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  • Christine Schams
  • 9 May 2013
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Sustainability: built-in, not bolt-on

The Responsible Business Summit in London this week brought together such high profile speakers as the CEO of BSkyB, the Executive Director of Greenpeace, the Executive Editor of the Economist and the Minister for Climate Change, to discuss sustainability and corporate social responsibility. 

The keynote speeches were kept to a minimum and most sessions, such as cooperation between NGOs and businesses, or how to train senior management in sustainability, were held as panel-style discussions with much audience involvement. 

Sustainability looks at the triple bottom line: the economic, social and environmental impacts of a company. In the context of the social impact through the supply chain, the Bangladesh clothing factory disaster was frequently referred to. Whose responsibility is it to force change – the businesses operating in countries where legislation is not enforced? NGOs? Consumers? 

Greg Barker, the Minister for Climate Change, considers environmental sustainability central to economic growth and resilience in the UK. He focused particularly on the growth coming from, but not limited to, the ‘green sector’. An ecosystems market taskforce, led by business, has just reported on opportunities arising from recognising the ‘true’ value of nature’s resources and services that we currently take for granted and count as ‘free’. 

One theme emerged as a consistent strand through many of the discussions: sustainability must be about the essence of what a company does every day, and how it does it – in other words, it should be built-in, not bolted-on. It cannot be something else that ‘we have to do as well’ by a corporate responsibility or sustainability department. Senior management engagement with the sustainability agenda is considered to be crucial to building trust, as is motivating employees, listening to stakeholders, and transparency. 

To place sustainability at the heart of a business requires a long-term view, past mere legal compliance. It includes looking at future expectations and risks, such as the values of Generation Y and resource scarcity. Increasingly investors and analysts are asking these questions about long-term strategies too.  

The world is changing at a fast pace, it is increasingly more connected and open-source, so business as usual is not an option. From different angles, the same message came through that it will be organisations that place sustainability at the core of their business and are transparent about their values, achievements, and failures that will succeed in the future. In a post green-washing and CSR box-ticking era it is trust in a company – that sustainability is in its DNA – that is crucial to the success of corporate social responsibility.