We need to shake up how we promote sustainability

Mandhy Senewiratne

Sustainability has been using the same rhetoric and coming up with the same ideas for years. It’s boring and we need to stir things up, says Mandhy Senewiratne of MWH.

Sustainability has lost some of its popularity and fallen down the media agenda and as professionals some of this could be our fault. We need to revisit how we promote and develop sustainability. Having attended many sustainability events it regularly feels like each is a repeat of the last. Most have the same strap lines, rhetoric and frequently the same outcomes.  Audiences are often not being inspired or challenged and so are seldom ‘stirred’, if ever, ‘shaken’ into action. 

"Flabby thinking by some parts of the environmental movement, plays into the hands of experienced practitioners addressing real and immediate problems affecting people’s health, education or the economy" - Adrian Johnson, MWH

Of course, challenges to conventional thinking rarely happen if everyone agrees with each other. We need to invite devil’s advocates, doubters, unbelievers and the as yet unconverted into our discussions. To embed sustainability into our DNA, we must challenge mindsets with alternative ways of thinking and practical examples of innovation.

For example, in the water sector we have new low-carbon materials like cement-free concrete, construction techniques like virtual trial-holing, low energy treatment approaches including reed beds for phosphorus removal and pyrolysis for advanced sludge treatment. There is also real time energy management and radical ideas such as heat recovery from sewers and using zebra mussels removed from outfalls as a fuel source for CHP engines. These real world innovations need highlighting to keep the arguments fresh. 

Doing things differently can re-energise people and bring those with sustainability-fatigue back into the fold. This is why at this year’s Institute of Water World Environment Day event, we persuaded senior industry members to be ‘Environmental Philistines’. We pitted them against young IOW members in the role of ‘Environmental Advocates’ keen to challenge their senior mentors’ perceived wisdom in a debate.

“Presenting a view opposite to what you believe is a real challenge, particularly when you look at the audience and you sense they haven’t grasped that you’re playing devil’s advocate. There were some horrified faces,” commented Neville Smith, MD-Portsmouth Water and Institute of WaterSE area president.

 “I actually found it very instructive to adopt the mind-set of those concerned that too much focus on ‘environmental sustainability’ adversely impacts wider aspects of human development and wellbeing. Flabby thinking by some parts of the environmental movement, plays into the hands of experienced practitioners addressing real and immediate problems affecting people’s health, education or the economy in ways that are both effective and affordable”, added Adrian Johnson who is MWH technical director and sustainability lead for eight2O (Thames Water’s AMP6 capital delivery vehicle).

Devil outcomes

Results exceeded expectations by exploring some of the wilder ideas stemming from the ideology that to get out of recession and rebuild the economy, we all need to consume more not less.  Traditionally these arguments would not have been aired because of political correctness but the audience was genuinely ‘stirred’ by questions including:   

  • How do you balance the high cost of maintaining pristine rivers, such as the river Aire, with other environmental or economic priorities?
  • Are the high costs of some interventions to improve the environment worth it?
  • Are we over-conserving nature at the cost of human interest and safety?
  • What might be the social consequences of taking radical action to adopt low-carbon lifestyle options? Are we heading towards a world where we have to live a low-energy lifestyle in kibbutz like communities? How many people (even sustainability advocates) would really want that?

Johnson concluded: “Our arguments must be based on clear evidence, not only general evidence of environmental change, but specific to each problem we are seeking to influence. We must use such evidence to put the case that environmentally sustainable solutions are also the most cost-beneficial. This is because they provide value for local people - the ‘customers’ of the organisations many of us work for - and the wider needs of society. A ‘sustainable’ solution that costs more is not a sustainable solution”.

Get Radical  

The event highlighted that we should consider radical options more often and not be satisfied with low-risk ‘safer’ solutions.  We ought to consider challenging stringent environmental targets where they lead to high energy costs and carbon emissions. The UK’s Infrastructure Carbon Review emphasises that reducing carbon emissions drives innovation, increases our competitiveness and reduces cost.  So let’s bring out our inner devils to challenge and improve the sustainability status quo.

Mandhy Senewiratne is lead sustainability consultant, MWH