How businesses can integrate sustainability into core business practices.
The UN's recent report shows some progress towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as outlined in the 2030 Agenda. The responsibility for achieving sustainable and economic transformation rests with all of us. Businesses, in particular, are in a unique position to make a significant difference and to benefit as a result.
What can your company do? The answer lies in looking closely at your internal business practices, and how your business interacts with its surroundings. Companies with a clear and well-managed approach to their environmental and social impacts are in a much better position to shape their future and to benefit from it. Companies worldwide and from a broad variety of sectors have increased their profits by prioritising sustainability, e.g. the Brazilian manufacturer, Natura, and the Spanish conglomerate, Acciona. With this in mind, here are my top five tips for embedding sustainability into your core business practices.
1. Use resources responsibly
Identify, assess, adopt and communicate opportunities to use resources in a smart and efficient way.
- If you already know your sustainability footprint, assess how to reduce it. First identify "low-hanging fruits" which require little or no investment, e.g. through reviewing your use of energy, water and raw materials to avoid waste.
- Record any cost savings you make from reducing your use of resources.
- Next, consider capital investment to enable you to use fewer resources for the same output. This could include adopting best available smart lighting controls, smart commuting solutions and incorporating green building features.
- Define short- and long-term targets that are ambitious yet realistic.
- Communicate these targets internally and externally as this helps to establish real commitment and to engage employees at all levels.
- Revisit targets regularly and readjust them where needed, making these more ambitious; redefine priorities and strategies.
2. Challenge your current operating model
Review familiar processes and procedures to see whether they are still relevant as you shift towards a low-carbon, resource-constrained economy. You may need to redesign your business and operating models.
- Seek opportunities to optimise the movement of people, materials and products.
- Consider whether there is scope to expand your existing operations to generate new income streams. This could be achieved by, for example, identifying new product demands for materials that were previously being treated as waste, or identifying services from using skills and technologies that you already have in-house.
- Replace the traditional "take, make and dispose" operational model for a more innovative approach that recognises waste as an asset. Companies can benefit from challenging the status quo and looking for new ways to deliver the same product or service while reducing the extraction of new materials from the environment. Encourage waste minimisation, reuse and recycling, in line with the principles of circular economy.
- Identify where you can innovate and become more competitive, by reviewing how jobs and roles are structured to eliminate redundant activities and improve scheduling. Consider the risks and benefits of embracing the "Fourth Industrial Revolution" with emerging technologies including artificial intelligence, machine learning and sophisticated levels of automation.
- Incorporate climate change adaptation into your risk management approach to enable your business to be more resilient to extreme weather events and capable of recovering without major disruptions and losses.
- Make sure the importance of sustainability to your business, your employees and to the planet is communicated clearly in your corporate strategy and is reflected in your governance structure.
3. Listen to your employees and get them on board
Encouraging a culture of transformation, where innovation and ideas are valued, respected and result in behaviour change, can take time and effort. This is best achieved through teamwork and engaging your employees.
- Discover problems and solutions from those "in the know" within your company. Reward new ideas and ways of working to foster a positive view of change management.
- Involve individuals and departments in identifying and evaluating which ideas should be prioritised and acted upon. This will help employees to know they have taken part in key decisions and will encourage their ownership of implementation.
- Nurture a culture of openness to air and address problems and avoid blame.
- Advertise and applaud both small and large successes, but note failed attempts too. This will instil a culture which recognises change as progress rather than a threat.
- Identify "champions" to act as "agents of the change" who can communicate current changes and share the associated benefits from successful implementation.
- Actively seek C-suite engagement and buy-in for the efforts to embed sustainability into the core business. This will demonstrate top-down commitment to proposed actions, which may require a reallocation of resources and priorities.
4. Incorporate best practice on diversity, gender equality and social inclusiveness
Companies improve their performance if they incorporate diversity. This will enable progress to be made on SDGs by removing inequalities and establishing enduring improvements.
- Refresh your employment policies to encourage diversity, gender equality and social inclusivity.
- Adjust standard working practices to gain from a wider employee pool and overcome barriers for people with specific needs or disabilities. You can also encourage a flexible work schedule to accommodate employees’ personal and family needs.
- Consider regular training to help embed and refresh good practice. This could include eliminating harassment in the workplace and consolidation of ethical behaviours.
- Have an independent review to ensure equal pay and transparency.
5. Engage with your supply chain and wider communities
Working collaboratively with your local suppliers and competitors and wider communities may further the outreach of your sustainability vision and values.
- Develop skills and capacity among stakeholder groups within your local community to create job opportunities, with a view to incorporating these into the workforce.
- Work closely with municipalities and regulators to explore ways to do more for the community, helping families achieve economic stability and making neighbourhoods safer.
- Offer tangible support (e.g. capacity building) and reward suppliers willing to incorporate sustainable practices into their processes.
- Communicate your improvements and successes to your stakeholders, investors and neighbourhood while asking for their ideas, support and investment.
- Look at best practice both within and outside your industry sector to keep abreast of innovations that can enhance your business and the local community. This can include joining national and global groups and coalitions striving for better sustainability actions.
Need help with becoming a company of the future?
To be a company of the future requires a break with the familiar. We all want access to good housing, employment, facilities and safe neighbourhoods. Your company can take a lead on sustainability and realise enduring improvements. It is not just about taking action but about how you take action: a new perspective, inspiration and sensitive innovation separate the best companies from the rest. This is where ICF can help – please get in touch.