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The path towards sustainable sustainability

More enterprises need to build sustainability ecosystems, incorporate sustainability into their business strategy and develop sustainability policies

While Covid-19 wreaks havoc on industries and businesses worldwide, there are challenges that are equally as urgent and potentially as devastating.

The global pandemic and its repercussions have solidified the vision of the world that we want – one that has eradicated the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. And businesses are at the forefront of implementing, enabling and supporting the changes we need.

Unfortunately, business leaders today are dealing with a highly complex and unprecedented slew of social, environmental, market and technological business needs in response to the pandemic.

Many recognise the importance of sustainability, but they are reluctant to place sustainability at the core of their business strategy, with the mistaken belief that the costs outweighs the benefits at this time.

And where there is decisive action within the business, it tends to focus on rather basic interpretation of organisational sustainability, such as green practices and maintaining carbon neutrality.

But the true positive impact, as well as competitiveness of an organisation, goes beyond internal practices and lies in the development of a “sustainability ecosystem”, an ecosystem that encourages sustainability on different fronts.

We envisage three building blocks that will ensure the development of a sustainability ecosystem. Each building block has a specific objective, progressively expanding the impact of a firm’s sustainability policy.

Islands of sustainability initiatives

This is the building block that most companies have focused on so far, where sustainability initiatives have been pursued around reducing emissions and greening IT. The key objective is to build an organisation’s local and global reputation in fostering sustainability, though there is often little emphasis and impact on shaping the sustainability strategy and practices of its stakeholders.

However, this does not mean that such activities have little or no impact on sustainability causes. Rather, if implemented well, these initiatives can foster awareness of and passion in specific initiatives among participants, raising their personal social responsibility. At the same time, if companies choose to focus their activities on specific causes, the cumulative impact would still be significant.

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), for example, has been focusing on three areas: carbon and energy management, water management and waste management.

To date, TCS has already achieved its 2020 target of reducing its carbon footprint by 50% relative to the baseline year of 2007-2008. In addition, TCS employees around the globe are encouraged to log their activities under the company’s health and wellness, as well as corporate social responsibility programmes.

Shaping partner sustainability practices

In this building block, a firm is actively shaping the sustainability practices of its business partners and defining sustainability objectives for its internal and external value chain. The firm assumes an educator and champion role in transforming its value chain to adopt and achieve strategic sustainability objectives.

Examples include TCS’s blockchain-based, peer-to-peer renewable energy certificate trading platform that creates a decentralised energy market for efficient use of energy, as well as Ikea’s sustainability strategy to promote sustainable consumerism while working with partners and suppliers with similar sustainability goals.

Transforming communities

In this building block, a firm acts as an evangelist that educates and unleashes sustainability as an essential practice to ensure the longevity of the planet and its communities.

As an example, TCS partnered with Singapore Management University (SMU) to develop the CareSeniors community project that deploys sensors in the homes of the elderly. The goal is to explore non-invasive monitoring and assistive technologies to support independent living and improve the quality of life for ageing populations.

Another example is mKrishi, a platform that uses mobile phones and sensors to provide farmers with access to data, markets and financial services, as well as personalised advice. With these, farmers can plant, fertilise, harvest and sell products more effectively.

Alignment

By setting sustainability as a core value, organisations seek partners that are aligned to the same sustainability goals. The alignment flows through the ranks of the organisation, from employees to leaders to clients and partners, right to the associations we maintain with governing bodies. From a business perspective, the alignment of values protects the organisations’ interests and fosters a like-mindedness of priorities.

Systemisation

Within an organisation and the broader industry, systemisation in the form of global regulations ensures we are held to the highest standards and adhere to a universal standard of sustainability and reporting.

Across Asia-Pacific, market regulators including the Singapore Exchange have recognised the value of corporate transparency and require companies to disclose environmental, social and governance (ESG) data.

Economic growth in the region presents an opportunity to embed corporate responsibility at an early stage and align capital to sustainable ways of working. The only way to do this is with high quality ESG disclosure based on a global common language, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standard.

Co-evolution

The last of the strategic actions is co-evolution, the influence of closely associated companies on each other in their evolution. With values aligned and systems standardised, entities within the sustainability ecosystem spur each other to do better, sharing ideas and initiatives, and partnering for positive impact.

Expanding this further, a sustainability ecosystem also promotes the co-evolution of business policies and practices, setting in place a framework for investigating outcomes and organisational behaviour.

A sustainability ecosystem closes an organisation’s gap between acknowledging the importance of sustainability and incorporating sustainability into their business models. At the same time, it encourages a shift in perception by organisations thinking of sustainability as a purely compliance action, to understanding sustainability as a true competitive advantage.

Business collaboration in sustainability initiatives have failed in the past because of competitive self-interest, a lack of a fully shared purpose, and a shortage of trust.

However, an ecosystem such as this helps to focus both business processes and outcomes within the organisation and with the larger ecosystem. It starts with a small group of key organisations, linking self-interest to shared interest, encouraging productive competition, and – above all – building and maintaining trust.

Sustainability is a major challenge, one that matters beyond individual companies, and one that cannot be swept aside permanently as other challenges take immediate precedence.

What the world needs now is more enterprises taking the plunge and committing to building their sustainability ecosystem, incorporating sustainability into the core of their business strategy and developing forward-thinking sustainability policies. Only then do we stand a chance of achieving the world we all want.

Girish Ramachandran is president of TCS Asia-Pacific. Ilan Oshri and Julia Kotlarsky are professors at the University of Auckland’s business school.

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