Financial crisis - friend or foe of the sustainability movem

The economic outlook might be gloomy, but as Paul Thomas argues, there are still positives for green executives to cling to

A great deal has already been written about how the financial crisis might negatively affect the sustainability agenda. There is no doubt that as the economy slows, every aspect of how business is done, is under the spotlight. And environmental activities are no different.

But is it really all doom and gloom? Are there any potential positive outcomes and what opportunities might there be for those green companies that want to prosper in a downturn?

It may sometimes seem like clutching at straws, but there is an argument that an economic slowdown may actually be a good thing for some businesses.

For a start, those competitors that talk a good game but don't actually do that much will be exposed. Secondly, the process of taking a long hard look at your operations which often accompanies recession can encourage firms to become more strategic, looking at campaigns and strategies that deliver real benefits rather than a number of tactical activities that have limited reach. And most environmental schemes such as energy efficient programmes can actually save money - a point which is no doubt being made long and loud by CSR directors at the moment.

Positive spin

From a communications perspective, talking about your company's commitment to sustainability actually provides you with an opportunity to talk positively to the media - something that can be quite difficult in this economic environment. Rather than focusing on the short term difficulties, you can discuss how you are investing in the long term - putting in place a strategy to meet future challenges. Such positive coverage is like gold dust in this current climate.

It is also worth noting that scaling down or even cancelling environmental programmes is simply not an option for a lot of businesses - and not just because of the reputational damage that would be accrued. As more and more green legislation emerges, many companies simply have to continue with their environmental initiatives to make sure that they do not fall foul of government regulations.

For instance, car manufacturers cannot afford to stop developing new technologies to drive down their vehicles' emissions as they have no choice but to work towards meeting the EU emission standard of 130g/km average CO2 emission levels by 2012. Similarly, following the enactment of the Climate Change Bill, large and mid-sized companies across the UK look set to face mandatory reporting of their carbon emissions from 2012 - something they would be advised to prepare for sooner rather than later.

Restoring trust

Taking a broader perspective, green marketing activity can help restore a degree of public confidence in a private sector that has seen its credibility take a severe battering in recent months.

There is no doubt that public trust in the private sector and markets have been seriously damaged and it is clear that financial markets' obsession with short-term over long-term considerations has played a major role in destabilising markets. By emphasising long-term environmental considerations, businesses can help play a pivotal role in helping to restore that lost trust. In other words, by demonstrating a commitment to the tenets of corporate sustainability, companies have an opportunity to help markets regain the trust of stakeholders.

It is important to realise that amid this climate, many consumers are making little distinction between the banking sector and the corporate sector. By demonstrating a strong commitment to sustainability, we can actually help the private sector and markets regain the confidence and support of the public.

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