by Martin Gibson (4 May 2018)You may have learnt about 'the tragedy of the commons' at some point. This was the term used to describe the effect of individual self-interest on the grazing of common land. Individuals put their own interests before those of the wider community, spoiling the shared resource so that everybody suffered eventually.The observation was first made by William Forster Lloyd in a lecture given in 1832. The language seems rather archaic to the modern reader but the sentiment remains valid. The concept was given a wider audience by Garrett Hardin in 1968. He built upon it further in a paper in Science in 1998 which quotes Lloyd.With a resource available to all, the greediest herdsman would gain - for a while. But mutual ruin was just around the corner.In our everyday business lives, we often work within systems that divorce us from resources that we use. We rarely see the 'commons' that we are affecting and, even if we do, we seem to be such a small contributor to the tragedy that it doesn't seem worth doing anything about it - we continue with our self-interest. Unfortunately, such attitudes look like leading to that 'mutual ruin' as we overtax our environment.So what will solve some of our soon-to-be-pressing environmental problems? Well, recognising the reality of them is a good first step. Then building effective partnerships to tackle the problem. At a global level, the actions in the Montreal Protocol to reverse the degradation of the ozone layer showed what can be done. The actions to date on emissions that lead to climate change are at least starting what could be an effective process.In our day-to-day business, we all need to recognise where our commercial self-interest is likely to undermine the common good. This can be hard when the systems within which we work are far removed from the problems that we are helping to create. It is even harder when the problems may occur a long way into the future.However, many companies have made a start. Often this is by tackling a problem for the 'commons' that aligns with the self-interest of the company - and why not? An obvious example of such an approach is to address energy efficiency. This can bring cost savings to address self-interest and help to mitigate the 'common' of climate change. It also has other potential self-interest benefits in that it can improve a company's reputation, hopefully leading to increased value.Another common issue that has come to the fore with a vengeance is the use of plastics. The options for aligning with company self-interest on this issue seem a bit harder to find at present. However, companies that do so may have a lot to gain.So go on, challenge yourself to find a way to put 'us' before the short-term interest of 'me' (or 'my company'). Hopefully, you will find that being selfless ends up being more rewarding than you thought.Feel free to contact us if you would like to explore taking action.