Friday, June 21, 2024

The Sustainability Manifesto for Businesses

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Companies working towards protecting the natural environment are doing a vital job. In this pursuit, they must also consider their social, economic and cultural impact as well. The focus should be on overall sustainability. Most of the world’s largest economic entities are corporations, not countries. Great power creates great expectations: societies increasingly hold businesses accountable as the only institution strong enough to meet the huge long-term challenge facing our planet. Coming to grips with them is more than corporate responsibility. It is essential for corporate survival.

Unfortunately, short term strategies have now become endemic. When Uber, a multinational ride-sharing company, was introduced in Kenya, taxis were kicked off the market over the competitive edge and technology of Uber. For them and all other businesses, are quickly learning that survival is not a right. The possibility of such a firestorm had been obvious for decades yet the businesses involved are only now trying to deal with it. For them and all other businesses, survival is not a right.

To endure in a dynamic world with decreasing resources, companies must execute more sustainable strategies. Sustainability is much bigger as it encompasses every single dimension of the business environment: social, economic, cultural as well as natural.

Until the 80s, business leaders used the term sustainability to mean a companies’ ability to increase their earnings steadily. The term became widely used as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” after it appeared in a UN report by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s former Prime Minister in 1987.  Putting into consideration that sustainability even has a dark side: “greenwashing” – focusing more on communicating your green efforts than on the efforts themselves. 

A sustainable business as defined by most is a business that can thrive in the long-term. Sustainability is bigger than a PR stunt or a green product line even bigger than heartfelt but occasional nodes to ongoing efforts to save the planet. Imagined and implemented fully, sustainability drives a bottom-line strategy to save costs, a top-line strategy to reach new consumer base and a talent strategy to get, keep and develop creative employees.

True sustainability has four equal components;

  • Economic. This component seeks to help businesses and people meet economic needs. For people, it helps secure the basic needs and creature comforts. For businesses, it is turning a profit.
  • Social. It addresses conditions that affect us all including poverty, violence, injustice, gender equality, education, public health, labour and human rights.
  • Environmental. This component seeks to protect and restore the Earth, for instance – by controlling climate change, preserving natural resources and preventing waste.
  • Cultural. It protects and values diversity through which communities manifest their identity and cultivates traditions across generations.

Although the challenges to sustainability are acute, there has never been a better time than the present for a company to play a critical role in helping to solve them while building up its business. Many of the social and environmental trends we face are sad, even tragic, but sustainability is not about throwing your business down the drain and embracing your inner saint. That is one reason for looking beyond the green aspect of sustainability and using its social, economic and cultural sides as tools for building successful companies. Green business, green jobs and emerging green economies will be a central part of the new world now being born but green alone is not a broad enough platform to sustain most businesses for a long haul. Only those businesses that take into account broader social issues will be able to thrive and lead.

A business that aims to achieve greater sustainability must, therefore, articulate a strategic direction that embodies a global human challenge larger than any organization. Such a strategy should be consistent with the strength of the company, have a connection to its core business and elicit the personal contributions and passions of its members.

Dr. Edward Mungai
Dr. Edward Mungaihttp://www.edwardmungai.com/
The writer, Dr. Edward Mungai, is a global sustainability expert. He is the Lead Consultant and Partner at Impact Africa Consulting Ltd (IACL), a leading sustainability and strategy advisory in Africa. He is also the Chief Editor at Africa Sustainability Matters. He can be contacted via mailto:edward@edwardmungai.com

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