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Business Growth vs Sustainability


This is a blog post following a short course focused on leadership and sustainability. This post documents, although not word for word, a three-way discussion with a sales leader in a high tech early stage start up and a team leader in a national rail company around business growth and environmental sustainability.

What is the definition of growth within your organisations?

Start-up: Financial revenues & number of users of our app (product). We are currently in a phase of market validation, after which we would invest heavily with the expectation of a sharp growth in revenue further down the line.

Railway: We don’t currently create much new infrastructure, so it’s mainly about increasing capacity, passenger numbers and reacting to low cost alternatives such as bus companies. We are a not-for-profit organisation so all our profits are reinvested back into the infrastructure. Increased customers mean increased running costs for the business.

What are the overarching objectives of your organisation?

Railway: Objectives to grow passenger numbers and operate within cost plan.

Start-up: Objectives differ by person, board members have a focus on return on investment. Sometimes these are shared with others working within the company, but there are also other aspirations for the individuals within the business related to personal values, for example improving peoples’ lives, otherwise not worth coming to work!

How do you feel about sustainability within your business?

Start-up: I want to claim sensitivity to sustainability, but reality is I’m burning a lot of airplane fuel. Corporate and social responsibility tends to be box ticking. Comes down to culture in a small business.

Railway: Trains are inherently more sustainable than cars and lorries. It’s not clear if there is a company policy around sustainability. But the business is good at using hydro power and all trains are electrified. Energy is recycled within the railway electrical network. There is a general national culture of efficiency and sustainability.

How could you be more sustainable within your business?

Start-up: Two things come to mind around sustainability. Policies don't work, it’s down to government and regulation that force an approach or alter social conscience. Our office manager takes initiatives for sustainability and that is more about individual actions and motivations.

Railway: The opportunity to be more sustainable is not within my domain, but I do take some actions. We recycling rails. but not ballast, so there is some opportunity to be more sustainable. It needs to be company policy, and sustainability is currently more cost related rather than environmentally focused. Some personal stuff, for example refillable personal water bottles.

How important is environmental sustainability to you personally?

Start-up: I’m somewhere in the middle of how important sustainability of the environment is. I’m not campaigning or tying myself to trees. I’d say that both in my personal life and business financial matters take precedence. For example, if it's cheaper to take 2 flights rather than a direct, I’ll take the cheaper option and accept the added environmental impact.

Railway: I’m in a similar position on importance. For example, I no longer have a car because busses work well, and I recycle diligently. I believe in public transport to reduce pollution. Rail freight could make a big difference to sustainability and it’s a reason for working on the railways, and it feels good to be having that impact. For us, it is often easier to be cost efficient and sustainable at the same time compared to high-tech start-ups.

What is the future for environmental sustainability?

Start-up: Government will need to step up and lead the way through incentives and regulation. We are within a capitalist system where money and survival based on wealth is the key factor. For example, on a recent trip to India, it was obvious that they won't have much patience for not being able to eat and an increasing quality of life, and will therefore be willing to pollute to achieve this. Solar power can make a difference, but needs subsidies to become viable, technology and government regulation to change behaviours is the way.

Railway: It’s possible to improve the current situation and learn from the examples set in Scandavian countries fur reusing & repairing. Culturally preferable to replace rather than make do or repair as it is often cheaper to replace for example buying a new printer if the ink runs out.

Post discussion follow up question - Is there more you could do as a leader within your organisation?

Start-up: No response yet.

Railway: Yes, there are definitely opportunities for improvement, for example reusing more material used during a track renewal as a temporary measure are often not reused as it is cheaper to obtain new ones for the next site even though they are completely reusable. From a personal point of view, the wrong decision is taken here. I am working on it though and have support from within the business that we should be reusing until life expiry.

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