IT’S TIME TO MOVE SUSTAINABILITY FROM ALTERNATIVE TO MAINSTREAM

Date: 10 August 2018

For the longest time, corporate responsibility meant charitable giving. Fast forward to 2018, the narrative is changing. The scope of corporate responsibility has widened to entail corporate sustainability, and businesses are turning sustainability as a strategic lens to help improve their corporate sustainability and financial performance simultaneously. Businesses are now cognizant of the rewards of sustainability: real economic gains and the spillover of innovation, lower costs and higher productivity; not to mention a clean, livable environment and happier, healthier populations. Consequently, hundreds of the multinationals such as Google, Unilever, Toyota, and Apple are emerging more enthusiastic about the idea of achieving competitive advantage through sustainability. For example, Google embarked on a 100% renewable energy for its Data Centres; a move that incorporates environmental stewardship and business value objective. The value shift in corporate responsibility is attributable to the convergence of environmental excellence, long term competitive-most significantly, the bottom line. Sustainability and business go hand in hand and the biggest chunk of change in corporate responsibility is in environmental sustainability.
There’s an increasing appetite for sustainable brands that capture the hearts and minds of consumers and stakeholders. This is evident in the growing popularity of petrol-electric hybrid cars, sustainable packaging, organic food stores and farmer’s markets specializing in sustainably sourced products. Consumers, employees, communities, environmentalist, and regulators are increasingly pushing for more ethical and sustainable business practices.  When a business fails to establish an affable relationship with the stakeholders, it loses its social license to operate. Therefore, sustainable principles are a strategic tool through which business can earn society legitimacy. Sustainable brands are realizing increased sales and driving the profits for companies. Unilever, for example, has made great strides in decoupling its profitability and environment footprint through its sustainable brands. Unilever’s sustainable living brands growing at 50% fasters than other brands within its portfolio demonstrates that sustainability is no longer a niche market but a must explore the market. Unilever embarked on a move to decouple its profitability from carbon growth and is committed to doubling its sales while halving its environmental footprint by 2020 and being “carbon positive” by 2030. By building a brand image around sustainability, business gains a competitive edge that’s imperative for long-term business existence. As well, Eco-friendly partnerships are emerging common in response to the need for sustainable brands - Starbucks and McDonalds joined forces to build fully recyclable and compostable cups.   
Significant cost reductions can result from improving operational efficiency through better management of natural resources like water and energy, as well as minimizing waste. Business could focus on resource efficiency, waste management, and value chain analysis to transform business models more efficient technologies. By incorporating sustainability principles into production, companies reduce the inputs used per unit of output, while simultaneously increasing production volumes and sales. Environmental efficiency aside, Technology corporate giants Apple and Google’s 100% renewable energy powered Data Centres demonstrates that business can run their operations at a lower cost through green products. Just take a second of reflection, every internet search logged; every mail message registered; every road and river mapped; there’s electricity consumed, therefore green energy reduces carbon footprint and electricity cost for the companies. Embedding sustainable practices by companies could provide multiple benefits that increase the companies’ competitiveness in the long run.
Today, sustainability is a new way to innovate and gain or maintain competitive advantage. Sustainability is a mother lode of organizational and technological innovations that yield both bottom-line and top-line returns. So business needs to think about the nexus between innovation and sustainability.  Sustainability-driven innovation has led to product leadership for Tesla that leads the world in first commercially high –performance all-electric vehicle. Nike embedded sustainability into its innovation process by introducing the Flyknit Shoe Technology that creates up to 80% less waste than conventional athletics shoes during manufacture. Much of the strategic value of sustainability comes from innovation offsets.
The future will see increasingly tighter social, economic and environmental sustainability norms. By managing sustainability issues and seizing the sustainability opportunities, business can differentiate themselves. Therefore, to reap sustainability opportunities, businesses have to identify the areas where the good for the society, good for the environment and good for the business intersect.