Consumers will no longer tolerate vague sustainability promises - companies must have the bravery to take ambitious actions, explains the Charities Aid Foundation's Janek Seevaratnam
There was an urgent need for companies to improve their sustainability long before Covid-19 arrived. NGOs, scientists and movements like Extinction Rebellion were increasingly demanding that organisations improve their environmental records. Politicians, pressure groups and society as a whole were looking for improvements in opportunities for minority groups, ethical investing and more.
But the pandemic has pushed sustainability much higher up the agenda and companies that don't act decisively on the crucial issues now are at real risk of being left behind. The pace of change is such that they will be outperformed on all fronts by more forward-thinking organisations, creating long-term implications for their viability.
With a huge number of people now working from home - juggling childcare and meetings, for instance - firms have had to take much more notice of employees' individual needs, so issues such as gender equality can no longer be ignored. Many industries have been propped up by government grants and the public now expect firms to give something back to society in return. The pandemic has made many people more community spirited, too, and they want business to follow suit.
Early hopes that a reduction in commuting would reduce overall worldwide greenhouse emissions came to little and so the environment is as important an issue as ever. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement cut through in a way it never had before, fuelling calls for equality and greater diversity in the workplace.
Company leaders need to show bravery, therefore, to persuade everyone from their firm's shareholders to its junior employees that rapid change in the way their organisation operates is needed. A recent report by Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) and Forster Communications - Bold Thinking, Brave Action - consulted sustainability champions at everything from utilities to food companies to reveal the character types, behaviours and organisational changes C-suites must adopt to act bravely. As the economic impact of Covid-19 is making big demands on leaders' attention and budgets, it's now particularly relevant to have a framework to show them how to act courageously to keep sustainability high on their firms' lists of priorities.
Campaigning spirit and collective action
The report shows that one of the main characteristics that leaders need to display is that of a firebrand. This form of bravery is required to call out failings in their organisation's sustainability policies and activities, and demand that it takes a more proactive role in affecting wider social and environmental progress.
"[Businesses] cannot wait for behaviour to change," says Mark Cuddigan, CEO of B-Corp certified baby-food firm Ella's Kitchen, in the report. "They need to be the spark."
Similarly, the study's expert participants identified passion and conviction as important attributes. These will help leaders enthuse employees about sustainability aims and persuade stakeholders that success in corporate responsibility can be as valuable as profit.
Leaders need imagination, too, to show employees and shareholders how some traditional ways of doing something can be improved. Many quickly and creatively adapted their companies to work remotely during the pandemic and they can take inspiration from this.
A campaigning spirit is important. A willingness to do or say something that might initially be unpopular but may well lead to positive action or reputational benefits - Sky Sports extensively promoting the BLM message, for instance.
The C-suite must provide leadership on sustainability, but planning and implementation should involve as many stakeholders as possible. Leaders need to be brave enough to be humble - to listen to criticism of current policies and absorb different opinions and concerns about driving sustainability. This has become especially true during the Covid-19 crisis in order to assure remote workers that they continue to be actively involved in company discussions and are valued.
Calm heads and strategic thinking
While businesses need plenty of passion and ideas on sustainability, they need people in and around their leadership team who can put it all into practice, too. Strategists and wayfinders - both cited as important character types in the report - become essential in putting big ideas into practice. They can see that just by making just a few small, clever changes to a business, rather than trying to reinvent it, they can have a huge impact.
One report participant, for instance, helped realise a firebrand CEO's ambitious sustainability goals by working to adjust the company's articles of association to be in line with B-Corp principles. Providing societal value and sustainability, rather than just profit, became central to the firm's aims and fundamental to everything it does.
The need for organisational evolution
For companies and their employees to be able to act with bravery on sustainability issues, leaders must ensure the correct frameworks and governance are in place.
Clear, written company values can make it much easier to argue the case for investing in a sustainability project. Providing a detailed vision of how your business is going to become more environmentally friendly, for instance, helps everyone move in the right direction. Company values and aims should not be vague and must align with what is material to the business.
"What's complicated is that businesses have picked one thing to talk about and improve," says Sophi Tranchell, former managing director of Divine Chocolate - a firm part owned by Ghanaian cocoa farmers - in the report. "An airline may do good charity and community work whilst still being a major polluter."
Leaders must also create an environment where employees feel able to speak bravely about the need for change, without worrying about recriminations - perhaps via regular town hall meetings. Company executives must make it clear that good ideas are properly considered and acted on and will receive genuine senior buy-in. They must also ensure that sustainability practitioners have access to the whole of an organisation, so that sustainability is considered in everything from product development to HR policy.
Including sustainability goals in performance reviews and end-of-year reports can make good social and environmental practice second nature to staff. Companies must also increase and ring fence spending on sustainability, particularly to protect it when money may be tighter than usual following the pandemic.
Above all, whatever approach they take, company leaders must have the bravery to do something. The public is scrutinising them as never before and will no longer tolerate vague sustainability promises with little action. Treading water could quickly lead to sinking into obsolescence.
Janek Seevaratnam is senior corporate advisor for impact at the Charities Aid Foundation.
'Bold Thinking, Brave Action' by the CAF/Forster Communications is available for download here. CAF provides end-to-end expert advice and practical assistance to organisations to help them improve their sustainability performance. For more information, visit cafonline.org.
This article was sponsored by the Charities Aid Foundation.