The Sustainability Journey

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“Don’t overthink sustainability – rather start the journey” – is the opinion of Reg Barichievy, Western & Northern Cape Partner at Smart Waste.

SUSTAINABILITY is new, complicated and like any other journey at the outset looks daunting. It can also be an adventure which will broaden your understanding of the world we live in and change some of your ideas fundamentally. It all depends on how you approach it.

There is no doubt that implementing sustainable practices in a business is complicated. It involves changing business operations and mindsets. The operations may be the easier of the two. Getting people to change old habits is harder.

To take a topical example; imagine a small, textile mill which for years has been selling quality garments into a niche market. The business is successful and has a good reputation. The problem is some of the clients are starting to ask where and how the products are made.

Fortunately, it is not as bad as those businesses which grow the material – say cotton – in one country and then send it to another country – say Vietnam – for manufacture. Only to import it again. None of those practices are sustainable in terms of anything except cost. The use of water for growing and dyeing and the carbon footprint incurred in the transport is horrendous. And contrary to sustainable principles.

Nevertheless, the textile mill has a problem which is affecting its market and which it needs to do something about. The CEO decides to become more sustainable and so the journey begins. The first problem is where to begin. The mills looms are old, energy inefficient and costly to replace. He decides to defer that until the economy has improved.

The material the products are made of come from farms where he suspects the labour is treated badly, has inadequate housing and poor working conditions and are paid the bare minimum. These farmers have however been loyal suppliers and have contributed to the success of the business for many years. That is another fight best left until later.

In desperation the CEO hires a consultant who takes the business on a path, which takes time and may or may not yield results. Frustrated he gives up and defers the entire process. The starting point is usually simpler – manage what you can control.

A major problem with implementing sustainable practices, in our experience, is that the party involved either overthinks it or tries to do it all at once. A better approach might be to develop a plan, set realistic goals and undertake the journey at a realistic pace. It is all about the implementation, which is where a lot of companies come unstuck.

The things which the CEO can control are the marketing, the practices and culture of the staff and the waste management. The first priority should be to change the culture of the staff. This requires training the staff and getting them to understand the need and urgency to change the company culture to one which is more sustainable.

This in itself is a journey involving providing the information in a usable format, having someone spend time training staff and obtaining their buy in. Goals will need to be agreed together with a timeline. Once the goals start to be achieved champions will start to appear and a culture of sustainable practices and thinking will start to take root.

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