In the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a trio of American miners, headed by Humphrey Bogart, open up a secret gold mine in Mexico and rip out gold ore.
When they finish one of the older men asks that they close up the mine and make good the landscape. The others over rule him and jeering make off. The imputation is that they behaved badly and this underlines their own subsequent descent into treachery and betrayal. The book was written in Mexico in 1927 by a writer named Traven and must have sat uneasily with movie moguls. Traven had a natural sympathy for the oppressed, the campesinos of Mexico, and the natural world laid bare by man’s greed. Sadly Traven’s oddly prescient tale is as relevant to the wider world today as it was in post-revolutionary Mexico 80 years ago.
Making money may not be wrong but ripping gold out of hills in a poor country, rigging interest rates, sweeping the seas clean of fish and burning up rain forests trouble all thinking people. The difference now is the consumer is in a position to do something about it.
The business world itself is changing and public pressure is driving the change. Social and environmental responsibility once jeered at as beard and sandal wishful thinking is being sown in to commercial practice with all the trepidation of a first competence assessment. Organisations need to sustain the people they work with and the communities they serve – whether those are defined as customers, shareholders, staff or simply the cities and countryside nearby. Irresponsible industrial development has come under the searching scrutiny of the thinking public as never before. The consensus emerging is that the institutions that narrate the economic competence of our time are not up to the task.
Sustainability involves careful audit of business and place. Can rain water be re-used from the roofs or towers of factories and houses? Are staff and their families looked after, encouraged to think and develop, to grow as people as well as producers?
As individuals sustainability involves personal responsibility – cycling or walking instead of always taking the car, recycling plastic and glass, using grey water. More than this it implies integrity in business dealings. Sustaining confidence demands honesty and accountability, a ready explanation of the suspicious swings and margins common to any business.
Happily the rail industry already has plenty to shout about in any sustainability discussion. Financial arrangements for Network Rail, fare regulation and hotly discussed pay settlements mean much of the railway’s financial affairs are windowed with transparent accountancy procedures. Joe Public might moan about high fares but at least Joe knows how her fare is spent. The industry itself can’t help but be a greener way of travelling and moving freight. Imagine if all London’s commuter belt elected to drive into work one morning. Run traction on renewable energy and the industry is a sure fire winner. New railway buildings are now put up with green roofs, rain water harvesting and solar panels. Network Rail’s new headquarters in Milton Keynes is a case in point. Developments in regenerative braking make economic sense and well as saving energy.
Corporate responsibility starts early in the railway. It’s a safety intensive industry with one of the most direct consumer-supplier relationship in business. What do passengers want to see on trains and stations? Guards and drivers, dispatchers and ticket clerks. Certainly all these roles will change but the need of hands-on staff to sustain the customer–provider relationship is imperative and is ignored by industry bosses at their peril. Similarly handling huge amounts of cash, operating under a stringent alcohol and drugs policy demands a level of personal probity all too lacking in the commercial finance industry.
Personal responsibility is a big part of the railway’s sustainability achievement. One of the bizarre features of the rail industry are the gardens staff plant out. When one train crew dept at the Brent in London was in the process of moving staff were told the garden – and pond – would be abandoned and paved over. However an appeal to the penultimate chairman of BR – Sir Bob Reid on a visit to the Brent – drew a hearty response: of course you must keep it. The suits subsequently huffed and puffed but the exchange had been witnessed by several people and Reid was not a man to back down on a promise. The garden, including the pond, was recreated several hundred yards up the line at the new centre.
Sustainability is a subject everyone can help with and draws on the expertise and support of the people who make up the businesses, together with their customers and suppliers. The rail industry with its green credentials and emphasis on human relationships has a head start. The Mexican Revolution might have petered out in corruption, tears and dust but perhaps the treasure of Sierra Madre is not as far from us all as we think.