Directors’ Duties and Environmental Responsibilities Print
Written by David Brunnen   
Friday, 05 July 2013 12:52

The 15th World Congress on Environment Management in Delhi on 19/20th July has as its theme Driving Green Economy for Sustainable Development and Inclusive Growth.

IOD IndiaHardened cynics may scoff at the thought that Big Business across the vast Asian subcontinent has been debating environmental sustainability and business attitudes towards it for 15 years but they would risk underestimating the soft power of India’s boardrooms and the scope for a silent revolution.

Certainly this Congress will not be short of eminent speakers – government ministers and city leaders are out in force to join with the top brass of The Institute of Directors (India), leading bankers, major manufacturers and an audience that stretches from students to wise old hands.

One of the IOD’s regular speakers will not, however, be joining them this year on account of other engagements.  As a regular contributor to their conferences and publications, Colin Coulson-Thomas has written a Theme Paper to help delegates prepare for the event.  Colin is a visiting professor at Manipal University - a role similar to his previous service at the leading Indian business school, MDI.

In his paper ‘Addressing Environmental Challenges and Opportunities’ he reviews the contending factors that directors and boards need to consider in respect of environmental challenges.  The interests of stakeholders, compliance with law, competitive market pressures, the evolving interests of increasingly empowered customers and even the personal health interests of individual directors and employees – all these factors combine to make corporate policy leadership particularly challenging.

the global environmentAt the extremes of environmental politics and media pressures there can often be little willingness to appreciate the complexities that directors face in navigating routes through issues that set short-term gains against social responsibility.  Colin discusses the critical questions for policy makers and boards, the importance of timing, the value of focusing on the ‘discrete and manageable’ and the factors to be considered in determining corporate strategies.

Colin also highlights the leadership role of senior civil servants and the courage they require to move the agenda forward.  Fiscal measures, government procurement practice and enforcement (particularly in respect of corrupt officials) are obvious tools for national environmental action but, in these days of digital disruption, it’s becoming steadily more apparent that the power of major cities and their communities to take local action can be influenced (maybe encouraged and enabled) by central attitudes to devolution.

The role of government should not be understated but there remain, however, risks attached to public intervention and the imposition of overhead burdens that may unfairly, somewhat clumsily, impact on enterprise and distort markets.  Colin points out that ‘like a large beast, public decision making can be slow and progress lumbering’.

Colin’s paper concludes with calls for the development of mutually beneficial relationships – deliberately seeking out these opportunities for collaboration – and the need for determined leadership action to engage with employees, customers and stakeholders to ensure that lofty policy decisions are shared, understood and fully implemented.

Clearly the 15th World Congress on Environment Management is a great opportunity for directors and government to compare their own strategies.  Colin’s paper is timely and, even if not read in advance, will be reproduced in the Congress publications.  If profiling it here leads to a wider appreciation of the issues then environmental and sustainability causes will have been well served.


Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas is a member of the business school team at the University of Greenwich and an adjunct visiting professor at Manipal University.   He is author of ‘Transforming Knowledge Management’ and over 40 other books and reports and can be contacted via   A version of his paper on corporate approaches to enviromental management was published in the 5th July issue of Quality Times .