Sustainability is not optional

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Written by Anthony Chadwick on 24 March 2021 in Opinion
Opinion

Veterinary futurist Anthony Chadwick urges organisations to put sustainability at the heart of their business.

“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realise, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” This quote was attributed to Alanis Obomosawin, an Abenaki from the Odonak reserve, close to Montreal.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by surprise, particularly in the affluent west where many felt that they were masters of their own fate. The pandemic has demonstrated the capriciousness of human life and is a further indication of the environmental degradation and global warming. Does a warming planet make future pandemics more likely?

Different governments have approached the pandemic in different ways but many have been characterised by their dilatory methods. Businesses have begun to save the day by developing vaccines against this shocking disease.

However, if we are to deal with the root causes of the pandemic, which are around social and environmental causes, then individuals and small and large business will have a massive role to play.

In the same way that businesses will have to digitally transform in the next decade so will they have to look more carefully at sustainability practices.

Businesses and investors are now paying a lot more attention to environmental, social and governance data (ESG)

I’m a veterinary surgeon and, not surprisingly, I love animals. For over 40 years, I’ve supported charities involved in conservation and sustainability; and tried to live an environmentally-aware lifestyle. However, it is becoming increasingly important to consider methods which are regenerative. How can we reverse the degradation with more radical solutions like rewilding and re-afforestation?

Businesses and investors are now paying a lot more attention to environmental, social and governance data (ESG). This encompasses their carbon footprint, how they treat their employees and their board makeup.

The sea change became obvious when the Business Roundtable lobbying group recently reversed its position, held since 1977, that corporations existed principally to serve shareholders to a more balanced one that companies should benefit all their stakeholders including clients, communities, suppliers and employees.

In other words, they were encouraging businesses to be purpose-centred not profit-centred! The leading CEOs who signed this document were not trailblazers but merely recognising the quiet revolution from profit to purpose that has been happening over the last decade in large and small companies.

Increasing evidence is showing that those companies who begin that journey are more profitable; retain staff better and are held in higher esteem than those who only care about their P&L.

George Serafeim of the Harvard Business School reckons that the pandemic will further magnify and accelerate these changes. Indeed, in the opening weeks of the pandemic, most ESG funds outperformed their benchmarks on global stock markets [1].

 

Of course, many small businesses with less resources than big corporations cannot afford chief sustainability officers and are not sure what they can do. The Greenpeace strapline is to 'Think Globally, Act Locally.' 

When people listen to the news and read the papers, a wave of despondency can wash over them which then morphs into hopelessness with the present situation. However, the problems facing the world can be solved by humanity’s creativity and soul.

Solutions that place the planet’s needs at the centre of our plans will be both creative and ethical and benefit all peoples, not just those in the wealthy countries.

So why do ESG issues matter?

Fundamentally, society develops when we act in an altruistic manner. That applies to businesses as well as individuals. However, giving is not all one-way traffic. Altruism usually has a way of paying back. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Increased productivity due to more engaged employees
  • Increased sales from customers impressed with the business’ ethical stance
  • Banks more likely to approve loans
  • Investors more likely to invest
  • Lower energy bills.

Of course, positioning the business as a sustainable one can have short term costs. British Petroleum is now beginning a long, painful and disruptive journey to become known as Beyond Petroleum. Similarly, automotive companies that are moving away from polluting petrol/diesel cars towards electric ones which are less polluting but also less profitable will take a short term hit.

However, investors are beginning to look more in the long term than the short term which was often their position in the past. Certainly, companies that also take the road of long- term vision and purpose over short term profit often receive more favourable publicity.

It is important when pushing for publicity that initiatives are not seen as mere tick box exercises or merely to look good. Greenwashing, the desire to look green but not really to believe in it, shows a lack of integrity and can have disastrous public relations consequences as well as decreasing trust amongst all stakeholders.

The initiatives ideally have to be original and set the business apart from others in its field; to go above and beyond their competitors and then measure and promulgate this superior performance.

As we enter the 2020s, it is clear to me that this is a pivotal decade in our struggle to begin to heal the planet. Governments have set themselves tough targets as part of the Paris climate accord but it will be companies and individuals who will do most of the hard work on this.

I hope your company will play its part.

 

About the author

Anthony Chadwick is founder and CEO of The Webinar Vet

 

References

[1] Social Impact Efforts That Create Real Value(2020) by George Serafeim HBR Sept-October edition pp 38-48

 

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