulative effect can still be significantly positive, but it’s easier to build a business case, so there’s less commitment anxiety associated with this approach.

Take travel as an example. Carbon neutral mass transit is often billed as the ultimate solution, but there are so many complications that this won’t become a reality in time to check the affects of dangerous climate change. Many people are reaching for electric vehicles as an alternative. The carbon emissions and air quality impacts are significantly less than traditional petrol or diesel vehicles, but the environmental impacts of battery manufacture and ultimate disposal are controversial, and a stable supply of renewable electricity is far from certain. So should businesses commit to an electric fleet? Or hold on for a viable hydrogen, solar or other solution?

I think we need to apply the principals of continual improvement to our sustainability decision making. We should be looking for transitional solutions which are viable now with manageable investment, deliver measurable improvement, and enable us to build knowledge and understanding which will drive the next stage of development.

This is not rocket science! It’s the same process that we have applied to safety, occupational health and wellbeing over the last 50 years. So why is it not being applied consistently to sustainability topics? Perhaps because it’s such a diverse and expansive topic? Perhaps because the task feels so huge? Perhaps because it’s still such an evolving issue?

It is indeed a very complex situation, but there is no doubt that doing nothing is not an option. Action is required now, so I’m advocating for the well-established, risk based, continual improvement approach that has served me so well throughout my career.

It may not be headline grabbing or revolutionary, but it is evidence based, achievable and will deliver measurable benefits in the immediate term, as well as setting us up to make the right decisions for the future.

We don’t know what the ‘right’ solution will be, but there’s no doubt that doing nothing is the wrong decision. We need to start our journey to a net zero now by committing to a programme of continual improvement that will secure a better future for everyone.

Louise Ward is safety & sustainability director at G&W UK – Safety. For more information, visit