Adopting Sustainability to Drive Business: What is Sustainability?

We look at what s sustainability and how understanding the system can make any business of any size perform better.

Adopting Sustainability to Drive Business: What is Sustainability?

This series of four short articles begins with an introduction to the system of sustainability. I describe how there the 10 essential elements of sustainability that fit together and how understanding the system can make any business of any size perform better.

What does sustainability mean for business?

Sustainability is really just about being a better business. It is about using less, reducing waste, becoming more efficient, and thinking longer term. If business can do this, whilst meet the needs of customers and other stakeholders, then it will be survive and prosper.

Traditional sustainability is defined by the overlap between social, environmental and environment.

In this series of articles I will discuss how any business, of any size can become sustainable by improving its focus on some key elements of business behavior. I will show sustainability is a system of interconnected activities, and how business can create (or lever) positive changes in one aspect of the business by subtle improvements in another.

In this first article I intend to highlight how this works and provide insight that may help you to identify your own levers for change.

I hope to demonstrate that sustainability isn’t a cost for the business, but an opportunity to create value, be more efficient, productive and organised.

Classic triple-bottom line sustainability model highlighting some of the issues that may impact on a business depending on the nature of its operations, based on the findings of World Commission on Environment and Development who published a report entitled ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987

Figure 1: Classic triple-bottom line sustainability model highlighting some of the issues that may impact on a business depending on the nature of its operations, based on the findings of World Commission on Environment and Development who published a report entitled ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987.

The business case for sustainability

I’ve helped businesses manage emerging risks for over 16 years. I’ve work across three continents, in more than 20 countries, and for companies ranging in size from 5 employees in a shared office, to some of the biggest companies in the world. In almost every engagement I’ve been involved the basic project objective could be summed up as being either ‘to stop something bad happen’, or to ‘make some good things happen’. The ultimate objective is always the same – make the business better.

During the last 8 years when I’ve been concentrating on sustainability, I’ve been helping business understand how sustainability can make the business better. What must be done to stop bad things happening, and what should be done to make good things happen.

What makes the connection?

Figure 2. What makes the connection?

The sustainability system is made up of the following elements.

  1. A Push. Someone, a regulator or a stakeholder (i.e. customer, employee, industry body) might be telling you to. Or you may be driven to a more social and environmentally responsible approach by another force (A passionate Director or CEO, an NGO or by community pressures)
  2. A Pull. You want to get something out of sustainability. You want to improve your leadership credentials, reputation, and/or you want to save money, resources or create new sustainable revenue streams.

Connecting the pushes and pulls are the links are those which ‘make it happen’. These are as applicable for any business of any size therefore particular attention should be focused on:

  1. Adopting good practice Corporate Governance standards, policies and processes
  2. Transparency to the market and to customers through public reporting of robust sustainability baseline data, targets and performance against those targets
  3. Resource and process efficiency; reducing energy consumption, carbon emissions and waste; and
  4. Employee well-being and engagement; to include encouraging diversity, equality, a healthy and safe working environment and fair and transparent reward

The relationship between the 10 elements that shape the business case for sustainability can be presented as follows:

Pushes, links and pulls for sustainability strategy

Figure 3: Pushes, links and pulls for sustainability strategy

This can also be shown diagrammatically below. The arrows represent where the positive outcomes will flow.

The Sustainable Business System

Figure 4: The Sustainable Business System

In this model I have isolated those elements that force the changes, those elements which represent the processes that deliver a change, and those that represent the positive outcomes of the system.

What does it all mean?

The big message from all this analysis is that management time and resources should be focused on the “links”. These are the elements that will lead to positive outcomes that are pushing or pulling the need to be sustainable. In developing strategy for sustainability, business should consider the following:

What is sustainability – What is your personal view of sustainability. If you had to map your business against each of the 10 elements I highlighted above, what would that look like? What would stand out? Where are your current strengths and weaknesses?

What do you want – What do you want your business to look like in the future? What will make it a strong and successful business, and what could threaten this vision?

Materiality – what issues are important to the business, what issues could make a real difference to the way that the business operates?

To implement effective change, a business still needs a sound strategy, supported by good systems, information and data to effectively make decisions. If done well, sustainability will lead your business towards better performance.

Coming Next…

In the next article I describe how sustainable business practices can create both tangible and intangible value for business reflected in company valuations and profitability. 2: Driven to Sustainability by the Expectations of Stakeholder


Simon Humphrey is the UK Managing Director for Impact Sustainability www.impactsustainability.co.uk. All images and diagrams included in this document were designed and created by Simon Humphrey

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