As civil engineers are we doing enough to meet our corporate responsibility?
The phrases sustainability and sustainable development started to become common language in the late 1980s with the “Brundtland definition” published by the United Nations Environment Programme. The terms are now used in everyday language, albeit with differing definitions, and tend to have a common theme of the need to balance the environmental, social and economic elements of development.
In the mid-to-late 1990s the phrase corporate social responsibility started to gain widespread usage. Many companies take it to mean employee volunteering schemes and other philanthropic activities.
Others have a broader definition that includes issues such as community engagement, job creation, diversity, ethical purchasing and environmental enhancements.
So its title can be somewhat misleading. To try and redress this, some now use the simplified term corporate responsibility to define their overall response to delivering sustainable development. In the ICE’s Environment and Sustainability Panel we have for some time agreed that this is a more appropriate title which better reflects the need to embed sustainable development in the whole business.
However, with intense media focus on the current economic situation, the term corporate responsibility has been hijacked by some to comment on the actions of top corporate executives, with the broader meaning being sidelined.
The ICE’s vision is to put engineers “at the heart of society, delivering sustainable development through knowledge, skills and professional expertise”. So dealing with sustainable development and societal issues is at the core of what we do. But is it? How comprehensively do we consider the social impacts of what we design and construct. For instance could you list all the social impacts of your current project and do you know how to deal with them?
As engineers, we are well versed in addressing economic issues, with many tools available that help to ensure that clients receive value for money from their projects. The need for environmental impact assessments on many infrastructure projects has brought focus to the environmental agenda.
Over recent years a variety of other tools have been developed to assist civil engineers in minimising the adverse environmental impacts and maximising the positive environmental effects of their projects. These include the ICE-supported CEEQUAL scheme (see www. ceequal.com) which, in addition to assessing environmental performance, does consider some social impacts of projects.
But there are few tools available to help civil engineers identify all of the social issues and then assist in delivering high quality solutions to them. This would seem to be a weak link in preventing the holistic consideration of sustainable development.
It is therefore one of the key areas that the ICE Environment and Sustainability Panel are investigating to provide guidance and tools to help civil engineers fully understand and deliver best practice on social issues, in the way that is happening increasingly with environmental performance. To kick this work off a workshop was held on 24 April as part of the President’s visit to the East Midlands, this will be followed up with a London event in the autumn.
- Ian Nicholson is Environment and Sustainability Panel chairman, Responsible Solutions managing director and CEEQUAL technical manager.