Green futures: who is shaping the sustainable economy?

Sustainability has been used in the past as a vague, all-encompassing term for businesses wanting to promote their green credentials.

For leading corporate firms, however, ‘sustainability’ increasingly means producing a serious and well-defined set of objectives that integrate with the core business and have a real impact on the world, with 70% of FTSE 100/250 companies now outlining specific objectives. It’s what both investors and consumers are demanding.

But with reports showing that nearly half of all sustainability programs are considered failures by the firms deploying them, how can companies craft objectives that will actually have an impact?

Truly pioneering organisations are looking  beyond targets and planning how their business practices can help shape a new kind of sustainable economy.

Procurement has a huge role to play in driving sustainability, with the power to affect change along supply chains. One example is computer company Dell’s scheme to turn plastic collected from waterways into packaging. This prevented 16,000 pounds of plastic from reaching the ocean – and also saved money.

At Bramwith, we’re supporting the Ocean Cleanup, which is using pioneering technology to clear miles of plastic waste from the Pacific Ocean.  We’re also holding a Sustainability in Procurement conference on February 5 2019, bringing together Procurement sustainability leaders for a day of talks and networking.

Leading up to this, we’re looking at which initiatives are leading to real results. Which companies are set to reap the benefits of a new ‘sustainable economy’? Will SMEs be left behind because they don’t have the resources to take such radical action on sustainability goals?

No more business as usual

The Cambridge Institute of Sustainable Leadership (CISL) posits that ‘There is no business as usual’, in the face of climate change and global inequalities. The operating context for business is increasingly characterised by scarcity, disruption and instability. Companies are being asked to take a more active role in addressing society’s problems.

Many large corporations have incorporated the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals into their own plans, along with targets on greenhouse gas emissions laid out by the Science Based Targets initiative. 215 businesses including Mars, Kelloggs, Renault and AstraZeneca are all signed up to the SBT initiative.

True leaders in sustainability are also adopting a form of ‘future back’ thinking identified by management consultants Bain & Company – creating a vision of what their future will look like in a truly sustainable economy, then crafting an objective to fit that vision.

One example is Tesla, which identified the long-term global need for more sustainable vehicles and then built its mission and business model around that goal. Established companies such as Dell, Kingfisher, IKEA and BT (which recently scored 100% on the CIPS Sustainability Index) have signed up to the ‘net positive’ movement which encourages businesses to leave the world a better place than they found it.

Sweeping changes may be needed in order to achieve this, however. The Bain & Co survey found that 38% of companies feel they will need to radically change their core business in order to operate in a truly sustainable economy.

Those companies that were succeeding shared a few attributes:

  • Sustainability is owned at CEO level, with influential and trusted opinion leaders on board
  • They start with easier initiatives to create proof points.
  • They use industry collaboration to overcome barriers.
  • And they align governance and day-to-day activities to support the combined sustainability and business strategy.

Can smaller companies emulate this success?

Research shows that SMES face challenges in implementing sustainability plans. Eight-eight per cent of SME CEOS surveyed in a recent report said they valued sustainability, but 70% had struggled to embed practices and strategies. Many cite a lack of government support and costs issues as a factor.

However, with small businesses making up the majority of global private sector business and economic activity, harnessing their power for sustainable development could make a huge difference.

Dell used its experience with recycling ocean plastics to co-found NextWave, a working group of businesses including large companies like General Motors as well as smaller companies. All members are committed to decreasing the volume of plastic and nylon waste entering the ocean. Group members  Dell sees this as a way to pull other companies, including smaller supply chain participants, into a common goal around sustainability.

This model of collaborative working will be key to creating that future sustainable economy, and ensuring that businesses of all sizes have the capacity to benefit from it.

Let us know what you think. What are your sustainable development priorities? Do you see your business model changing over the next few years to meet them? And how do you think companies can create programmes that actually succeed?

Our hope is that our Sustainability in Procurement conference will start off conversations, provoke new ideas and lead to innovative partnership work.  If you’d like to join us, get in touch with me on to express an interest in attending.

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