The ‘business case’ for sustainability
“Business cannot succeed in failing societies”, how often have we already nodded when this quotation has been used in articles, brochures or presentations. But if that is a given, why do we so often discuss the question “What’s the business case for sustainability (and sustainability reporting) and what’s really in it for us?” Here’s my take on it:
Organizations often lack a vision what sustainability really means for them and what they want to achieve over the next 20 or 30 years for themselves, for society and the environment. Or in short: what responsibility is taken over by whom and for whom? If I read sustainability reports I very often read about objectives and targets for the next reporting period, maybe for 2 years, but only a few organizations present a long-term vision and define mid- or short-term targets through “reverse engineering”, deciding through that lens what the necessary next milestones need to be. What gets lost is the overall context and rationale why and how the organization will contribute to solve global problems through its specific business model or how its business model design is already influenced by those problems today. The GRI G3 Guidelines purposefully ask reporters to make exactly that two-way assessment (inside-out and outside-in) in the strategy and analysis part, but often these answers are lacking .
A lack of a long-term vision will consequently lead to a lack of understanding what investment is really needed and when it is needed. All expenses for CSR today are therefore seen as costs and necessary capacities for the longer term will not have been properly budgeted. CSR managers are too often pushed into a corner where they are only tolerated because they help to secure a basic compliance to laws; they do lack the acceptance to be seen as important multipliers for business opportunities. In this environment an understanding for the long-term value of sustainability cannot really grow.
Reading sustainability reports offers a simple litmus test if an organization is willing to go the extra mile to explore the real value of sustainability: how is sustainability/CSR organized within the organization? Is CSR simply managed through an add-on department (extra question: “Is at least someone from the top management responsible for that department?”) or is there an indication of cross-cutting alignment? So, are there responsible managers in all corporate departments, business lines and regional operations (matrix organization)? Are there policies that are properly enforced by measurement and reporting processes? Finally, is sustainability/CSR integrated into corporate or business development and gets regular top management attention? Shouldn’t it belong there if the connection to the business strategy is so urgently needed? Clearly, the level of organizational integration reveals if sustainability is seen as a risk reduction necessity (survival strategy) or an opportunity for long-term business development (growth strategy).
Apart from the question on how CSR is organized my personal check list while reading reports continues like this (starting with the lowest priority for the business model): how much do I read about philanthropy activities, then about efficiency programs (e.g. some years ago zero waste costing was really en vogue), then about integration into risk management; next would be integration into corporate governance and internal audits. Until here, I have only mentioned aspects that keep the license to operate.
If you switch to the idea that further opportunities are possible to develop a license to grow, the issue link with research & development and (corporate) business strategy comes to mind as well as the always underestimated stakeholder dialog management and the networking capacity to integrate supply chains and customers. That simple check list is a nice and easy rooster to quickly detect where an organization stands with regard to CSR and its roadmap towards greater sustainability..
From my perspective sustainability needs the attention of top level strategists and integration into business model development. This ensures a connection with long-term target setting and the translation into strategies and milestones. The question about the business case for sustainability should then become obsolete. It’s a simple truth that if you don’t know where you’re going, you might simply not get there.