An introduction to BS 8900 Guidance for Managing Sustainable Development

British Standard 8900 is a guidance document providing organisations (both public and private) with a framework to continually improve and meet stakeholder needs along a path towards sustainable development. Here, sustainable development is defined as the enduring, balanced approach to social progress, economic activity and environmental responsibility.

I have written recently on my problem with the term sustainable development in my article Is the term sustainable development a hindrance? Excluding the inherent contradiction in this term for now, the standard still provides a useful structure to assess the sustainability of an organisation.

In the standard, four principles are introduced as a minimum: Inclusivity, Integrity, Stewardship and Transparency. A maturity matrix is included to allow organisations to benchmark and then track their performance against these principles.

This article will provide an overview of each along with some suggestions for additional principles that organisations may opt to include in their assessments.

1) Inclusivity

In order to progress on a sustainability journey, the standard highlights the need for organisations to have a clearly stated intention to include key stakeholders in the development of strategy, corporate planning and future directions taken. It explicitly states that stakeholders should not be excluded based on bias (gender, racial, etc.) or because of the difficulty of engaging with a particular individual or sector.

This is clearly very much aligned with the new requirements of ISO 14001: 2015 Clause 4.2 Understanding the needs and expectations of interested parties. Because of this overlap and due to my belief that the new ISO 14001 is a powerful tool, I will refer to stakeholders as interested parties from now on.

For most organisations, many of the interested parties will be similar, consisting of employees, customers, regulators, suppliers and local communities. Specific organisations may have other interested parties such as investors and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dependent on the type of organisation and the interest in its operations.

It is important that organisations identify their key interested parties and engage with them to inform the organisation’s sustainability journey. My article Identifying Interested Parties provides some ideas for how to go about this.

1. Inclusivity

2) Integrity

In order to achieve sustainability, an organisation must be able to demonstrate that it is following commonly held ethical norms and that it is complying with laws and regulations in the locations where it operates.

Interestingly, and going back to my point at the beginning, I would question if simply following existing norms and laws equates to true sustainability. As I have recently discussed, changing governance around the world is putting increased pressure on businesses, charities and other organisations to drive agendas. We have already established that there is a big gap between current societal behaviours and law on issues such as climate change and therefore business has a significant leadership role to play.

This can include lots of different considerations including: bribery, abuse, oppression, corruption, political donations, gifts, contracts and so on.

To support these, organisations should conduct regular risk analysis to inform policies, training and reporting. The success of these should be audited and regularly reviewed to drive continual improvement.

Fundamentally, an organisation must have a positive culture with ethical values that run throughout its activities and ideally into supply chain as we will discuss in the next section.

2. Ethics vs Legal.jpg

3) Stewardship

Organisations must be accountable and take responsibility for the management of their activities from all angles and at all stages of the life span of their products and services. This stretches from design, through resource extraction and manufacturing to customer use and eventual end of life.

The standard highlights that this includes building a recognition of the life cycle environmental and social impacts and developing skills and actions to reduce them. This aligns neatly with the concept of the circular economy where the word “waste” is replaced with “resources” with little or nothing truly going to waste. In this way, the system would mirror that of nature.

3. Circular Economy.png

4) Transparency

Organisations should be open about decisions and activities that affect society, the economy and the environment. There should be a presumption, according to the standard, in favour of transparency, so that information is accessible online or on request unless there are reasons to withhold it.

One of the main ways that organisations can demonstrate this transparency is through their sustainability reporting. Achieving third party verification and certification through initiatives such as The Carbon Trust or CEMARS will add additional trust in what is reported.

To achieve true sustainability and open dialogue with parties covered in section 1, it will be necessary to respond to requests for additional information by interested parties. This should be seen as an opportunity to build trust, but also receive useful feedback that could assist in continual improvement or even lead to a whole new innovation opportunity.

4. Transparency or Feedback

Additional Principles:

BS 8900 invites organisations to consider other principles that will support them in their journey towards true sustainability. Having mapped out a large number of principles and ruled them out as coming under the four prescribed I have come up with the five below as additional and valuable for consideration by an organisation.

  • Loyalty – Organisations must commit to long-term mutually rewarding relationships with interested parties in order to deliver on the sustainability vision.
  • Passion – Organisations must demonstrate a keen interest in their product and in achieving the sustainability vision in order to bring staff, customers and suppliers along on the journey.
  • Determination – Achieving true sustainability will be difficult and may at times seem near impossible. Therefore organisations will need to show resilience and not be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Empathetic – In working towards sustainability, organisations must understand the challenges that other interested parties deal with, and what they care about in order to align goals and maximise the role they can play in delivering a sustainability strategy.
  • Ambitious – True sustainability is no mean feat, and in many areas, such as climate change and biodiversity, there is an urgency that will require ambition that breaks out of the traditional gradual improvement of environmental management up until now.

I would be very interested in hearing what other principles readers can think of.


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