Alliance Manchester Business School - AMBS
Article By
Matthew Paterson

Matthew Paterson

Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute based at The University of Manchester.

Radical Rethink

To achieve net zero businesses need to embrace sustainable production and consumption.

When we talk about reimagining business we are in effect talking about the radical rethinking of everyday practices of production and consumption.

Indeed, to achieve our net zero ambitions we need to embrace truly sustainable production and consumption models at the societal level, and this will require major socio-technical changes to energy, mobility and food systems, as well as to the industries, technologies, markets, and government policies that drive them.

Here at the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) we precisely focus on understanding how these transitions come about and how they might be accelerated, while exploring how reconfiguring consumption and production systems can contribute to less resource-intensive ways of life.

Constant reinvention

In many ways saying there is a need for business to reimagine itself is misleading because business is constantly being rethought, reconfigured and reinvented. The transitions required today are little different to how the Victorian mill owners reimagined and subsequently reconfigured the UK economy back in the 19th century.

That said, having studied climate policy for the best part of 30 years, I can also report that some swathes of business have spent the last 30 years also trying hard not to reimagine themselves and been resistant to change in the face of the climate crisis. There is still much hard work to do to reframe the agenda to overcome these powerful companies with vested interests in the status quo.

The transitions required today are little different to how the Victorian mill owners reimagined and reconfigured the UK economy in the 19th century.

Policy role

Governments have a crucial role to play in helping businesses reimagine themselves and, in turn, changing consumer behaviour. But as we know from the trials and tribulations of COP26 in Glasgow, they also face major issues in trying to work together and reimagine their economies and societies.

The UK government’s recent Energy Security Strategy is a case in point. Instead of using the present global energy crisis as a turning point to wean the UK off fossil fuels, it was largely a return to an energy policy focused on ‘predict and provide’ which assumes that its job is simply to predict demand and then ensure adequate supply. Rather depressingly it also seemed to simply reaffirm the continued importance of the North Sea oil and gas industry.

Instead, energy policy needs to focus on actively minimising demand through efficiency and conservation strategies while rapidly shifting supply over to zero carbon sources, and to do this we need an integrated set of policies and effective regulatory interventions.

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Action now

Here are just three things the UK could do, all of which would have a huge impact on business transformation.

Firstly, the pursuit of energy efficiency and conservation in buildings should be a priority and it needs to be rapidly and radically scaled up. A rapid building retrofit programme would reduce gas and electricity bills, reduce energy poverty and create large numbers of new jobs.

Secondly, we need to accelerate programmes to decarbonise buildings and transport, principally through electrification. And thirdly, we should also focus all new supply on renewables. New wind and solar are now significantly cheaper than any other source of electricity and they can be deployed very rapidly.

Interestingly, wind and solar have expanded fastest where they are community-owned, partly because such owners are less concerned with rates of return and because community benefits can also overcome planning objections.

Indeed, reimagining the role of communities is another dimension to this debate, and is intrinsically linked to how we can make circular economy processes embedded across society. Community-led initiatives such as repair cafés and locally sourced fabric shops have a small yet vital role to play in changing both consumer and business mindsets in terms of reimagining sustainability.

Digitisation

Finally, any debate about reimagining business today cannot take place without rethinking how we use data. For instance, data has a huge role to play in sustainable transport management. And digitisation is also driving new patterns of production and consumption, putting in place new forms of delivering goods and services such as via platform businesses.

In short, the current period of transformation actually provides unique opportunities to make changes towards more sustainable modes of provision, but we must also ensure that those operating such platforms run sustainable models too.

The research at SCI and elsewhere shows that businesses engaging in innovation have the potential to play important roles in the pursuit of sustainability. But they also have the potential to undermine it, creating new sorts of unsustainable practices.

We can’t take for granted that just because businesses innovate, this is automatically good for sustainability. Instead, we need to understand how business innovation needs to be shaped more directly towards that goal.

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