The unintended consequences of doing the right thing

Gudrun Cartwright, Environment Director, Business in the Community on how businesses can minimise the risk of the unintended consequences to the environment 

We are beset by ‘wicked’ problems. Ones that, when we try to solve them, seem only to create more problems. It reminds me of the fairground game ‘whack a mole.’ As soon as you bop one mole on the head, another appears somewhere else. Eventually it becomes so fast and crazy that it’s impossible to keep up. Retailers are replacing plastic bags with paper ones for example, but this could come at the expense of our rainforests through increased deforestation or climate impacts. 
 
On 25 June the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) produced a report on the impacts of palm oil on biodiversity that highlighted the challenges of trying to tackle these complex, systemic issues. Anyone who has watched the ‘Red Ape’ documentary will be horribly aware of the plight of the Orangutan, one of our closest relatives, resulting from massive deforestation for palm oil production.  
 
Progress to ensure that palm oil is produced sustainably is frustratingly slow, despite the efforts of many.  With palm oil estimated to be used in 50% of products sold in supermarkets (from lipsticks to biscuits) it is, like plastic, an essential part of our modern world, so it would seem we need to change.  However, the report suggests that switching to alternatives would have much bigger impacts, in land use alone. How do you weigh up these wider impacts against the loss of such precious habitat and iconic species?   The ability to preserve these habitats against the ability of people to feed their families?
 
There is huge scope for businesses to lead the charge.To help companies work through these challenges, here are 5 top tips for thinking through wicked problems to minimise the risk of unintended consequences:
 
1. Take your time
Don’t feel that you need to find instant solutions to hot topics and avoid knee-jerk reactions which may create new and bigger problems. Formulate a plan to show that you are addressing the problems in a systematic way and give some idea of timelines. Share that so people know you are on it.
 
2. Clearly articulate the problem you are trying to solve  
Whether it’s reducing single use plastic, stopping deforestation resulting from your products or getting to science-based carbon targets, it must be in simple terms so that everyone is clear and focused on the same ultimate goal.  
 
3. Identify a number of potential solutions
Try to think beyond the usual or the obvious. Options can include finding reusable rather than single use options to cut down on waste rather than replacing it with another type of waste, materials could be completely eradicated by reformulating, new processes or ways to meet customer needs can be adopted or innovative possibilities can be uncovered by engaging with your customers and suppliers.
 
4. Assess the impact of potential solutions on other key social and environmental issues
Switching one product/material for another could have big negative impacts on land use, carbon emissions, water use and human rights, therefore a thorough assessment is crucial. The UN Sustainable Development Goals could be a useful lens to sense-check across a range of issues. You could also check with your trade body to see what other companies are doing, or if there are any innovations on the horizon. This assessment is also an opportunity to find a solution that has multiple benefits across issues that are important to your business and customers.
 
5. Identify the solution that gives you the most bang for your buck, then implement!
Make your decision, supported by a clear rationale and evidence, and develop an implementation plan and decide what, how and when you want to communicate publicly. A small trial to test the idea before going large will flush out any unexpected consequences. Play devil’s advocate with yourself and think through which difficult questions you might be asked and how you could answer them.  Keep the end goal in mind, be prepared to be flexible and review the impacts of your initiative regularly. And last but by no means least as collaborative action brings the best results, share your successes and your learning so that others can follow in your footsteps.