The Turning Point for Sustainability

Sustainability is increasingly becoming a focus area at a global level as we are now on the path to frame a new narrative for the world’s recovery post pandemic. An unprecedented crisis which amongst having an unquestionable socio-economic impact, has forced us to rethink resources, operating models and particularly assess our status quo in conducting business activities.

What we witnessed throughout the pandemic is an immense sense of responsibility from the business sector that has risen to the challenge and proved how their resources and capabilities can be leveraged to benefit society. We have had great examples in the Gulf Region from organisations that were not critically affected by the crisis which have immediately responded by acting in greater collaboration within their industry, with other sectors and with all their stakeholders. From initiatives such as donating grocery essentials or committing to retain the entire workforce, to entirely pivoting and repurposing manufacturing lines in support of the healthcare sector, businesses have been acting at their best.  

Although in the limelight, the question that still stands as businesses have rightfully turned their attention to generating revenues after being brought to a standstill, is how we can look at sustainability as the long term solution and integrate it within strategies and models. Given that sustainability is of a complex nature and there is no one size fits all approach, business leaders are often pondering where to start and how to factor in sustainability within the business strategy. So, what could be the way forward?

Connect the dots

Sustainability education is key in understanding how it can enable any business to perform better in the long term and could support organisations steer away from just a ticking box exercise. Delving into the interconnected nature of all the dimensions of sustainable development, be it economic, social or environmental and learning how a business impacts all the stakeholders it interacts with will enable us to set the right foundation for a sustainability strategy. As sustainability transcends all functions and the entire value chain, we need to turn our attention to understanding business risks and opportunities, starting with the impact within own operations, our products and throughout the supply chain. During the pandemic, investment entities have studied the behaviour of their portfolios and reported that ESG assets performed better, which reflects that sustainable models are more resilient. Could climate change threaten the business and lead to assets becoming stranded or supply chain disruptions? Are operations responsibly and ethically conducted, fostering diversity and inclusion as well as with an optimal use of natural resources which does not put additional pressure on natural ecosystems? Are these values also considered at a procurement level and do they cascade within supply chains? These are just some of the starting areas organisations need addressing to pave the path towards a sustainable recovery.

Think big, start small

Acknowledging that sustainability is a journey which will lead to a resilient business model is also crucial and we have numerous examples from the world’s largest organisations that have committed to sustainability and have set ambitious goals, over a period of time leading up to 2030. Building on this, the Canadian government has issued an economic relief package to support businesses affected by the pandemic and mandated the recipients to disclose their climate impact and actions they will take to mitigate the same. Rather than aiming for an immediate turnaround, which is almost impossible, this will enable organisations take a step by step journey in embedding sustainability within their models.

Once we identify where we currently are and set our bold ultimate objectives, what we first need to turn our attention to is setting milestones based upon the greatest risks and highest impact areas. Would a circular economy approach support the business optimise costs and at the same time reduce environmental pressure? Could we source from small holders to support the local community recover from the crisis? Can the business start the transition towards becoming carbon neutral? We should start by setting the wider business’s sustainability goals, prioritise the core focus areas, break them down into milestones and cascade them within the relevant departments. 

Share knowledge and resources

Similarly to how acting in collaboration has enabled us to have a nimble response in addressing the impacts of the pandemic, continuing on the path of partnerships and knowledge sharing will support businesses bounce back faster, reduce duplications, and accelerate the progress towards sustainability. Looking at how have industry peers have embedded sustainability represents a great opportunity to adopt the principles that work rather than reinventing the wheel. Leveraging our own learnings for the betterment of the industry and supply chains on the other hand can as well lead to a faster transformation. Even though there is no commonly accepted sustainability reporting framework and we have numerous ways in which businesses can disclose their impact, such as ESG reporting, GRI disclosures, SDGs alignment, being transparent plays a crucial role in sharing qualitative and quantitative data with our stakeholders and inspire others to follow the same route.

Finally, as the crisis we have been facing ever since the early beginnings of the year has made us reflect more on the impact of our activities, be it at a consumer, employee or government level, the demand and imperative for sustainability will only grow as we start recovering and could very well represent a historic turning point for a new business as usual. It is just about mapping out a plan and starting to act on rebuilding the economy while enabling a thriving society in balance with the natural environment.