Sustained success in the long term comes not from trying to make a quick buck just for yourself but from analysing how your company can help create more value for all relevant stakeholders in the society.
Many sustainability-related business efforts get frustrated as they do not see direct value of sustainability for the customer. It often is hard to convince the customers to pay more for products and services just because they come from a company that is serious about sustainability. In the end, successful initiatives have to offer the customers a value proposition based on dimensions they are willing to pay for. As an example, reduced environmental impact by having more concentrated detergent that uses less packaging is great - but the marketing message that might resonate better for some customers is convenience or other product qualities more than saving the world.
While most people consider the customer, a critical stakeholder that is often not considered in the value creation equation is the employee. It turns out that corporate social engagement creates significant value for the employees, which also ultimately benefits a company in very tangible ways. Take, for example, global technology and management consulting firm Accenture. While developing an internal social impact initiative, London-based strategy consultant Gib Bulloch realised the benefit of framing it as a "business within a business" rather than a not-for-profit or CSR project dependent on external funding. This required a business model that could work towards being financially sustainable despite the lower fees that the development sector clients could afford to pay.
Bulloch found a clever solution: getting consultants interested in undertaking these projects to agree to a significant (up to 50 per cent) salary reduction for the duration of their participation. Many employees indicated that they would still be very interested in such projects, and were willing to sacrifice financial benefits for the opportunity. Bulloch also had a vision of encouraging returning participants to share their experiences with their colleagues, and leverage the new skills ultimately also in commercial projects - thus offering consultants a hybrid career track with an opportunity to give back to the society without having to quit a promising management consulting career.
Taking a business approach helped Bullock get top management's buy-in for a corporate social enterprise through which Accenture could contribute to wider international development. Bulloch went on to become the executive director of what was formalised as Accenture Development Partnerships. This has become a tool boosting the brand and enhancing Accenture consultants' understanding of the world, while at the same time helping attract new recruits, keep employees engaged and improve retention. The company appeared in Fortune Magazine's list of "Best Companies to Work For", highlighting the potential of weaving sustainability into HR strategy. This examples show that businesses are realistically left with two options for the future: either they continue to progress reluctantly and consider sustainability "pressures" as unwelcome headwinds, or they change course and make them positive tailwinds by reframing sustainability from a constraint into a competitive advantage and an opportunity.
If choosing the latter, three things are worth keeping in mind. First, steer innovation efforts toward new products, services or business models that leverage sustainability-related challenges as opportunities. Second, interact with key stakeholders (communities, customers, financial markets, unions) in a more inclusive and effective way. Third, drive a "growth-oriented" attitude toward sustainability throughout the organisation.