When the experts sat down to write the UK’s new Corporate Governance Code earlier this year, they drafted a critical first principle. The role of the board is to “promote the long-term sustainable success of the company”. Boardroom members should generate value for shareholders, but they should also be “contributing to wider society”.
It is the values inherent in this principle that enshrines sustainability at the heart of running a company today.
Often sustainability is viewed narrowly, relating to policies affecting climate change. But it has long since ceased to be just about the environment. Sustainability has become a multifaceted concern embracing the long-term interests of shareholders, but also responsibilities to society, customers and local communities.
Publications like Harvard Business Review now publish articles such as “Inclusive growth: profitable strategies for tackling poverty and inequality”, or “Competing on social purpose”. Forbes has “How procurement will save the world” and “How companies can increase market rewards for sustainability efforts”. Sustainability is a headline issue for company leaders and here to stay.
But it’s not always easy to see how sustainability is integrated into a company’s existing strategy. So, why should your company engage with sustainability and what steps can it take to ensure it is done well?
The reasons for adopting sustainability are as diverse as the people and groups upon which companies have an impact. First, there is the clear environmental argument. Governments alone cannot tackle growing environment risk and will need corporates to play their part through their strategies and business models.
The issues driving political leaders have also filtered down to investment managers who have developed deep concerns that companies should be building strategies that factor in environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk. Companies that ignore the issue risk failing to attract capital. A 2015 study by the global benchmarking organisation PRI (Principles for Responsible Investment), conducted with Deutsche Bank Asset Management, showed that among 2,200 studies undertaken since 1970, 63% found a positive link between a company’s ESG performance and financial performance.
There’s also the risk of being left behind, or self-inflicted damage. In an age of instant digital communication news travels fast and a company that fails on sustainability could quickly see stakeholder trust undermined.
Companies that embrace the topic can also create what might be termed “sustainability contagion”: businesses supplying “sustainable” clients must be sustainable themselves, generating a virtuous cascade of sustainability behaviour throughout the supply chain. That means positive results from implemented sustainability policies at one end of the chain, and pressure to comply at the other.
But perhaps one of the biggest issues at the heart of the drive for sustainability is leadership. Implementing the right policies is undoubtedly a “top-down” process, not least because legal rulings have emphatically cast sustainability as a fiduciary duty. That makes executive involvement and leadership an imperative. However, involvement of management at the most senior level will also help instil the kind of culture change needed to make sustainability an ingrained part of an organization, and one that goes beyond mere compliance.
Leaders may feel the need to demonstrate the value of a sustainability step-change. This is needed because a full-blooded approach to sustainability could involve rethinking corporate structures, processes and performance measurement. Experts recognise three ways to demonstrate value: risk, reward and recognition.
“Risk” looks at issues such as potential dangers associated with ignoring sustainability such as loss of trust, reputational damage (as alluded to above), legal or regulatory action and fines.
A “rewards”-centred approach casts sustainability as an opportunity to be pursued, as long as policies boost revenues or cut costs, and stakeholders benefit.
Meanwhile, the “recognition” method argues that sharing credit for spreading sustainability policies promotes long-term engagement and responsibility.
Getting sustainability policies off the ground can be tricky, particularly because of their multifaceted nature.
A recent study into European boards conducted by Board Agenda & Mazars in association with the INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre showed that while there is growing recognition by boards about the importance of sustainability, there is also evidence that they experience challenges about how to implement effective ESG strategies.
Proponents advise the use of “foundation exercises” for helping form the bedrock of sustainability policies. For example, assessing baseline environmental and social performance; analysing corporate management, accountability structures and IT systems; and an examination of material risk and opportunity.
That should provide the basis for policy development. Then comes implementation. This is not always easy, because being sustainable can never be attributed to a single policy. Future-proofing a company has to be an ongoing process underpinned by structures, measures and monitoring.
Policy delivery can be strengthened by the appointment of a chief sustainability officer (CSO) and establishing structures around the role, such as regular reporting to the chief executive and board, as well as the creation of a working committee to manage implementation of policies across the company.
Sustainability values will need to be embedded at the heart of policies directing all business activities. And this can be supported through the use of an organisational chart mapping the key policies and processes to be adopted by each part of the business. The chart then becomes a critical ready reckoner for the boardroom and its assessment of progress.
But you can only manage what you measure, and sustainability policies demand the same treatment as any other business development initiative: key metrics accompanying the plan.
But what to measure? Examples include staff training, supply chain optimisation, energy efficiency, clean energy generation, reduced water waste, and community engagement, among many others.
Measuring then enables the creation of targets and these can be embedded in processes such as audits, supplier contracts and executive remuneration. If they are to have an impact, senior management must ensure the metrics have equal weight alongside more traditional measures.
All of this must be underpinned by effective reporting practices that provide a window on how sustainability practices function. And reporting is best supported by automated, straight-through processing, where possible.
Reliable reporting has the added benefit of allowing comparison and benchmarking with peers, if the data is available. The use of globally accepted standards—such as those provided by bodies like the Global Reporting Initiative—build confidence among stakeholders. And management must stay in touch, regularly consulting with the CSO and other stakeholders—customers, investors, suppliers and local communities—to ensure policies are felt in the right places.
Stakeholders should also hear about company successes, not just deliver feedback. Communicating a sustainability approach can form part of its longevity, as stakeholders hear the good news and develop an expectation of receiving more.
Care should be taken, however. Poor communication can be damaging, and a credible strategy will be required, one that considers how to deliver information frequently, honestly and credibly. It will need to take into account regulatory filings and disclosures, and potentially use social media as a means of reaching the right audience.
And that’s because successful sustainability policies are something to shout about. There is enormous pressure on companies to think differently, to reject a blinkered focus only on the bottom line and develop strategies that enable their companies to provide value, not only for shareholders but other stakeholders—society, customers, and suppliers—alike.
Companies are not expected to achieve all their sustainability goals tomorrow. Some necessarily take time. What is expected is long-term commitment and conviction, honest reporting and steady progress. The landscape on which businesses function is changing. They must change with it.
This article has been produced by Board Agenda in collaboration with Azeus Convene, a supporter of Board Agenda.