Stability through Sustainability

This article was published in the Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities at West Point – The United States Military Academy.

Authors: Helle Bank Jorgensen and Grant Gibbs

“As we peer into society’s future, we–you and I, and our government–must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” – Dwight D Eisenhower’s Farewell Address January 17, 1961

If ever there was a time when states, businesses and the global community as a whole could operate in a vacuum; where decisions and actions had limited consequences on a global scale, that time has surely past. The planet is changing. Political and ideological arguments aside, a changing planet brings with it instability.

For those whose job it is to provide security and promote peace, instability takes on a more central role; strategy, forethought, historical precedence and tradition are all swept aside when the very stage on which global actors perform is so drastically altered.

Floods, drought, famine, disease, poverty, human rights abuses; leaders have struggled with these issues and will continue to struggle with these issues; however, if given the opportunity to reduce these challenges, if only incrementally, one less refugee crisis or one major epidemic averted, who would not seize that opportunity? The fact of the matter is there will always be a level of instability in the world, but that is no excuse for inaction, especially at a juncture when so much is at stake. The path to greater stability is found through sustainability.

Sustainability is not a buzz word, agenda driven catch phrase or political slogan; sustainability is the basic act of survival. At West Point, on the plateau that General George Washington considered to be the most important strategic position in America, it is pertinent to reflect on the synonyms of sustainable: defendable, defensible, justifiable, maintainable, supportable and tenable.

When planning for a sustainable future, an area of particular concern is sustainable energy. The U.S. Department of Defense is a giant consumer of energy by its very nature. In the past, cheap and reliable fuel sources meant that little concern had to be paid to maintaining the energy needs of this vast institution, but those days have gone and sustainability is of the upmost importance. In April of 2011, the Association of the United States Army in their Torchbearer National Security Report comprehensively outlined how energy security and sustainability are vital to national defence; “the sustainability principle seeks to instill Army-wide change in both culture and practice with regard to energy consumption and generation. Technological investments and developments, operational training, education and facilities management are all critical aspects of instilling a mindset of conservation, efficiency and sustainability.”

Clearly, the mindset and resources are in place to drive sustainability initiatives within the defense industry, what still remains is the opportunity to enhance programs and relationships with the private business sector and implement Integrated Reporting throughout the various branches and arms of the industry.

The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) defines Integrated Reporting (IR) as “a process that results in communication by an organization, most visibly a periodic integrated report, about how an organization’s strategy, governance, performance, and prospects lead to the creation of value over the short, medium and long-term.” IR builds upon currently utilized reporting methods, such as annual earnings reports and sustainability reports, to present additional information about a company’s strategy, governance, and performance. The overall goal of IR is to provide a complete picture of a company, in the social, environmental and economic context within which it operates.

IR incorporates material sustainability information equally alongside financial information, and which embodies a truly multi-stakeholder approach, provides reporting organizations with a broad perspective on risk and opportunities in both the short and long term. IR can provide a window through which the defence industry can better view opportunities for greater sustainability in its operations. Procurements and contracts with businesses that produce Integrated Reports will allow for a greater understanding of their longterm viability. Does a business rely too heavily on climate-sensitive materials? Are they prepared for unforeseen challenges? Will they be able to deliver on their mandate in the face of natural disasters, economic turmoil and other risks? An IR from an affiliated business is a strategic document and the defence industry knows better than anyone about the value of sound strategy and strong allies.

The challenge many businesses face with IR is centered around decision makers and conflicting time frames on strategy. Some say that CEOs are concerned primarily with increasing shareholder profits in the short-term; however, it has never been more important to think long term than it is today. Therefore, the Board of Directors and senior management should, and need
to be, drivers of long-term positive change. Many businesses have joined the UN Global Compact initiative “Business for Peace”, and others have started the journey towards IR and Integrated Thinking, both within the company and the society they are part of; we, the current and future generations, need more individuals and organizations to take steps towards sustainability. IR is a long-term investment that often requires upfront costs. Investing in systems and technology can hurt in the short-term, but it is an investment that is crucial for sustained success.

Sustainability requires outside-the-box thinking and strong strategic leadership; searching for opportunities and applying successful methods from other sectors can make all the difference down the line. Often the best learning comes from other industries. The defense industry, the businesses, the organizations and the countries they operate in need to aim to see the total picture and value natural capital, accountability and integrated thinking while reporting on the impact and progress they are making. All strategies and actions have an impact. Make sure your strategy and actions, as an individual, a leader or an organization are sustainable; defendable, defensible, justifiable, maintainable, supportable and tenable.