5 Core Principles for Corporate Sustainability
The cynic would hear ‘sustainability’ and think it’s just a buzzword.
They’d argue that the efforts that small businesses put into protecting the environment pale in comparison to what needs to be done by the government. A cynic would use this logic to justify using cheaper, natural resource-depleting materials for their product lines, driving costs down. Fatalistic, they’d say there’s nothing that the individual can do. Turning off a lightbulb won’t save the earth. They’d chime in with excuses. Exclaiming ‘what’s the point?’ The cynic just wants to vindicate their own profiteering actions.
Don’t be a cynic. It’s precisely this selfish thinking that has got us in the environmental catastrophe that we’re in. When we think of cost in terms of profits only, we ignore the value of experiences. Putting profits over the planet, we lose the experience of living on a thriving Earth.
The cynic has been wrong for a long time.
Sustainability is no longer a buzzword. Sustainability is a movement and consumers have made it a driving factor in their buying decisions.
Studies show that sustainability has become a decisive factor in brand loyalty, with over 2/3rd of consumers rating it as vitally important. Additionally, 35% of consumers stated they’d pay over 25% more than the original price for a sustainable product.
If you fail to be sustainable, you fail to listen to your audience. You fail to respect emerging, more environmentally conscious generations. Sustainability is no longer just an environmental issue. It’s in demand.
What is Sustainability?
There’s no single definition of sustainability.
In fact, politicians, economists, and environmentalists have contrasting ideas to how it can be achieved. It’s a heady concept, encompassing many complex ideas and practices, cast among a wide range of industries and sectors. For the sake of simplicity, let’s understand sustainability as the process by which something is able to maintain itself at a certain level.
Applied to a business, this means more than just keeping your revenues higher than your costs. This means a mass shift in the mindset of traditional business managers. Abandoning an obsession with growth, businesses need to consider the social and environmental consequences of their actions. The solution lies with profitable activities that are beneficial to society and the environment.
The solution is found in adopting the principles of sustainable business.
Principle 1: Rethink Carbon Neutrality
Perhaps the most obvious route to a sustainable planet is carbon neutrality.
A carbon neutral business with practices that achieve a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing it from the atmosphere. You may think that the clearest route to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is in reforestation.
However, it takes more than just planting trees to offset a business’ carbon footprint.
Why? We just don’t have the time. When a tree is planted, it takes 10-20 years to achieve maturity, a time period in which it’s not drawing much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In 2019, the United Nations said that to keep global warming below a 1.5 degree Celsius increase by the end of the 21st century, emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030.
If your business supports an afforestation-based offset today, you’re only contributing to a solution that will come into place when it’s already too late.
So what’s my point?
If a business thinks that planting large amounts of trees without also immediately changing their habits is enough, they’re wrong. A consequence of a global pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns has been the closing of business offices. Should you be waiting to return to a shared office space, use its closure as an opportunity to change your energy provider. Octopus Energy is an example of a UK company that provides 100% renewable energy for businesses.
Alternatively, if your staff are content with remote working, then avoid unnecessary commutes and office overheads by letting them work from home indefinitely. You may also wish to cancel business travel as the world has adapted to virtual business meetings.
Principle 2: Pick Your Battles
Although commendable, it’s unrealistic to think a business can tackle every environmental issue that the world faces.
It’s much more helpful for a company to narrow their focus down to relevant issues. In this way, they can design relevant and nuanced strategies that connect to global efforts towards sustainability.
Let’s take fashion as an example.
According to Wrap, an environmental NGO, an estimated £140 million worth, equating to 350,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to UK landfills each year.
A clothing company could therefore strive towards circular as opposed to fast fashion practices. What this means is that garments are designed to last, circulated as long as their maximum value is retained. Then they are safely returned to the biosphere when they are no longer needed. What this means in practice is fashion brands will employ business models that keep clothes in use. This can be by way of clothing swaps, shop return and upsell schemes, garment repairs and through reselling. The fashion boutique will also use renewable and ethically sourced materials. It would strive to turn used clothing into new clothing.
When a business chooses the ways in which they can do business ethically, they naturally align themselves with sustainability.
Principle 3: Redefine Your Business’ Rhythm
The quest for endless growth defines the rhythm of modern business.
Managers find themselves constantly driven to cut costs, push up profits, and introduce an ever widening array of goods and services, and consequently ignore any environmental or social consequences of this incessant expansion. This is a narrow-sighted approach.
A wise business owner will chart a different course, one that shows a greater concern for longevity and that aligns itself more with the rhythms of the ecosystem than with those of the manic market. This is a point taken up by environmental economist Kate Raworth in her seminal Doughnut Economics, who argues that one of the most effective ways to put our ailing economies on a more sustainable footing would be to alter the dynamics of investment and enterprise so that profit-making is no longer structurally linked to the need for continual growth.
Simple ways to adjust your business’ rhythm could include refocusing long-term business planning away from dreams of endless expansion and market capture toward delivering higher quality services at a smaller scale.
After all, as E. F. Schumacher famously put it, small is beautiful.
Principle 4: Review Your Resources, Manage Your Materials
Resource management for an ethical company takes more than sourcing environmentally-friendly materials.
Of course, you want your materials to be reusable and biodegradable, regardless of whether you’re fashioning clothing or packaging products. I don’t need to tell you that it’s vitally important to research eco-friendly alternatives to traditional materials.
For example, hemp is a far better alternative to conventional textiles such as cotton. As well as being a biodegradable fibre, it’s production uses less than a third of the water needed for cotton production. Hemp can also be grown without the need of harmful pesticides or herbicides.
However, it’s also important to rethink your relationship with slack resources.
In business, slack, or spare resources, are typically seen as costly, wasteful, or even an indicator of failing goods. A sustainable business model must do the same as a business interested in sustainability: feed slack resources back into its cycle of production. You may recycle your goods by upselling them or by harvesting their materials to reuse. However, if you want to reduce your slack materials, then you’re left with a single option: produce more durable goods.
Principle 5: Empower Your Staff
HR is a term I’ve always felt uncomfortable with.
Terming humans as resources sounds too ruthless for my liking. My mind always goes to The Matrix franchise, where humans are living batteries, drained by machines to be used as fuel. Many employees would say that this analogy is accurate when referring to their dealings with HR. You never want to be that employer. If you fail to think of your staff as individuals, each with their own stressors, limits and motivations, you fail to retain them.
When considering sustainability, you both want a business that respects and keeps its workforce happy. It is ethical to ensure the wellbeing of your staff given the particular tumult of the post-lockdown world. It is responsible to empower your employees when it comes to environmental action.
If you help each of your staff become climate positive, not only are you showing your commitment to cooperation, you’re reinforcing the idea that each individual can make a difference. This can be achieved by offering salaried volunteering opportunities, incentives, the choice to work from home, or by even taking action on their behalf.
For instance, companies like Ecologi can work with your business to achieve a carbon offset based on the number of your employees.
It’s true that we don’t live in a vacuum. In our market societies, commerce, business and entrepreneurship must go on.
So how do we reconcile conducting business with the business practices that often contribute to overconsumption?