Make no mistake, corporate sustainability has been growing in significance for some time. Take a look at any company’s website (including ours), and you’re likely to see the words “sustainability” or “sustainable development” scattered somewhere on its pages. Elsewhere, things like climate change and man-made natural disasters have become an increasing part of the public conscience. And while global life expectancy has improved, the Earth itself only has so many resources to go around before they’re depleted completely.
Because of these things, corporate sustainability has become such a hot-button issue that many believe a sustainability programme is no longer optional, it’s essential. And while it’s still a relatively new concept, corporate sustainability has been recognised as an ever-increasing means of securing future business success.
Whether you’re unclear on what such programmes entail or you’re unsure how to put one into practice, this guide is for you. Below, we’ll take a look at what corporate sustainability programmes are, how they can benefit your business, and how you can implement one as part of your wider business strategy.
Why is a corporate sustainability programme important?
Businesses influence the decisions we make and have the power to change people’s lives for the better. In fact, the biggest businesses can appear more like governments in the way they act and present themselves.
When a business wears its sustainability on its sleeve, it encourages societies and communities to take a similar approach to their own behaviours. And it’s a process that goes both ways too. It’s no secret that both governments and the public are increasingly pushing for companies to integrate greener practices into their operations.
When they know businesses are listening to and acting on their wishes, the public is more likely to trust the actions and approaches of sustainable corporations. Likewise, pursuing a programme of corporate sustainability can lead to all kinds of further benefits...
What are the benefits of a corporate sustainability programme?
If a business’ approach to the environment doesn’t gel with society at large, then you can bet such actions will come at a cost to organisational reputation. It may even cost them a few thousand customers.
A sustainability programme that encourages safe business practices – for both the environment and employees – can help avoid issues that could affect your reputation.
When a business can outwardly demonstrate its sustainability credentials to its employees, it gives its operations a greater purpose. Employees who can take on their duties with this same shared purpose are likely to be more satisfied and fulfilled in their roles.
Whether it’s through word of mouth or more explicit messaging, this enhanced brand image can trickle through to potential customers and future talent. And when a company can walk the walk, it gives them that all-important competitive advantage over others in their sector.
Likewise, sustainability programmes can be a huge boon to businesses looking for investors. Higher environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings are a handy illustration of how ethical and sustainable you are.
Additionally, awards and accreditations (such as our recent EcoVadis Silver Medal) can also provide potential investors with valuable proof of your sustainability credentials.
And if you can emphasise such metrics – and show you’re adept at managing risks – when investors begin showing interest, then a cash injection could well be on the cards.
A recent government announcement revealed that only businesses committed to becoming net zero by 2050 will be entitled to secure major government contracts. The government hopes this move will encourage more businesses to improve their carbon reduction practices and plans before joining potentially profitable tendering processes.
More sustainable business practices often equate to more efficient operations that conserve resources. In turn, this also improves employee productivity while keeping costs low.
These cost-reducing business practices can be something as simple as turning off lights that aren’t in use or more advanced measures like installing geothermal heating and cooling systems. And while some of these approaches will be pricier than others, the long-term results make them a sound investment.
If there’s one thing that innovative, successful companies have over the individual, it’s strength in numbers. With the right amount of manpower, it’s possible to make positive, lasting changes to environmental issues.
Take Unilever, for instance. Their adoption of sustainable palm oil production in its products resulted in the industry following suit. Elsewhere, IKEA has installed more than 700,000 solar panels across its buildings around the world.
It’s through actions like these, created as a result of sustainability programmes, that the world can benefit from.
What are the pillars of corporate sustainability?
Sustainability can be divided into three main pillars. But as with any other structure or system, all it takes is one weak pillar to create unbalance and disorder.
That means all three pillars must be taken into consideration when making business decisions. We’ll take a closer look at them below.
Concerned with the impact that business activities and business decisions have on the environment, the environmental pillar, somewhat unsurprisingly, tends to get the most attention from companies.
A business approaching the environmental pillar might seek to find alternative energy sources, reduce their use of plastic packaging, and minimise their carbon footprint.
Any sustainability-related activities that affect a company’s employees and internal/external stakeholders fall under the social pillar. A business that stresses its sustainability practices should also care about the welfare of its employees too.
It’s this logical link that allows businesses to make a real, valuable connection to their stakeholders and workforce.
A business looking to uphold the social pillar of its sustainability efforts should look to things like treating and paying its staff fairly, knowledge of its supply chain operations, and maintaining strong ties with its surrounding community.
Simply put: to be sustainable, a business must also be profitable. However, profit alone does not outrank the other two pillars. It is not a pillar motivated by a profit-at-any-cost approach. Rather, the economic pillar is concerned with compliance, governance, and risk management.
Such a pillar allows for alignment across directors, shareholders, value chains and the end customer, provides evidence of accurate and transparent accounting methods, and avoids conflicts of interest among board members.
As a result, the economic pillar is what lets corporations create sustainability programmes and make a profit, without creating social or environmental issues that could harm the success of a company in the long term.
How to put a corporate sustainability programme into practice
Having a sustainability plan is one thing, but successfully executing it is another. Luckily, there are plenty of things companies can do to help avoid problems along the way.
Let’s take a look at the steps businesses should be following below.
Before you do anything else, including beginning work on a sustainability programme, you’ll need to test the waters. From shareholders and management to the lowest-level employees, you need to get a sense that sustainability is something your organisation is interested in.
If it’s clear that sustainability is something your organisation feels strongly about, then you can move ahead with the programme. And if not, then you should spend time reiterating its importance until you can proceed.
Creating a cross-departmental, cross-location team that includes employees from all levels is key. As well-rounded as they are well-informed, they’ll be responsible for setting goals, engaging others, establishing processes, and measuring/analysing the results of the programme.
Like any other business goal, it’s important to understand the baseline of your current operations so you know which areas to improve.
For instance, how much water, power and other resources are you currently consuming? How much of this is being wasted? Does any of it come from renewable sources? If so, how much?
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Likewise, you should also establish your current carbon footprint and see if any technology is required to measure operations. Basically, the more data you accrue and the further you drill down into the details, the easier it’ll be to identify areas to improve.
With the baseline established, you’re now ready to create a vision of your corporate sustainability, as well as any goals to go along with it.
Once these have been established, you’ll need to agree on the initiatives you’ll use to achieve your goals. When doing so, your team should weigh up the potential impact and cost, any challenges you might encounter, and the resources you’ll need to successfully pursue the initiatives.
Your goals are easier to achieve if you make them SMART (that is, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely).
For every initiative you decide on, assign someone from your team to be responsible for it, define the metrics you’ll use to measure its success, and outline the frequency with which progress should be reported.
A sustainability programme doesn’t just sit in a drawer somewhere upon completion. When the programme, and the initiatives within, are put into practice, then you should periodically review it to determine its successes, along with any areas that need improvement.
Remember, as your company’s needs change, your programme may need to be amended and adapted to stay in sync with these new needs.
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