Why sustainability is key to business success

Gone are the days when discussions of sustainability risks and opportunities for business were the preserve of the few. In fact, it’s rare for a week to go by without another company committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero, minimise the use of plastic or ensure suppliers subscribe to new labour standards. At the same time, governments are calling for more progress and legislation is changing rapidly.

Sustainability is no longer a buzzword trend. We’re seeing a revolution in how we work, with leading companies choosing to put sustainability at their core. Having worked in the sector for more than 30 years, I find this transformation in attitudes and behaviours remarkable.

The time when corporate responsibility and sustainability were seen as longhand for charitable donations and environmental management activities, or a distraction from increasing profit and boosting the share price, is long past. Increasingly, corporate success is defined by a broader range of measures that go beyond the financial and embrace social, environmental and ethical impacts.

A key driver in this change is a shift in focus from shareholders to stakeholders. Companies now understand they must engage with those whose lives they impact. This has been greatly helped by institutional investors who, with their increasing interest in environmental and social performance, have challenged boards to look beyond the short term.

Putting purpose on a par with profit

Leading businesses now recognise that purpose is as important as profit. However, this doesn’t make things easier as corporates must now make difficult decisions, which in turn must be supported by the right resources, financial, human and intellectual.

Although this may be hard, the next steps are vital. Prioritise the issues that are truly material to a business and avoid knee jerks or gut reactions. I don’t advocate a slowing down in momentum, but for considered decision-making based on professional expertise and an understanding of all stakeholders, not just the most vociferous.

Given the scale and complexity of the challenges, even the largest global businesses will struggle to address them alone. Collaboration is key as it enables us to share insights and develop innovative solutions that benefit all.

We’re starting to see some really groundbreaking partnerships, which draw on the knowledge and experience of the private and public sectors, NGOs and academia. Traditional barriers to NGO-private sector partnerships are gradually being broken down. Companies must now work collaboratively with their competitors to succeed.

Our ideas of what represents best practice are changing rapidly. Those involved in setting and implementing strategy need to be experts, equipped with the most up-to-date knowledge. Sustainability expertise must be recognised and recruited in the same way we’d recruit accountants or human resources professionals, while ensuring other business functions understand sustainability.

How to help sustainability evolve

All this requires change. The Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (ICRS) supports the evolving sustainability industry by setting a framework for core competencies, sharing best practice and pooling knowledge. We mentor those who are just starting out and provide recognition for those leading the way. We provide a platform to share ideas, celebrate what’s good and challenge what needs to change.

Put simply, our aim is to ensure individuals and organisations can put words into action, converting corporate responsibility and sustainability aspirations into meaningful achievements, for themselves and for the world we live in.

We still have much to do, but the realisation that sustainability is now integral to business success, and supported by dedicated and knowledgeable professionals, fills me with hope for the future.