Do as I Say, Not as I do!
The Commissioner’s conclusions are more than a disappointment. They are tantamount to a signal to business leaders and others that what government departments preach about sustainable development can be safely ignored, because they themselves do not take the subject seriously.
Sustainable development is the approach Canada and many other countries have chosen to protect the environment while achieving social and economic progress. It has taken time, but most business leaders now recognize the social and economic imperatives associated with environmental sustainability, and are to a varying degree adjusting their enterprises accordingly. For some larger corporate entities, these changes represent a profound reorientation of their entire business strategies and in some cases, the re-structuring of their enterprises.
In many cases, private enterprises are listening to the pronouncements of the government departments and agencies that in one form or another influence or guide their activities. Indeed, notes the report, since 1995, the government has been consistent in articulating its commitment to turning sustainable development thinking into practice across departments. It has been persuasive in speaking, both in Canada and internationally, about the improvements to our quality of life that a sustainable development approach can deliver.
However, the Commissioner notes, those same departments appear not to be following the very precepts they advocate for others, and that the development of the strategies has become little more than a mechanical exercise, focused on satisfying statutory requirements. We are now at a stage where government departments are saying “Do as I say, not as I do!”
In particular, the report says that over the past decade most departments examined by the Commissioner have not identified the significant sustainable development impacts of their policies and programs and how those impacts would be addressed, which was Parliament’s expectation for these strategies.
Further, despite repeated commitments, there is still no sustainable development strategy for the federal government as a whole to guide the efforts of the 32 departments and agencies now producing strategies. In addition, the guidance provided to departments for their most recent strategies is ambiguous and optional.
It is clear to many business leaders that sustainable development principles are becoming increasingly important in terms of how they conduct their business activities. This often requires management at all levels of an enterprise to consider the social, economic, and environmental consequences of their policies and activities, now and for the future.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister John Baird have repeatedly stated that sustainability is to be the guiding principle behind all government policies and regulatory decision making, and that businesses both large and small must heed the message.
If that is the case, the time is ripe for the government to set its own house in order before it preaches to others and to examine how its own sustainable development strategies will contribute to its overall goals for a sustainable Canada.
We are all in this effort together and there is nothing to be gained from finger pointing. But the Environment Commissioner’s observations are a telling reminder that we must all pull our weight equally and that we must work together in common cause for progress.