The State of Sustainability in Business: the Deloitte view

There’s been a whole spate of surveys on sustainability recently, and surprise, surprise, here’s another one. It’s only a matter of time before there’s another survey on the sustainability of sustainability surveys!

This one, by Deloitte, however, does have some interesting thoughts in it. And a thought-provoking commentary, particularly referencing corporate roles, the creation of a sustainability ‘command centre’ and the role of technology, which I’ve included in full below:

Commentary: Sustainability and the business

We believe that several points can be drawn from the view of sustainability offered by our respondents’ answers to this section of our survey. First, a high-level consensus on the concept of the “triple bottom line” masks considerable variation in how companies define sustainability for practical business purposes, driven by the specific needs of each business and industry. In our view, the definition of sustainability must speak to specific business issues that affect a company’s ability to deliver value – which, because they differ among industries and among companies within industries, may drive some of the variation in the definitions of sustainability our respondents gave. However, one key question is whether there needs to be some marketplace consensus in the definition of sustainability to anticipate sustainability trends among stakeholders and to drive the infrastructural requirements and priorities needed to support companies in addressing sustainability beyond their four walls.

Second, we believe that companies can help themselves by broadening their view of sustainability to include the communities and markets in which they do business. Part of the relative lack of emphasis on social sustainability may be due to the lack of a highly visible, well-established set of metrics for social sustainability such as the better-defined, widely known metrics that exist for various aspects of environmental sustainability. However, as the concept of “Social License to Operate” becomes more important, attention to social sustainability issues may increasingly help organisations in their efforts to establish or maintain such a “Licence” in their target communities and markets as a large part of their efforts to pursue competitive advantage.

Third, our experience suggests that as a company becomes more mature with regard to sustainability, the perceived and actual impact of sustainability will spread to a greater number of roles. The typical progression we have observed is that sustainability first surfaces as a concern for functions such as legal and compliance; then, awareness of its impact spreads to operational functions, such as supply chain; and finally, companies begin to understand how it can affect demand-side functions such as sales and marketing. We believe that, in the future, both leadership and rank-and-file roles in each of these functions will presume a working knowledge of sustainability in the same way that many roles today presume a working knowledge of what used to be called “e-business.” The pervasive nature and impact of sustainability on business – analogous to the impact of the Internet – will demand that responsibility for sustainability be built into roles throughout the enterprise sustainability rather than being segregated in a particular function or department.

In fact, we advocate that companies consider creating a “command centre” for sustainability in order to create a central point of responsibility for aligning and coordinating sustainability efforts. As part of this command centre, enterprises should assign roles and responsibilities to stakeholders from across the organisation’s functions and disciplines, including but not limited to legal, finance, accounting, engineering, research and development (R&D), operations, marketing, and public relations. Marketing and advertising professionals should coordinate with strategic and operational leads to validate that future performance targets (such as reductions of energy and water usage) are both achievable and aligned with business priorities and operational requirements. Environmental remediation and legal professionals should support the controller in preparing regulatory financial statements to validate that communications in voluntary reports are consistent with those provided in mandatory reporting. And the entire sustainability effort should be supported by appropriate operational infrastructure, including enabling technologies and systems.

I’d be interested in comments, or any alternative views.