‘Championing sustainability’ sounds like a lot of boring corporate good intentions. But apparently it entails treating your clients and colleagues with respect
If you buy margarine from your local Tesco, it’s likely that Dr Estelle Gaudier will have had a hand in it - so to speak. She is one of Unilever’s top food scientists. And recently she has been getting on at me about that awful topic, which I confess goes in one ear and straight out of the other: “sustainability”.
But yawn as I might, this scientist lady (whose other name is Mrs Bingham), is determined to get her point across. According to her (and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index), Unilever has become a “supersector leader 2012” and wants to do it again in 2013, all for sustainability. And she thinks it’s high time you UK construction folk and, oh yes, you UK construction lawyer folk, went in for this same prize. A sort of New Year resolution.
It can definitely be done, according to Mrs B. “Look”, she said, “here is another supersector leader 2012 - it’s a builder.” “Oh yes?” G S Engineering & Construction builds office buildings, hospitals, education facilities, sports centres, shopping centres, factories; its civils side does the motorways, bridges, harbours and more; it even has a large housebuilding division. Staff numbers come to 6,223. I asked - with some sarcasm - if their sustainability prize meant all 6,000 folk go outdoors each morning and hug trees. “It means”, she said patiently, “that the staff treat each other and their customers and their suppliers with human decency.” My ears pricked up. I thought this “sustainability” malarkey was a buzzword for folk with spiky hair, dancing around naked. But apparently it’s the principle of being considerate to others.
Are you a thug to suppliers and subcontractors? Do you look after customers? Or are you spiteful, willing to humiliate and bully?
Now, this struck a resounding chord with me: I had just taken a flight on Cheapy Cheapy Airlines. And it was a bloody ordeal. I had queued umpteen deep to check in my suitcase; queued again at immigration; then had to take off my shoes, my belt, my jacket and stand in a glass pod with two hands above my head, hoping my trousers stayed put long enough to conceal that I go commando. We were then stacked on flights of emergency exit stairs for 20 minutes while Cheapy disgorged their passengers and at last let us out onto the concrete apron to be stored again while stragglers came off the plane. If you tell me that this awful way of running a business would stand a chance of a supersector leader prize, I shall scream. Mrs Bingham was smiling. “That”, she beamed, “is the behaviour which torpedoes the airport, the ground staff company, the carrier, the airport health and safety folk - and is exactly the opposite to sustainability”.
So what does sustainability entail, in practice? That contractor, G S Engineering & Construction, is a global enterprise with its head office in South Korea. It is praised for “comprehensive customer relationship management and quality assurance” and more besides. It goes in for ethical management and transparency. Hmmm, I feel sarcasm coming on again. So I checked with the learned Dr Gaudier. Of course Unilever plays the game about environmental footprint, carbon, waste disposal, recycling - but what’s it like to work there? “They care”, she said.
By this definition this word “sustainability” means the company looks after staff. It looks after its customers and its supply chain. Take a look at The Dow Jones Sustainability Index (www.sustainability-index.com). Cut through the inevitable gobbledegook and look at the focus on personal behaviour. How do you treat colleagues? Are you a thug to suppliers and subcontractors? Do you pay bills on time? Do you look after customers? Or are you spiteful, willing to humiliate and bully? Do you sustain, lengthen, expand a fee account by taking every conceivable technical point with the other party? Or do you try to behave in a decent way?
I had to take off my shoes, my belt, my jacket and stand in a glass pod with two hands above my head, hoping my trousers stayed put long enough to conceal that I go commando
I know that we are surrounded by bad examples. These politicians are a disgrace. So, too, many of the institutions - the City, the banks, the phone hackers. But none of that stops you from using 2013 to go for a supersector leader badge.
I like the remark by novelist, Terry Pratchett: “I always believed … that on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly not according to what any priest said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, in the end, more or less, turn out all right”.
Have a good year.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple