A rounded approach to managing sustainable development

Management of sustainable development is not a business task that can be delegated to one team or one individual: it involves a strategic and cultural shift for most organisations, says Neil Rotheroe.

It needs to be driven by senior management in order to fulfil its true purpose of achieving a rounded approach to management for sustainable development, for the business, for its stakeholders and for the environment.

Business leaders are becoming more aware of the impact their actions are having on society. People have lost and are losing their jobs because of bad management and this is affecting society in a big way.

We regularly hear politicians talking about a breakdown in society and businesses can help address this issue by focusing on the wider issue of sustainability management. By placing more of an emphasis on the social impact of their business’ actions and linking this to the power of business to make positive change, senior management is in a strong position to build a better future.

To truly progress in social sustainable development, business leaders should begin by looking closely at their stakeholders. They need to demonstrate an ethical duty towards their employees, communities and other stakeholders.

This can take many forms, from providing support for employee personal development through training and qualifications to forming apprenticeship schemes and having continual open and frank dialogue with all stakeholders. Businesses have a big opportunity to make a real difference to the world in which they operate if they look to the legitimate rights of stakeholders.

If adopted fully and correctly, management for sustainable development certification also has an economic purpose for businesses and society. However, an unbalanced focus on financial results has led to the demise of numerous well known organisations in recent years.

On the other hand, taking the progressive approach towards management for sustainable development, has actually led to opportunities for businesses – for example Marks and Spencers with its well-known Plan A initiative.

For human well-being, we need a thriving economy and we need companies to be successful within their respective markets but this success needs to be done in a fair and ethical manner, in a way that is not socially or environmentally destructive. This can actually bring about competitive advantage, for example when the Co-Op first introduced its Fair Trade range it was ahead of the times and led the market in terms of sourcing in a sustainable and ethical way.

Closer to home, businesses of all shapes and sizes should be looking to gain strategic competitive advantage and achieve economic sustainability through harnessing the talent within their organisations. By placing an additional focus on talent management and employee development businesses can quickly find themselves ahead of the pack without having to continually recruit and seek out new talent externally.

Unlike traditional environmental management certification, which is confined to the purpose of reducing a company’s impact on the environment in which it operates, sustainability management aims to have a positive effect on the social and economic impact of the organisation and to appropriately link it all together.

Environmental certification comes as a result of organisations following and implementing an environmental management system specification. As the name suggests, this has always focused purely on the environment with a focus on resource efficiency and measuring environmental burden.

Despite the popularity of environmental management systems and the good work that they have guided many organisations to do, many people, myself included, view traditional environmental certification as being confined to a fairly restricted brief, not just in terms of what it looks at but also the way in which organisations implement and use it.

Many utilise environmental management systems largely as a compliance and risk control measure as opposed to an opportunity to improve: it affords many organisations the ‘option’ of doing the minimum, just enough to pass the audit and tick the boxes as opposed to encouraging them to seek out ways of further improving what they do and truly changing the culture of the organisation for the better.

These restrictions have led some progressive business thinkers to seek out new ways of broadening their organisations’ adoption of environmental management and certification, to take on a wider view of sustainability: maintaining the environmental gains but moving forward to take into account social and economic aspects as well. This takes us beyond the existing environmental approaches to engaging strategic management commitment and harnessing innovation.

Neil Rotheroe is sector manager for Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility at certification body NQA

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