While there are myriad perspectives on sustainability and corporate responsibility, each with its own unique value, I often find myself focusing on sustainability’s operational aspects: What can we do to increase the pace at which belief in sustainability translates into concrete actions that benefit the environment, society and business? To me*, a key question is how we get more done, how we “hardwire” sustainability into the way businesses operate.
The time is right to focus on the how of increasing sustainability because so much great work has already been done on the what over the years, and sustainability has come to be so well-known in business. For example, the concept of the triple bottom line (social, environmental, economic) is now decades old, and it has been remarkably successful at becoming part of the thinking of businesspeople (There is, however, a long way to go in terms of becoming fully integrated into the day-to-day operation of businesses, as we will discuss later).
While in years past sustainability and responsibility efforts had to fight being perceived as distractions, surveys now routinely find it is perceived as important — for example, one found that 93 percent of CEOs see sustainability as important to their company’s future success. In this context, it makes sense to me that our primary challenge is less about raising awareness of sustainability and responsibility and more about raising the level of action related to it.
Part of raising the level of action is addressing issues that frequently stand in the way of businesses doing more. While there are many barriers, I believe a core issue is the tendency to see sustainability as separate from the business, rather than as integral to how it creates value. This has two key components:
- Cultural: Sustainability being seen as not as rigorous or financially valuable as other areas of the business
- Conceptual: Sustainability being seen as tangential, or as outside of the core of how the business creates value
Separation from the business
The response to this perceived disconnect between sustainability and the business can be twofold: First, to demonstrate that sustainability is being run with the same culture of performance (e.g., rigor, focus on value) as the rest of the business; second, to illuminate the links between sustainability and the value-creation engine of the business.
One effective way to address the culture of performance aspect is to run sustainability programs with the same management rigor and focus on value, meeting the same business case requirements and using the same performance improvement processes as the rest of the business. Over the years, many studies — and my personal experience — have found that one of the top barriers to doing more around sustainability is the difficulty of demonstrating the business case. As just one example, a report commissioned by the Institute of Chartered Management Accountants states that sustainability will only be embedded in an organization if it is supported by a robust business case linked to tangible benefits.
I’ve spent over a decade trying to address this specific issue, in particular working on how to better measure and grow the true value sustainability produces for an organization. In my experience, better valuation of sustainability’s benefits produces two key benefits: Proving and Improving. Proving the value sustainability brings is important: first, because a business that underestimates the value of sustainability may then underinvest in it, and, second, because the act of quantifying and valuing benefits can bring sustainability efforts in line with the rest of the business, where that kind of value-focused analysis is a core activity.