Prof. Arnold Smit
Talking about sustainability it has become commonplace to cite the well-known definition of the Brundtland Report of (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987): “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This definition was built on growing concerns about visible trends in population growth, food security, the loss of species and genetic resources, energy, industry, and human settlements. Now, 35 years later and with 3 billion more people on the planet, all of these challenges remain and are further painfully aggravated by the intensification of climate change and the worsening state of the environment.
In working with business students and practicing managers I have, over the years, used a poster-building exercise in which I ask them to develop a shared understanding of the sustainability challenge. In my teaching stint at IEDC-Bled in September 2022, working groups of course participants developed the following statements:
- Let more of us live better with fewer resources.
- Beyond sacrifice, see the opportunity, align interests and politics and leave no one behind.
- Capturing and sharing resources in a way that enables us peaceful and safe future coexistence with nature.
- It is about building bridges and ensuring the responsible use of resources for the well-being and balance of life for future generations.
- Preserving the environment by being responsible with our footprint and connecting our values to outcomes that make for a more sustainable relationship with our environment.
- The time is now; there is hope. Despite red flags and warnings, we can unite to make the world sustainable and a better place for future generations.
It is significant to note how these formulations connect sustainability (strongly linked to resources and the environment) with responsibility (usage, footprint, well-being, balance), community (share, unite, peace, inclusion, coexistence), and future-mindedness (hope, opportunity, next generation). In my experience, informed, rational and responsible businesspeople understand the importance of sustainability. What they need is guidance on making business sense of it.
Sustainable development confronts business organisations with the following question: How might we best understand, construct and manage our relationship with the environment, society and economy within which we operate in a manner that demonstrates responsibility and enhances sustainability? While the answer to this question will differ from one business to another it should involve at least attention to the following elements:
- Knowledge: A healthy curiosity, willingness to learn and well-informed understanding of what sustainability means, why it matters for the environment, society and economy, and the materiality factors related to it in a particular region and industry.
- Purpose: A shared understanding of the organisation’s reason for existence that pursues value creation for all business participants, including the environment (Donaldson & Walsh, 2015)beyond the mere accrual of profit for executives and shareholders.
- Leadership: Leaders who believe in the cause, who lead by example and who create the conditions for employees, teams and departments to develop a sustainability mindset, behaviours and practices (Doh & Quigley, 2014).
- Dialogue: A sustainable business does not develop in isolation; it takes stakeholders seriously and listens to and learns from them. Sustainability-minded customers, suppliers, investors, scientists and/or policymakers can all contribute to improving the sustainability performance of a business (Freeman et al., 2020).
- Creativity: Accept sustainability’s invitation to innovate. The global sustainability transition that we are in the midst of demands new solutions regarding energy, water management, food production, manufacturing transportation, etc. (Shrivastava & Zsolnai, 2022)
- Metrics: Sustainable practices, processes and products need not be shots in the dark. We are now at a point where performance standards and metrics are available to establish baselines and measure progress.
- Collaboration: Sustainable Development Goal 17 emphasises the importance of partnerships for sustainable development. A sustainability-minded business will work with its direct stakeholders as well as with governments, regulators, researchers and NGOs to improve its sustainability performance.
Wayne Visser and Chad Kymal offer an Integrated Value Creation (IVC) framework that can be adapted for any business depending on its context and industry. At the hand of this framework (Visser & Kymal, 2015, p. 33), a business can find guidance on how to work through seven interrelated aspects of sustainability strategy development: context analysis, stakeholder assessment, leadership review, risk assessment, opportunity analysis, process design and systems integration.
Resources that inspire
Two questions keep on coming up in my workshops on sustainability management. The first is about the business case and the second is about examples of successful sustainability integration. Below I make reference to some resources that may prove to be helpful on your business’s sustainability strategy implementation journey.
- B Lab is a nonprofit network consisting of almost 6000 companies from 158 industries in 86 countries working together to transform the global economy to benefit all people, communities and the planet.
- The UN Global Compact provides guidance on how companies can advance the Sustainable Development Goals. The UNGC’s dedicated section on the SDGs explains the relevance of each goal for business while also providing links to useful resources and tools for implementation.
- The Embedding Project help companies to embed sustainability across their operations and decision-making. The project’s “resource wheel” describes practices and provides tools across nine dimensions of sustainability integration.
On 15 Sept 2022, at the time that I was at IEDC-Bled, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, said "If we have any hope of a thriving planet—much less a business—it is going to take all of us doing what we can with the resources we have". Then he continued to declare the earth to be the company’s only shareholder, stating that “Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth for investors, we’ll use the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth”. This is an invitation to bold sustainability leadership. How might we follow?
- Doh, J. P., & Quigley, N. R. (2014). Responsible Leadership and Stakeholder Management: Influence Pathways and Organizational Outcomes. Academy of Management Perspectives, 28(3), 255–274. https://doi.org/10.5465/amp.2014.0013
- Donaldson, T., & Walsh, J. P. (2015). Toward a theory of business. Research in Organizational Behavior, 35, 181–207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2015.10.002
- Freeman, R. E., Martin, K. E., & Parmar, Bidhan. L. (2020). The Power of AND. Columbia University Press.
- Shrivastava, P., & Zsolnai, L. (2022). Wellbeing‐oriented organizations: Connecting human flourishing with ecological regeneration. Business Ethics, the Environment & Responsibility. https://doi.org/10.1111/BEER.12421
- Visser, W., & Kymal, C. (2015). Integrated Value Creation (IVC): Beyond Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Creating Shared Value (CSV). Journal of International Business Ethics, 8(1), 29–43.
- World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/07488008808408783
Author: Arnold Smit, Visiting Professor, IEDC-Bled Management School