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Sustainable business; the new business normal

Sustainable business has become increasingly important in today's world as we confront pressing environmental and social challenges. How to remain successful as a business in this changing world in increasingly challenging. The traditional model of pursuing profit and extracting value with minimal consideration of the consequences for the planet and society is no longer viable or ethical. A sustainable business practice, therefore, not only is essential for ensuring a prosperous and inclusive future for generations to come, it also creates huge opportunities and represent a multi-trillion market (‘Better business, better world report’, Unilever). It will become the new business normal. The question is, how fast? This blog post explains what sustainable business is and how it should show up in your organisation.

In essence, sustainable business is about how to sustain your business. Not more, not less. A truly sustainable business has four characteristics that are essential in staying competitive as a company in the short-run as well as in the long-run.

  • Adaptive An adaptive organisation has a good view on market shifts, customer needs, and emerging trends and responds accordingly. Collaboration, open communication, and empowered employees enable rapid decision-making and experimentation. Adaptable organisations navigate uncertainties, embrace change, and seize new opportunities, establishing themselves as industry leaders.

  • Responsible The management term ‘triple bottom line’ was introduced by John Elkington in 1994 and increases in importance rapidly the last years. An organisation pursuing triple value aims to create positive social impact, a positive environmental footprint, and ensure profitability. Patagonia recently stopped to talk about triple value or sustainability, because in essence it’s about taking responsibility.

  • Long-term Organisations embracing a long-term view dare to take decisions that may negatively impact the short-term benefits of the company. They invest in things because they believe it will create value on the long-term. That does not mean that they are not profitable on the short run. They go for profit optimisation instead of maximization.

  • Distinctive Committing to the first three characteristics will create a distinctive position in the market as you will outperform peers in the long run. But sustainable companies do something more. They dare to stand out in the market based on a strong vision on their role in this world. This translates into a strategy with explicit choices. Creating clarity within the organisation and a shared energy and sense of belonging to make it happen.

As you can see, these four characteristics are not tree-hugging and activistic shout-outs for a better world. They are business principles that help you to become/stay successful as a company.

Ok, everybody can agree on the four aspects above. And world peace. But what does that mean for your company? How does this state of sustainable business show up in your organisation? There are many, each belonging to one of the following three buckets.

  • Sustainable commerce In the basics, sustainable commerce means that you are able to match the needs for sustainable products or services from your customers. These needs can be soft needs (public preferences) or hard requirements (e.g., sustainability targets in tenders). You can even go beyond that and proactively help your customers in their transition towards more sustainable business. Both huge commercial opportunities. Sustainable commerce is always built on a long-term relationship, in which you both take ownership on the long-term impact of your interaction.

  • Sustainable operation Whether you are confronted with a scarcity of resources or want to reduce your footprint, sustainable operation focusses on the recourses you use to produce your products and services. And what is left over. What materials you use, the type of energy and the amount of water all have their footprint and can be rethinqed. Also, investing in lean and smart processes can help you cut out unnecessary recourses or time. And what we see as waste now can even be turned into valuable products.

  • Sustainable organisation A sustainable organisation creates a solid base for long-term value. A strong vision and culture create a common understanding of what you want to achieve and a strong sense of belonging to that cause. This is supported by a structure and governance that fosters the right behaviour and sustainable decisions. There is a high focus and investment in the people, making sure there is an equal and inclusive workforce where continuous development is key. The different supporting functions (like finance, procurement, facilities, etc.) all aim to create the optimal environment for long-term value.

The question is not if and when you need to transform into a sustainable business, but how fast you can make it happen. Are you able to harness the opportunities that lie in this high value market? By creating a clear sense of what sustainable business means for you as a company, based on a strong vision, you are quite easily able to translate that to a clear meaning for your commerce, operations, and organization. And to concrete first steps. Transforming into the adaptive, triple value, long-term and distinctive organization that is so strongly needed, a sustainable business.

Gijs Mensing

Curious where your organization stands? In my next blog I will elaborate on the concept of Sustainable Business Maturity, a way to assess your company in where there is room for improvement to transform into a sustainable business.

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