Why sustainability needs to be built into organisations and not remain an afterthought

For far too many businesses, sustainability remains a bolt-on practice—an afterthought rather than a core value. This premise is a roadblock to achieving meaningful and lasting change.

Why sustainability needs to be built into organisations and not remain an afterthought

Sunday October 29, 2023,

4 min Read

“Refuse what you do not need; reduce what you do need; reuse what you consume; recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse; and rot (compost) the rest.” ― Bea Johnson (US-based environmental activist)

Even though the world has been talking for over a decade about sustainability, the circular economy and building businesses which have a positive impact on society, the environment and citizens, a fundamental challenge I still see is how sustainability is perceived and practised across corporations.

For far too many businesses, sustainability remains a bolt-on practice—an afterthought rather than a core value. This premise is a roadblock to achieving meaningful and lasting change. Sustainability cannot be just another business function; it needs to be a commitment to integrating eco-friendly practices into every aspect of a business.

I have seen businesses face multiple challenges while adopting sustainability at their core. It is important to diagnose these before prescribing a solution.

Challenges faced in the sustainability journey

Complexity of implementation

Integrating sustainability into business operations is complex and involves changes to supply chains, manufacturing processes, and product design. Understanding and implementing these changes is often daunting. I have seen multiple businesses look at sustainability through a practical lens, which becomes a big reason for C-suite executives to treat it as a bolt-on and not a fundamental part of their business

Lack of expertise

Most businesses lack the necessary in-house expertise required to implement sustainability measures ‘effectively’. This includes understanding environmental regulations, measuring and reporting on sustainability metrics, and R&D towards designing eco-friendly products and services.

Resistance to change

The ‘who moved my cheese’ challenge extends to businesses as well. Employees, especially if they are accustomed to established processes, may resist changes to their routines that sustainability initiatives require.

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What can businesses do?

Set clear goals and adopt sustainability

Bharat has a clear goal towards achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2070 and the government has taken significant and tangible steps to achieve this. Initiatives such as establishing 50% of non-fossil sources to generate power by 2030 or the National Green Hydrogen Mission set clear priorities and goals.

From a business perspective, Procter & Gamble is a classic example. Whether it is Ariel or Tide which could save energy and reduce carbon emissions, or Cascade which uses less water than needed to wash hands, P&G has led the way in making sustainability a path to profit.

Get customers to choose sustainability

In a 2020 McKinsey US consumer sentiment survey, more than 60% of respondents said they’d pay more for a product with sustainable packaging. Similarly, according to an American ExpressTrendex report, 985 of Indian respondents want to spend money on items that will help build low-carbon communities. If customers are indeed at the centre of how every business functions, these data points elucidate customers’ affinity towards purpose-led products and services. It is an opportunity for organisations to set themselves apart, while having a positive impact.

Adopt integrated sustainability practices

Mindset is key. Businesses must adopt and foster a green and sustainable mindset as an integral part of core business operations. This involves incorporating and strengthening initiatives across the adoption of lean manufacturing principles, the establishment of eco-conscious supply chains, and ensuring that sustainability has a prominent presence in the boardroom. 

PepsiCo is the perfect example. When Indra Nooyi took over as CEO she developed the axion “Performance with Purpose” to highlight to both internal and external stakeholders that she was committed to sustainability. Through this initiative, the company reduced the amount of water it takes to produce a bottle of Pepsi by 50%, introduced technological advances that cut down fuel consumption in the trucks, and incorporated higher levels of recycled plastic in the water bottles. These initiatives helped PepsiCo remain relevant with younger users who were more concerned about the environment.

Leadership commitment and employee engagement

It is important to reiterate why leadership commitment and employee engagement are crucial in the journey of sustainability. Making significant strides in sustainability requires unwavering commitment from the top. When leaders become champions of sustainability and value it as a core tenet, it is then woven into the fabric of the organisation. A classic example here is Tim Cook who personally participated in global communication on Apple’s carbon neutrality efforts.

The distance we have traversed is because of efforts to understand the depth of the challenge we face.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” - Peter Drucker (The Father of Management Thinking)

(Naivedya Agarwal is the Co-founder and CEO at Runaya Group where he leads the Manufacturing Technologies vertical.)

Edited by Kanishk Singh

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)