A good score, I thought: I was halfway through my session on sustainability in China and its impact on business when I asked the group of students in front of me whether they think business should care about sustainability and the environment in their operations.
All hands went up to indicate, yes, business should care.
I had hoped to have some discussion at this point between students saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. So I had to improvise a bit. But it was a good starting point to talk a little about why and in what way business should go about this.
My session was part of a week of events at the International Business School of Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences on the theme of Become a global citizen – Engage with the world.
Business impact of sustainability in China
I chose to talk about China: developments in China in the field of environment(al protection) and more broadly on sustainability are important to know about because of their impact on the world (think of China’s essential part in tackling global climate change) and on international business active in China. For example, the consequences of tightened environmental legislation on suppliers of Dutch businesses manufacturing in China.
It can also bring opportunities: the need to quickly find solutions for more sustainable urban development for example is a field in which Dutch organisations and businesses are actively working together with Chinese (local) governments and partners with their own expertise. Other opportunities may be in the field of environmental technology. Other areas that China will need to focus on include energy efficiency and establishing infrastructure for (renewable) energy.
But back to my students: how did they see this impact, or what did they think companies could do?
I shared some numbers and statistics on the amount of production that is done in China. Did you know that 90% of the world production of personal computers comes from China? This triggered some questions from students, such as a comment from one student who assumed her MacBook was produced in the United States, so much of my arguments wouldn’t relate to this. Sadly, that isn’t true.
Responsibility of business or consumers?
It was one question of many that showed that – even if students believe that yes, companies have a responsibility to do something on this topic – they struggled with what their own responsibility for this is. A lack of information came up a few times: how do I know what products are ‘good’? But also the question whether this is up to the consumer to take into consideration: shouldn’t it just be part of regular business to include responsible business practices, without having to bother the consumer to chose?
For me, it was a stark reminder that so many topics that I assume are common knowledge (the use of conflict minerals in smartphones, for example) are actually not common knowledge. And that the (theoretical) power that is sometimes given to consumers is only partly true in reality. There need to be a lot of other arguments for corporations (and governments) to move toward more sustainable practices, including in China.