Biotechnologies & Sustainable Development

Injecting the issue of sustainable development into corporate strategy and management policy is still an emerging idea, but one headed quickly for the mainstream, as reflected, for example, in the Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the increasing number of companies applying for ISO 14001 certification, and the flurry of publications of guidelines and standards on this topic.

The same trend is also prominent within the French public sector, with France’s SNDD (National Strategy on Sustainable Development), and the multitude of local Agenda 21 projects, whether they are at a town, department or regional level.

Sustainable development covers many economic, social and environmental issues. Each economic sector has its own constraints, specific impacts, and is subject to varying degrees of pressure from both authorities and the general public. In terms of management, generic approaches soon prove themselves limited. International organizations, like GRI or WBCSD have issued sectorial supplements, for example for the banking, cement/gypsum, and paper industries.

Sustainable development still raises many difficult issues when it comes to biotechnologies. There are still no relevant sectorial supplements, and, there is a common (and natural) association in the public’s mind between biotechnology and GMOs, which remains a major stumbling block in Europe. The argument that GMOs will help feed the burgeoning populations in the south, or that they will solve environmental problems, has been amply used, but with an overtone of salesmanship more than as part of a truly transparent communication process. As things stand in 2004, a good, well balanced governance of the biotechnology sector still seems a distant goal.

Yet there is much common ground between biotechnology and sustainable development, both negative and positive. There are opportunities for novel human therapies, improvements to the food supply, reduction of agricultural chemical pollutants, renewable fuels, low-VOC plasticizers and renewable solvents. Beyond this are threats to health and the environment still on the horizon, particularly with regards to biodiversity, an aggravation of the north/south divide, and the unimagined consequences these might entail.

Both researchers and corporations in the biotech field have an obvious and crucial role to play in the pursuit of sustainable development.

Biotechnology companies are subject to a strict regulatory framework and many activities are highly standardized. Consequently, the sector is generally at the cutting edge when it comes to quality management, as is the case in public research institutes where there is a distinct effort and the results are tangible.

The widespread use of quality management tools and methods gives this sector a solid platform for implementing good practices in sustainable management. Objectives may vary, and the notion of “client oriented” management may have to be rethought so as to include all the stakeholders. Nonetheless, the foundations are already there : process control, organization, resources management, and the ability to commit to a dynamic of continual improvement.

The PDCA cycle (Plan, Do, Check, Act), along with other creativity and problem solving tools, provides an appropriate framework for managing complexity as well as analyzing cross-expectations from customers, shareholders, the authorities and the general public. When applied, a plan of action can be determined, implemented and monitored, either within a logical framework of gradual/progressive improvement, or by establishing mid- and long-term goals and defining a roadmap to achieve them.

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