Where is your industry association re: sustainability - GTEC Blog

Quick question: Where is your industry association on the sustainability continuum? Do you know what it’s doing to help your sector anticipate, influence and steer during these disruptive, turbulent times?

Our industrial economic system has served many of us well these past 200 years, but as we hurtle towards 10 billion people inhabiting the planet by 2050, our current approach to production and consumption is unsustainable. Projections are that up to 3 billion people will move into the middle class over the next 30 years; the world’s population will use 70 percent more resources per capita (PDF).

Without a course correction by consumers and business, total demand for resources (PDF) will exceed the Earth’s capacity by a staggering 400 percent. Risk experts (PDF) believe that rising income and wealth disparity will be a driver of global risks over the coming decade.

These are risks that industry associations can’t ignore: Their sectors’ long and short-term viability is at stake. If you’re curious — or concerned — about what your association is doing to assess and address emerging sustainability risks and opportunities, I have hot-off-the-press data.

Taking stock

I recently completed a scan of 85 Canadian national trade associations, representing all sectors of the Canadian economy, looking for best practices in sector-wide sustainability. On the upside, I was encouraged to see some sectors emerge with robust sustainability programs, including the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining Program, the Chemistry Association of Canada’s Responsible Care Program, Fertilizer Canada’s We’re Growing Sustainability Programand the Canadian Electricity Association’s Sustainable Electricity Program.

More advanced organizations consult and engage industry stakeholders on their sustainability priorities, set industry sustainability targets and report on the industry’s overall sustainability progress.

These organizations have defined a sustainability vision and goals, determined the material sustainability issues for their members, adopted sustainability policies and principles, engaged stakeholders to identify their expectations, developed industry consensus on how to measure sustainability and report to the public on their sustainability progress. They continuously improve their programs to align them with emerging sustainability trends and issues.

The vast majority, however, are in the early stages, barely starting their sustainability journey. Those just starting out provide information and facts on environmental and social issues to their members, feature case studies of sustainability leaders in their industry and participate in government sustainability consultations, for example around pending climate regulations.

More advanced organizations consult and engage industry stakeholders on their sustainability priorities, set industry sustainability targets and report on the industry’s overall sustainability progress. They promote and encourage industry sustainability innovation. With most industry associations clustering around early or basic programs, we’ve got a long way to go to prepare industries for future realities.

The following “maturity model” captures the practices industry associations are demonstrating — from those who blatantly ignore reality to those who recognize the imperative to ensure their sectors are fit for the future.

Emerging issues

Some of the top topics found on the websites of the leaders and the “middle majority” include:

  • Diversity, accessibility and inclusion
  • Aboriginal relations
  • Greenhouse-gas management and the low-carbon transition
  • Product stewardship
  • Circular economy
  • Biodiversity
  • Sustainable communities
  • Stakeholder and value chain engagement
  • Transparency

Glaringly, only one industry association had appeared to assess its sustainability program to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Taking action

Opposed, comprehensive or somewhere in the middle: Where is your industry association on the sustainability journey? If you’re not sure — or need to get their attention — you can take persuasive action.

I’ve worked on two resources that can help association directors to improve sustainability for their members and industry sector: this benchmark tool to assess their strengths and gaps; and this How-To Guide.

Recognizing that our current approach to production and consumption can’t possibly sustain 10 billion people in the years to come should concern all companies and the associations that represent them. But, with this reality comes enormous opportunity to influence sustainability progress. Society is at a juncture, and industry associations have a critical role to play to put society and their members on a sustainable path. Now is the time for action.

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