March 2013: Roundtable notes

Sarah Pratt from Sastun Consulting hosted the discussion on the Sustainability strategies roundtable. You can read her write up of the discussion on her blog here or below.

The group discussed a lot including examples of enlightened sustainability in practice, business benefits of sustainable business strategies, renaming sustainable business strategies just “the business strategy”, how the language of sustainability can often be off putting and then they looked at an attendee case study, taking the ‘theory’ of sustainability from an academic background and applying it to a real business.Here are more in depth notes from the discussion:

We talked about a couple of different areas – one was an example of enlightened sustainability in practice, where a housing association had (through good procurement processes) saved £20,000, and reinvested the saving into a community foundation, from which community groups could draw from for specific projects. We were asked if this was unusual. ASDA was as an example to confirm that whilst not practised by many, it was certainly a tool or mechanism that some organisations used, to give wider social and environmental value from more efficient internal management.

We talked about the business benefits of sustainable business strategies.

We discussed that sustainable business strategies should be renamed ‘the business strategy’, but underpinned by sustainability principles and values, which were clearly defined. Working through the development of a sustainability strategy brings together different departments in a unique way, raises awareness of ‘macro’ external issues; helps the organisation to appreciate the ‘material’ or important things they must focus on in the medium to long term. The strategy helps everyone understand the goals, what they are working towards and acts as a ‘compass’ to navigate by.

What are the downsides – medium and small businesses may feel that it is not relevant to them if customers and other interested parties aren’t asking for it now – they are focussed on the next quarter’s results. Small and medium companies struggle to find the time and resources to step back and feel that major alterations may disturb the ‘status quo’, and put jobs and customer service at risk.

And finally the language – puts off many in business when you start talking about ‘closed loop’, ‘circular economy’, ‘sustainability’ – if this is unfamiliar territory this can hinder dialogue. The main benefits of a business strategy that is underpinned by sustainability is the increased resilience that it builds into the company for the future and the increased value in terms of increasing revenues.

One particular attendee had been recruited as a sustainability champion in a small subsidiary of a much larger company, and was interested in how to take the ‘theory’ of sustainability from her academic background and make it real for the business. There was a great deal of reflection about the role of the sustainability champion within an organisation, with very little senior support or budget responsibility. We reflected on the ability to potentially take a step by step approach to start operationally and tactically with the small low cost actions, to gain trust and demonstrate financial savings. Senior commitment was thought to be crucial, potentially with a board sponsor. Understanding how to engage with the board members so that the sustainability champion could ‘press the right buttons’, by talking their language – whether it was added value, customer focus, or increasing top line revenues. Talking about changing to more sustainable business models would come with time as the business understood clearly the risks and opportunities associated with the macro- pressures which are to use Peter Jones phrasing ‘rocking existing business models to their foundations’.

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