The Global Risk Report sounded the alarm on pandemics and other health-related risks in 2006. Today the risk of the global pandemic has become a reality. The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to acknowledge the intertwined nature of our healthcare and environmental challenges. It has been made abundantly clear that we cannot self-isolate from the issues caused by decades of environmental damage. On the other hand, it has also shown us that a comprehensive response to a global catastrophe is possible with united commitment.
For a long time, corporations got away with environmental destruction and abused fundamental human rights. Today’s conscious consumer looks beyond the label. They are interested in learning about the company’s motive and purpose of the brand. The social, health and environmental impact of products from production to disposal influence their purchase along with price and quality.
Global society and the environment benefit immensely when the leadership and organization prioritize sustainable leadership.
What is corporate sustainability leadership?
Sustainable leadership is when leaders of businesses consider internal and external stakeholders*, not just shareholders*. Corporate Sustainability comes from the concept of ‘sustainable development.’ Sustainable leadership focuses on business practices that meet the present needs while making a conscious effort towards long-term sustainable development goals*.
Why the sense of urgency?
Corporate Sustainability is a vision of a world that is sustainable across the social spectrum. The joint report from the UN Global Compact and Accenture Strategy on business contribution to the Global Goals suggests that all sustainable development challenges’ perceived urgency has increased since the last few years. Although we had a decade to deliver on 17 goals, the review suggests that progress has been rather sluggish.
“The Global Goals are not just a nice thing to do—they are a path to a prosperous world.”
Consumers today want to see companies address growing concerns in their communities. Their buying practices are driven by a commitment towards making purchases that have a positive social, economic, and environmental impact.
It begins with:
- Do I need this product?
- How was this product made?
- What was the environmental impact of the production?
- Does my purchase contribute towards the betterment of any community? Or does it have a negative impact? Business leaders have an important role in addressing these concerns and making the right strategic choices for creating a sustainable future. From CXOs to board members, it needs everyone’s buy-in to run organizations focused on creating positive impact and doing business. And everyone needs to work together. Companies need leaders to realign strategies and operations to fully incorporate the global goals to ensure a sustainable future completely.
Leadership needs courage, among many other qualities. It is not easy to stand up to investors and the board of directors who invest billions in the business. It is critical to prioritize sustainable leadership by everyone! Paul Polman, a former CEO of Unilever, supported the shift to sustainable leadership for years. He understood that as a CEO, you couldn’t be slaves to shareholders and be concerned about profit if you want to keep a company thriving.
Roadblocks in achieving the sustainability goal
Even before the global coronavirus pandemic, the world has been facing several challenges to sustainable development and environmental management. The key reasons for sluggish progress towards achieving these goals have been ecological illiteracy among the leaders and increased political instability. The falling growth rates and rise in unemployment have exacerbated poverty, and the achievement of the Global Goals is at great risk.
We need institutions such as governments, businesses, laws and policies to help us share our one planet and our societies to function better. For the most part, institutions do a great job. However, the ecological illiteracy among the leadership is a major roadblock for sustainable development. The leaders are focused on short-term gains and miss out on the bigger implications of today’s actions. The focus must shift from economic interests to implementing a comprehensive international regulatory regime towards a sustainable future.
Peace, stability, human rights, and effective governance are important pillars for sustainable development. During the last two decades, the world has witnessed increased political instability and high levels of armed violence and insecurity, which have a destructive impact on a country’s development. The COVID-19 pandemic has further fuelled the tensions and uncertainty, enunciating the importance of social issues such as unemployment, inequality and poverty. There is a growing sense of concern regarding the aftermath of the pandemic and its impact on the little progress achieved on the sustainable development agenda so far.
What should organizations do to attain corporate sustainability?
To integrate sustainability into the core of the business, it must be part of the organization’s culture. The smallest actions can make a big difference. For that, we need purpose-driven conscious leadership to integrate sustainability into every employee’s job and turn a sustainable business model into business as usual.
