NZ: Why workplace health and safety can be an open door for sustainability

Changes to New Zealand’s workplace health and safety legislation are creating an opportunity to get environmental management incorporated into health and safety management planning, according to Sustainable Edge director Annette Lusk.

The new Health and Safety at Work Act comes into force in April 2016. The act spotlights the issue of managing critical risks, and it is the risk aspect Ms Lusk says clients are engaging with regarding environmental performance.

One of the key risks for many smaller companies is that large corporations have put in place sustainable procurement or environmental procurement policies. So a supplier that can’t meet the required standard is likely to miss out on business.

The planning process for an environmental management plan involves identifying key risks, including materials risks, environmental risks, governance risks and climate change risks, she says.

What is not a major focus is the common Australian metrics around energy efficiency and waste reduction strategies.

In terms of waste, there is simply little economic incentive to recycle, she says. In Auckland, the major waste contractors own the landfills, so it is cheaper for them to take waste straight to their landfill than get it recycled.

“My clients would only do [recycling] because it’s seen as the right thing to do,” Lusk says.

The small population base of the country also makes it difficult for there to be the volumes in waste streams to support on-shore recycling operations. Plastics, for example, are sent offshore for recycling.

Lusk says that the environmental sustainability business case has always been “a hard sell”, and that the saving money argument that used to work is not gaining traction as much.

In terms of health and safety management, she says the impact of sustainability measures in buildings on occupant health is not generally being considered, except by a small number of organisations including Kiwi Property and architecture firm Jasmax.

Even where there are plants in offices, she says, they are generally there for aesthetics, not for any health and wellbeing benefits.

She said sustainability per se generally struggles to communicate its strategies.

“It takes so long to explain, and there are no defining practices,” she says.

What has happened instead of an overt adoption of the term and its practices is individual companies have adopted elements of sustainability into business as usual.

They have the policies, she says, but there are very few firms employing someone with a job title like sustainability manager.

Lusk says the need is to reframe the concepts of sustainability into everyday business understandings. This has already succeeded with consumers, she says, with terms like Fair Trade and “environmentally friendly”, “bio-product” and “eco-product” well understood in the market.

“Fuel-efficient vehicle” is another term that’s well understood, and is increasingly being made a priority by businesses and the government, she said.

Environmental efficiency and resource efficiency are also concepts that are achieving some leverage in terms of how sectors such as transport and freight manage their operations.

The term “sustainability” is generally only cropping up in sustainability reporting, she says. This type of reporting is happening in large companies when it is being driven by investor demand.

For smaller firms, the only incentive for sustainability reporting is when a big company requires that as part of its own sustainable or environmental procurement policy. There are also some government organisations with sustainable procurement strategies around environmental risks, Lusk says.

In some cases, this has meant suppliers needing to be certified for the ISO 14001 Environmental Management Standard in order to obtain preferred supplier status with a government department.

Overall, she believes hopes early in the 2000s that a focus on sustainability might transform the nation’s business sector have not resulted in substantial change.

“We haven’t changed business, they’ve adopted the principles that worked for them and kept on going,” Lusk says.

  • The NZ government’s Procurement Development Group produced a guide for agencies and others on identifying sustainable procurement priorities in 2010.

Comments

One Response to “NZ: Why workplace health and safety can be an open door for sustainability”

  • Darrell O'Sullivan says:

    One of the reasons ‘there are few firms employing someone with a job title like sustainability manager’ is because firms a businesses. They will not survive unless they make money for their shareholders. The very second sustainability managers start earning a crust for the firm, there will be few firms without them.

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