Driven largely by concerns over man-made warming of the atmosphere, rising waste and consumption levels, and problems with water supplies, "eco" has become a serious business issue rather than a minority sport. A measure of this is the value of businesses that operate in the environmental and energy efficiency sectors – waste management, recycling, pollution and energy monitoring, software development and consultancy – which is estimated to be worth 107 billion per annum in the UK alone. The old adage "Where there's muck, there's brass" holds as true now as it ever has. However, almost inevitably, along with the growth of legitimate environmental businesses comes a plethora of strategy programmes and workshops that may be purchased at great expense by multinationals and big public sector agencies looking for ways to be more sustainable and responsible.
Eco-philosophy workshops and programmes are usually designed to change attitudes to sustainability, reflect on our feelings towards the environment and measure our responses to climate change. They are packed full of emotion and big words but too often end up gathering dust. They can also carry a whiff of anticapitalism. For example, advertising may be identified as the main driver of mindless consumerism and therefore the cause of society's ills. An advert for underarm deodorant may be cited, neglecting to mention that all participants on the programme buy and use similar products. Perhaps a more questionable use of advertising is government campaigns that cheerily or chillingly tell us to "go green". At least adverts for consumer products are, in the main, well targeted and engaging.
Though the makers of deodorant do use resources and create waste, legislation and their own corporate management systems will serve to reduce environmental impacts. At the same time, so-called "clean technology" businesses are creating the means and tools through which our natural environment can be monitored, managed and protected. Such environmental "sector" businesses attract honest-to-goodness engineers, planners, marketers, technologists, biologists, chemists and many other legitimate practitioners. While these experts have their own lingua franca, impenetrable to those on the outside, it is honest technical terminology. This is in contrast to the impenetrable strategy speak delivered through eco-outreach and workshops.
As we continue to fight the challenges of climate change, decimation of biodiversity and resource depletion, there is a pressing need for more straight-talking, backed up by common sense, knowledge and observation from those with the ability to communicate and influence. People such as David Attenborough have done more to inform us about the environment than any number of summer schools, workshops and "thought leadership" programmes. James Cameron's Avatar must also be credited for its straightforward message about the benefits of living in balance with the natural world, not the most obvious theme for the biggest grossing film of all time. It is easy to belittle the role of popular media and culture, but long may films, books, plays, television, newspapers and blogs promote debate on the environment and climate change.
It is an inescapable fact that businesses and individuals continue to produce waste and consume greater amounts of scarce water resources. At the same time, technology, policy, knowledge and infrastructure is there to reduce and eliminate solid waste and contaminated water (the Scottish Government's Zero Waste Policy offers an example of a sensible and achievable approach).
While this may not be as sexy as geopolitics, desertification, mass migration, habitat loss or offshore energy, businesses can do themselves and their bottom lines a lot of good by tackling such seemingly mundane environmental impacts.
This honest toil within companies, realising the bottom-line benefits of waste and resource efficiency should be celebrated and encouraged, as should the growth of companies that develop associated technologies. These endeavours should be part of the bigger picture when we think about the future of the global environment.
Michael Groves is an environmental professional and entrepreneur.