- Hire the right leaders: Amidst a rapidly changing world, sustainability leaders must be able to envision business solutions in radically new ways. Appoint an internal sustainability leader as the main driver of sustainability ethos and practices. Key attributes to hiring such leaders would entail abilities such as envisioning solutions that help companies benefit from sustainability, developing and leading the change towards sustainable practices, and adapting to the ever-changing sustainability requirements.
- Recognize what sustainability means to the company: The first step to understanding and attaining corporate sustainability is defining what sustainability means for every area in the company and pointing out its benefits. From investment decisions, developing newer products or services, to adapting to new procurement practices, sustainability has an increasingly key role in decision-making. Coca-Cola is one of the companies rethinking its investments in sustainability. Water sustainability is now considered a key factor when reviewing the location and development of new production plants.
- Set goals and commitments: Once key environmental and social issues have been identified and engagement methods have been defined. Companies must focus their efforts towards reducing the risks while using opportunities around these issues centred on sustainable practices. Whether driven by cost reductions, innovation or improved financial performance, it is pivotal to establish and set goals for successful corporate and environmental sustainability.
- Establish systems/processes and track progress: Once goals are established, specific systems and detailed processes need to pilot the execution of each initiative. Likewise, Design, processes and policies must be reassessed to consider and collaboration among areas encouraged. It is crucial to set systems that measure the performance towards each goal. Designating key performance indicators to meet the recognized goals will allow us to track progress and help detect areas for improvement. The ability to track data will contribute to prioritizing issues and initiatives to promote the company ethos centred towards sustainability.
Notable Leaders in Sustainability
Corporate Sustainability is a vision. The leaders running powerful businesses want to see a flourishing planet that is resilient and rich with biodiversity. They want to inhabit a world that is sustainable across the social spectrum.
A GlobeScan-SustainAbility survey recognized Unilever as a leader among the community for a decade. They have made sustainability part of their corporate identity.
- Unilever was the first to embrace purpose and sustainability as business essentials in its 400 “Sustainable Living” lines. The conglomerate also spoke of shedding brands that fail to drive lasting social or environmental change.
- Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan sets targets for sourcing, supply chain and production on everything from energy and water use to treatment of suppliers and communities where they operate.
- Three-quarters of Unilever’s non-hazardous waste does not go to landfills.
- The agricultural supplier’s share that has used sustainable practices has tripled.
Patagonia was founded with a mission to build the best products that cause the least amount of harm, ranked second on the survey, maintains its activist stance under the leadership of the unorthodox CEO Rose Marcario and the founder Yvon Chouinard.
- 64% of Patagonia’s fabric was made with recycled materials this season.
- 100% 0f cotton used for clothes is grown organically.
- 100% of virgin down is certified to the advanced Global traceable Down Standards.
- Wetsuits are made of natural rubber, and plastic bottles are turned into parkas.Patagonia also released ads encouraging people not to buy things they didn’t need (even their products) and implemented a program to repair rather than replace their products.
Jesper Brodin has led IKEA’s vision to a sustainable future for two decades. The company ranked third, pledged science-based targets to reduce emissions, and seeks to become carbon positive by 2030. Brodin intends to continue aggressive leadership toward becoming a sustainable company.
- Ikea aims to recycle 90% of the waste produced from its operations.
- 50% of its wood is sourced from sustainable foresters
- 100% of cotton is sourced from farms that meet the Better Cotton standards, which mandate reduced water, energy and chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
This crisis has shown us the inadequacy of our existing system and proved that the responsibility towards achieving a sustainable future lies on government, corporates and individuals all the same. Despite the setback, many believe that the pandemic will lead to a renewed focus on environmental issues. Corporate sustainable leadership must be encouraged as it ensures the commitment to responsible consumption and production. Humanity depends on the actions taken now for a resilient and sustainable future. The only way to ensure a sustainable future is through societal cohesion.
- The Citizen is Willing, But Society Won’t Deliver: The Problem of Institutional Roadblocks, written by the co-authors, Myers and Jennifer Kent.