Three considerations to help businesses create practical sustainability strategies

AESG’s Katarina Uherova Hasbani says that sustainable practices can also build resilience, lower operational costs, and create value through new product and solution lines

The Egypt-hosted COP27 gave humanity pause for thought. The second most attended COP summit raised a range of issues – it spoke of a ‘just transition’ away from fossil fuels and established a ‘loss and damage’ fund for smaller island nations and other victims of climate change.

Such events are historically a means to highlight rather than act, but ultimately world leaders can only advise the way forward. It is the rest of us, organisations and individuals, that must act. To bring action up to meaningful levels, much of the starting initiative is on businesses. Businesses can act at scale and also serve as examples to others.

As the UAE prepares to host COP28 this year, sustainability is set to remain at the forefront of business agendas throughout 2023. But we should ensure that event fever is not the sole cause of our messaging or our actions on sustainability issues. We have reason to be proactive and we have reason to ensure that our policies endure when world leaders return home.

Sustainability is a significant portion of national economic visions across the Arab Gulf and beyond. But just as we should not act merely because the eyes of the world are fleetingly upon us, neither should we do so just because of government guidelines and regulation.

There are so many reasons for businesses to compose robust sustainability agendas and most of them have to do with business benefits. Investing in sustainability brings financial and operational rewards, such as making access to capital easier. Sustainable practices build resilience, lower operational costs, and create value through new product and solution lines.

We often side-line COP events for being all talk, but the same could be said of many businesses. Questions remain around how we actually go about becoming more sustainable. A sustainability program may appear daunting. And amid a confusing cloud of KPIs, reports, monitoring initiatives, and regulations, it is easy to lose sight of what actually matters to the business.

So, what about leveraging a sustainability strategy and roadmap? This will serve as a guide on the path to becoming an enterprise with an integrated sustainability lens. Here are three fundamental areas to think about when developing a sustainability strategy that may transform your business:

  • Understand the strategy and progressive roadmap of sustainability

Sustainability strategies and their implementation come about through a progressive process. It should be obvious that sustainability is not something that can be ordered through next-day delivery. Neither does a report, or series of reports, constitute sustainability. Each organisation will start in its own way, by identifying the sustainability drivers unique to its customers, investors, industry regulators, and available technology. These pressures will dictate much. You must select the reporting frameworks and initiatives with which you will align with. The Global Reporting Initiative is a good starting point.

Next, it’s time to visualise your sustainability vision and mission and how it fits into your business strategy. How does sustainability connect with your business? What impact do your day-to-day operations have on sustainability and what effect will your sustainability campaign have on your day-to-day operations? How will your employees and your customers be affected?

Answers to these questions will set you up for a successful strategy that reflects your findings and calls for daily action. A strategy will connect your business to key sustainability pillars: the environment, to people, and to the community. The strategy will be accompanied with a roadmap that should be realistic and include medium- (two to five years) and long-term (10 to 15 years) initiatives.

  • Recognise that business leaders decide direction for sustainability integration

If you tuned into COP 27’s proceedings, you would know how complex sustainability is. This complexity extends to a business because action on sustainability bridges departments and functions. While sustainability steering committees may be appropriate for many organisations, you cannot deliver on your goals through a single sustainability department. Everyone has a part to play, and everyone must be trained and incentivised to play their part consistently and effectively across your operations.

Materiality assessments, in which we quiz stakeholders on the extent to which they prioritise one issue over another, will be very important in ensuring that sustainability silos do not emerge. UN Development Goals or other frameworks are a sound starting position to develop your own tailored approach. Customers, suppliers, and partners will also be necessary sources of information and perspectives. But in the end, all employees, managers, and decision-makers should weigh in and lead. In the end, the business chooses.

Leaders must come together and determine what is indispensable and what is trivial. Choosing short-term and long-term focus areas, and starting where you can get the greatest buy-in will help you to progressively build a momentum you need.

  • Remember that sustainability starts with internal business infrastructure

While sustainability may seem like it is mostly to do with the outside world – regulators, media, customers – delivering it begins at home. Organisations must focus on material sustainability – the day-to day actions that prevent waste and emissions and set up strategies across material topics. It is important to think about the enterprise’s sustainability infrastructure, which entails policies, procedures, and guidelines. Success in such areas has historically been tied to those that manage to effectively blend governance, processes and policies that integrate sustainability principles and drive execution over medium to long term.

Clean and bright

Sustainability strategies are not abstract; they are not badges of honour; they are not cosmetic displays, and they are not trends of the moment or opportunities for fame. They are vital organs of enterprises and communities.

Stick to the three-pronged approach above and you will have the basis for delivering a program that has staying power and that adds real value to the business and the world around it. The new year is here and with it a new opportunity.

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