The business case for sustainability — and why businesses need to build back better

Amber Harrison

Amber Harrison

This year has been one of uncertainty, change, and also agility. At the start of 2020 organisations set their plans out for the year as usual; typically revenue growth, product and market expansion, customer satisfaction. Many also included sustainability goals in their strategy, both short and long-term. Then the pandemic happened.

All the targets and key performance indicators carefully presented on charts suddenly became secondary to a new challenge: business survival. No-one can blame companies for putting aside sustainability while they tried to address the new paradigm. Keeping employees employed, operations operating and cash flows fluid in difficult times clearly took priority.

“Companies are currently having to balance environmental goals with basic survival.” — Prof Jonatan Pinkse, Executive Director of the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Alliance Manchester Business School.1

2020: the year of change

And yet sustainability activity continued to happen, whether intentionally or not. The impact on the environment of moving huge numbers of people to home working meant reduced energy use at offices and less commuting emissions. Those companies measuring utilities consumption saw big drops in power, heating and aircon, and water use. Business travel felt like a distant memory as video conferencing solutions became the new norm. Suddenly targets for emissions reductions that seemed challenging are being achieved incidentally.

We’ve learnt through this global crisis that businesses can be agile, responding to change quickly and decisively. As the economy urges us to ‘build back better’, what does that mean in terms of sustainability? Those who have already built the business case for improved environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance understand the risks and opportunities, the baselines and targets, and the need for transparency and credibility — and indeed the benefits.

Sustainability remains a priority

The recent ‘Corporate attitudes towards sustainability‘ survey from The Carbon Trust shows that sustainability remains a growing business priority, with 70% of companies believing it will increase in importance as a result of Covid-19. Even those businesses that have experienced disruption see sustainability as becoming more important.

“Despite extremely challenging market conditions, this is one area that businesses are continuing to prioritise.” — Hugh Jones, Managing Director for advisory at the Carbon Trust

Now is the time for companies who have put sustainability on the back burner to build momentum as part of the goal for recovery. But — and this is key — it shouldn’t be a separate programme or initiative. Sustainability must be integrated with the core business strategy.

A holistic business strategy

Setting sustainability at the heart of the business strategy drives accountability through the organisation, from the bottom to the top. It enables leadership and ownership, open discussion, challenges the norm and identifies opportunity. Some actions may be simple to implement — losing the bottled water is an easy win. Others are much tougher, for example, committing to a date for carbon neutrality.

We need to “…invest in our environmental future by decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions once and for all.” — Bill Thomas, Leadership, Global Chairman and CEO, KPMG International2

If sustainability is embedded into every element of the business, from hiring to building locations, product design to supply chain, it becomes the norm, and just ‘how things are done around here’. It’s reflected in the culture, values and goals for every individual.

Reaping the benefits

The rewards are plentiful for those companies that embrace sustainability: engaged employees and customers; reduced risk; greater opportunity and innovation; improved compliance and credibility; strengthened reputation; improved profitability; and of course a reduced environmental impact. At a unique time of change and challenge, can you afford to ignore the call to ‘build back better’?

Get in touch with Amber to see how we can help your business build back better.


  1. Waugh, R, 14 July 2020, Has coronavirus hindered businesses from reaching their green goals?, The Telegraph
  2. Thomas, B, 25 May 2020, Out of the crisis into a new ESG reality?, KPMG

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