Sustainability has been one of the corporate buzzwords of recent times, but a generation of leaders is transforming sustainability from feelgood propaganda into hard figures for stronger, more successful organisations.
In 2010, the UN Global Compact and Accenture produced a survey of 766 global CEOs, asking them how important sustainability was to their business. An overwhelming 93 per cent said it was important to the company’s future success and 96 per cent said related issues should be integrated into the company’s strategies and operations.
“If either of those statistics was borne out in practice, we would be seeing a radically different business community to the one we have,” says Polly Courtice, Director of The Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership and of The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme.
When it comes to corporate sustainability, employees look to their leaders for both inspiration and evidence that their organisation is committed to delivering environmental, social and economic benefits. But if the intent is there, the action is not.
Cynics have suggested that sustainability, and its umbrella movement of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR), provides a convenient valve for tainted brands to release a more positive message to the world. While that is certainly the case, there are also compelling business reasons to adopt sustainable practices, and the leaders that move quickest will be the first to engage staff and customers with their message – as long as it is genuine.
The world has diminishing resources, growing populations and an increasingly vocal and influential ecological lobby. Courtice believes that the risks are “very real and very significant, to society and to businesses, but there are huge opportunities for those who respond soonest and in a significant way.
”But progress from businesses is painfully slow. Companies may be uncertain over which course to take, waiting for competitors to act first, or restrained by corporate structures and cultures too rigid to change.
One of the first movers on a global scale has been Unilever, which placed its Sustainable Living Plan at the core of the company in 2010, but actively avoids the term CSR, recognising its negative connotations as a way for organisations to recoup on unethical business practices. Sustainability needs to mean more to the company than that. Unilever’s management team has committed to doubling its business by 2020 while halving the environmental impact of its largely plastic-packaged consumable products. Were Unilever to double its size and footprint, the costs would likely be as catastrophic for the business as the environment.
Straight from the top
There is no avoiding the fact, however, that sustainable business practices must come from the top if they are to succeed.
Microsoft Corporation has an impressive role model in its co-founder Bill Gates. Today he holds the role of Non-executive Chairman and with his wife is employed full-time by their global health and education initiative the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Yet his commitment to sustainability remains incredibly strong, and has helped introduce company-wide initiatives from energy efficiency in Microsoft’s buildings to reducing corporate air travel and developing software and technology encouraging greener IT practices.
Shannon Banks, the business’ Talent Management HRD in Western Europe, believes the company’s leaders must experience first-hand how running asustainable business has an impact on them as managers, on their teams and on the bottom line.
In 2010, she introduced the Front Lines programme for the company’s global leaders and senior executives, where staff work alongside partner organisations in emerging markets, such as improving employment opportunities for young people in slum areas.
Microsoft also runs the Responsible Leadership Challenge, a similar scheme with a focus on emerging markets social enterprises.A crucial focus for Microsoft is that its managers convey the strategic value of these initiatives to their teams. In February, Microsoft announced its 4Afrika Initiative, aiming to place tens of millions of smart devices in the hands of young Africans by 2016, bring 1 million African small and medium-sized enterprises online and help train 100,000 members of the continent’s existing workforce.
Case Study – Channelling the community at Sky.
Such is HR's involvement in the sustainability agenda at broadcaster Sky that the business’ diversity agenda has influenced what goes on screen as much as what goes on in the office.
Some recent examples include Ross Kemp – Invisible Wounded, featuring soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and Sky News, which is proactively increasing the numbers of female experts and spokespeople.
“It is unusual to have HR so involved, but this is part of having a strong business and brand based around a real commitment to sustainability in its many forms,” says Lucy Carver, who joined Sky in 2005 and is now Director of BSkyB’s The Bigger Picture.
This initiative is Sky’s approach to sustainability and community work. The scheme involves Sky Rainforest Rescue – a partnership with WWF to save 1 billion trees in the Amazon rainforest; reducing carbon emissions from Sky studios; getting a million more people healthier through cycling (a target that has already been reached); supporting the arts and job creation schemes (the company recently announced 1,000 new posts in Ireland).