Why it pays for businesses to boost sustainability

Michael Posner explores what 'sustainable business' really means, and how businesses can benefit from adopting sustainability principles.

factory supply chain
In the age of social media and digital connectivity, business practices and supply chains are becoming increasingly transparent to the public. Embracing sustainability is not just good business, but also smart business. Image: dotshock / Shutterstock.com

In recent weeks, Samsung suspended its operations with a key supplier in China because of allegations of child labour in its production facilities. Major oil companies faced environmental challenges in the fields where they operate, from the Amazon to West Africa, and internet providers continued to respond to intense public pressures to enhance privacy protections for their users in the aftermath of the Snowden/NSA disclosures. These are but a few current examples of the challenges business leaders face as they seek to build sustainable business models.

Business sustainability is essential to the long-term prosperity of global companies. But what does this mean in practice and how is sustainability defined? Today’s smart business leaders know that they are operating in a fishbowl, where everything they do is on display and social media enables news and information to travel around the world in seconds. They are also operating in a world where many governments are failing to provide a stable, secure environment for businesses to operate. To address these challenges, CEOs are recognizing that they need to incorporate broader principles of sustainability in their everyday business decisions. This is not simply a matter of doing the right thing, it’s smart business.

Leading global companies are therefore developing practical standards and metrics to help apply these principles. These sustainability principles serve to maximize their opportunities and to minimize the negative impact their core operations have on the environment, and the communities and economies in places where they operate.

This week seven of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils have released a white paper that offers an integrated view of business sustainability and why it matters.The paper builds on the framework presented in the Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future (1987), which described sustainability as a three-legged stool, involving people, the planet and profits.

Today’s smart business leaders know that they are operating in a fishbowl, where everything they do is on display and social media enables news and information to travel around the world in seconds.

In today’s context, business sustainability encompasses attention to such issues as climate change, corruption, rule of law, the empowerment of women, human rights, consumption and supply chain practices. In more concrete terms, companies are recognizing that tackling climate change means working towards goals of zero emissions, waste and discharge, using measures that can also reduce costs, minimize risks and increase resilience.

On a parallel track, they are addressing  worker safety and other challenges in their manufacturing supply chains, enhancing internet privacy protections for their users and developing right-respecting security policies in their mines and oil fields by setting clear substantive standards, building internal systems to fulfill commitments, and providing accessible remedies when those standards are not met.

Sustainable companies also are promoting greater economic participation of women, and combating corruption by embedding rule of law principles in their operations and initiatives. Taking this broader view of business sustainability is important both because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it serves a company’s long-term commercial interests.

The World Economic Forum’s white paper amplifies this more integrated understanding of business sustainability, drawing on a network of experts in different fields. In doing so, it provides a foundation for corporate leaders who wish to develop and incorporate sustainability policies and practices. It also can and should serve as a resource to private companies, governments and civil society groups who also are engaged in debates about these issues.

Hopefully the white paper will serve as a catalyst, helping to frame future discussions of sustainability, and providing a concrete starting point for companies wishing to make a meaningful commitment in this area.

Michael H. Posner is Professor of Business and Society, NYU Stern School of Business, USA. This post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.

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