Amanda Long, CEO of sustainability and behaviour change consultancy Corporate Culture, explains why ticking the CSR box is not enough - businesses have to make sustainability a core strategy if they are to succeed long-term.
Before going any further, I want to address the definition of ‘green’. The term ‘green’ and what it encompasses has evolved hugely since its first steps into the mainstream during the beginnings of the CSR and sustainability debate in the early 90s. ‘Green’ is an instantly limiting term, solely denoting environmental issues and therefore merely scratching the surface of the realities businesses are facing today.
Private, public and third sector organisations have spent years talking about different definitions for sustainability. The discussion going on right now is that the sustainable future of business must start by providing customers with the products and services they need to live more sustainable lives. By doing this, industry will contribute to creating sustainable communities and stronger, more sustainable markets to operate in.
How does a business begin to achieve this? By putting long-term strategic thinking at the heart of the organisation and what it does.
Today, many businesses are complying with basic ‘green’ hygiene factors - monitoring paper and ink use, recycling, turning computers off at night to mention a few - and these hygiene factors have increased since the 90s, largely thanks to indexes such as the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) and Business in the Community Corporate Responsibility Index. As a guide, these indexes have real value and have helped shape how businesses respond to environmental responsibility. However, indexes can also serve as a drag on innovation precisely because they allow businesses to rely on a framework, which makes people think, if the boxes are ticked, the business is officially ‘being green’.
The core issue, of course, is that ticking the box is not enough. Being sustainable must become the core strategy of your business – not a sporadic add-on.
Not enough businesses are going beyond tick-boxing. When discussing leadership in sustainability the same names come up time and time again – Unilever, Marks & Spencer, Interface Flor, General Electric and recently O2 are a few prominent examples. The fact that there are a small number of real examples of companies making transformational changes to their core strategy speaks volumes about the very early stage we are still currently at and how much work there is to do.
O2’s Chief Executive, Ronan Dunne sums up the issue perfectly: “A truly sustainable future, in an environmental, social and economic sense, requires businesses like ours to take bold steps to tackle our shared social and environmental challenges”.
Dunne has put his money where his mouth is - O2’s ambitious three year sustainability plan, the Think Big Blueprint, promises to stimulate social and environmental advancement by delivering up to 4 million tonnes of carbon savings and equipping one million young people with vital skills. Crucially, this is not just ticking another box, as Dunne explains: “This blueprint is not simply a ‘nice to have’. In an era of heightened economic and social concern, it’s an essential part of our long term business strategy that will enable us to unlock sustainable growth and encourage positive environmental change.”
He is right. A genuinely sustainable business needs to consider the impact of the products and services it delivers across its whole lifecycle and value chain. The focus for business therefore increasingly needs to be on how business can help create more sustainable communities by making it easy for customers to live more sustainable lives, thereby helping to build stronger, more sustainable markets and there being no separation between what is termed as 'economic value' and 'social value'.
Unilever has been a key player in driving this thinking forward with its Sustainable Living Plan – a ‘whole new way of doing business to increase the positive social benefits arising from its activities while recuing its environmental impacts’. Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, has given the company three core goals to be achieved by 2020:
- Halving the environmental footprint of its products
- Helping more than 1 billion people take action to improve their health and well-being
- Sourcing 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials sustainably
In doing this, Unilever is taking responsibility not just for its direct operations but for its suppliers, distributors and - crucially - for how its consumers use its brands.
It is this changed focus on outcomes, not input, that sets the progressive businesses apart.
What are the barriers to sustainability business success?
The core barrier is that we are creatures of the here and now. The frameworks around which our society functions are not currently ‘sustainability-shaped’. Austerity has exacerbated this, pushing peoples’ focus into an even more short-term timescale. A lot of people are just thinking how they will get through the next year. But until we value things differently and stop collectively thinking, “Well I won’t be around when climate change will really start to have an impact” or “I can’t make a difference just by myself”, businesses, in turn, will not change their approach. This is because business’ short-term, profit-driven mindset matches that of the societies that make up its customers.
Until business commits long-term to building change, this will be a permanent barrier.
The good news is that there are businesses that are already setting the behaviour change cogs in motion by fundamentally re-evaluating their business strategy. A good example of a smaller company putting sustainability at the heart of its business, ahead of profit, is the clothing company Patagonia
. The brand is now actively encouraging consumers to buy less of its new apparel - the premise being that the apparel is of such good quality that you need much less of it. Patagonia thus intends to influence its consumer behaviour to help lower the environmental strain from ever growing consumption levels and throwaway culture.
Marks & Spencer has taken this further with its Shwop initiative
. What is so impressive about Shwop is that we are seeing a huge business start to look at closed-loop processes in relation to product manufacture. Encouraging customers to recycle instead of buy-buy-buy is a wonderful example of a new, embracing approach that doesn’t directly drive market share, but rather encourages sustainable growth in the long-term.
So how can you make your business more sustainable?
We all need to take steps to ensure we are doing everything we can to gear businesses towards a sustainable society. You need to look at your organisation and think, how can we make ‘sustainable’ business as usual? If you have a volunteering program or tree-planting program, that’s great – but it’s not enough. What are you doing as a business, through the actual products and services you offer, to make people’s lives easier and better in the longer term?
What initiatives can you put in place that will improve the impact your business offering has on the community around you? If you are starting up a new business, think long and hard about why you are. What is the reason for the business to exist? What is it bringing to the world? What is its purpose?
Marketing and communications play an important part in this process. Telling the world what you are doing and what should be expected of your company is more important than ever. So take a good look at how you are representing your company to the outside world, because the average consumer doesn’t know. They don’t go to company websites and check the authenticity of a business’ “green claims”, which is why these claims need to be clearly communicated at every touch point, where the message is taken at face value.
Ultimately, businesses can no longer operate outside the context of a society with limited resources and hope for long-term sustainability. But when they work within that society, they can take advantage of the opportunities to become the life support of nations for the long-term - for example, moving from simply supplying food to teaching people how to eat better and reduce waste.
In the long run, the businesses that continue to sacrifice this bigger picture in favour of short-term gains will be left out in the cold.