Disruptive thinking: a step-change to corporate sustainability

To avoid 'commercially murdering' the sustainability agenda a strong jolt of corporate "disruption" from the very people who may be holding it back will be the defining step in the movement, Global Action Plan's Trewin Restorick tells Leigh Stringer

Disjointed political systems and economic uncertainty of recent years have constrained the corporate world from progressing sustainability agendas.

Because of this the business-as-usual mind-set has remained throughout, says Restorick.

Those still ignoring the need for change are putting the sustainability landscape at risk of becoming “sanitised”, the founder of environmental behaviour change charity Global Action Plan says.

“For businesses to compete they’re going to have to become more disruptive and radical. Businesses tend to operate in fairly set cycles – a good example of this is Corporate Sustainability Reporting, where businesses every year produce a report, which is churned out into a big glossy manuscript. And its intention is quite often to simply highlight the ‘good’ work of the company”.

But why? According to Restorick, the digital age means the world no longer operates this way and the phenomenon of social media is forcing transparency. “The scrutiny on company performance is almost on a daily basis, so if a company does something wrong the social media impact is instant and huge”.

In many cases, sustainability has become the ‘eau de cologne’ term for corporate marketing, a word that is often sprayed over a strategy to publicise its ‘green credentials’. But a few business leaders have ascertained that ‘securing the ability to operate’ is now far more important than simply increasing brand awareness and ensuring a ‘license to operate’.

For many years, these leaders have become comfortable with their language and their incremental changes, which, according to Restorick, is basically “business-as-usual with a few tweaks around the edges”.

Avidly trying to reverse this trend, Restorick has been working with businesses on reducing their environmental impact since GAP’s inauguration in 1993, a time when the corporate sector was enjoying prosperity and sustainability was a term blurred by increasing profits.

Marking this lengthy service in a relatively new sector, GAP celebrated its 20th anniversary last month by holding a conference that brought together cross-sector business leaders to discuss barriers to behavioural change amongst those at the forefront of industry.

The event struck a chord with delegates as it magnified the megatrends of what’s happening outside of the corporate sector. And it was the presence of professor David King, former chief scientific advisor for the Government, who put these issues into context, explaining that in the past when recessions had hit and austerity measures were put in place we were able to “dig ourselves out” because resource prices came down, demand dropped and that helped fuel the growth that followed.

“But that’s not the scenario we’re in anymore,” says Restorick.

“We’re going to have to create economic growth in a period where resource prices, food, energy and water, are going to significantly increase. And that actually poses a completely different challenge for business,” he says.

“We’re in an intriguing world where there are a few very brave leaders out there saying that we need to radically change our business models to tackle these issues,” adds Restorick.

Bringing attention to those leading by example, Restorick points to Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman and Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King, as leaders dismantling the archaic corporate thought process that many in sustainability circles are already labelling obsolete. However, despite the few that are putting this into action, many “brave statements” from leaders still tend to be a “long, long way away from the daily reality of the business,” says Restorick.

Not necessarily radical in conventional terms, the real challenge is how to convert the articulation of sustainability into daily operations and to those on the front line. Restorick says this is often only achieved by stripping back to simple messages on the behaviours now expected by businesses. However, “messages are not funnelling down to business operations,” he adds.

“There is a disconnect building between what leaders are saying and what’s actually happening on the ground, and the real challenge is how to link them both,” explains Restorick.

“It’s not always the most glamorous or exciting way to make that linkage, it can be really simple messages”. One organisation taking this route is Bart’s NHS Trust TLC campaign, which Restorick says fundamentally involves “turning off lights, equipment and shutting doors”.

“It’s not ground breaking messaging but it helps employees understand the connection between their core activity and the issues to consider, which is to make sure patients get better quicker. But also the broader debate around why we have energy bills increasing in a period of austerity and what do we do about it,” he adds.

However, this message is still being muffled by business leaders stuck in the “old cycle and old ways of doing things”, which is leaving them open to “huge vulnerability,” says Restorick.

Businesses are going to have to be a lot more fleet-footed, he says. “You see people like O2’s [head of sustainability] Bill Eyres and M&S’ [head of sustainability] Mike Barry desperately trying to make their companies more agile because they know, especially following the financial crash, that businesses are a lot more vulnerable than they used to be”.

So what can drive this necessary step-change? Restorick points to one solution – new talent.

“Businesses see that great institutions can fall over incredibly quickly so there is that vulnerability and that need to respond. And businesses are beginning to respond to this by branching out to the next generation”.

This search for talent is driving corporate sustainability, says Restorick. And this is because businesses are becoming aware that to encourage the best talent they need to raise their sustainability and ethical performance. “Why? Because people joining these companies are really starting to ask these questions”.

“O2 is a great example of this where it is now saying that they have bright young people coming into the business that want to see change. And are using their enthusiasm, appointing them as ‘change agents’ within the business,” he says.

In fact, the telecommunications giant tasked two interns to lead on the company’s sustainability report, which Restorick says is a “brilliant model because they can focus that energy and use it to cause positive internal disruption within the business”.

Restorick predicts that these kinds of initiatives will be the differentiator between those who secure future success and those that fall behind as they continue with the antiquated business models of today.

But the sustainability movement isn’t about winning a race, he says. It’s far more important to think beyond a competitive market and for business leaders across the world to understand that it will take more than just a few leading companies to disrupt the current trends we’re experiencing.

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