Beyond green thinking: how to embed sustainability in your strategy

Tuesday 01 June 2021
Businesses that behave in an unsustainable way will soon face a licence-to-operate issue. Here’s some tested guidance
Looking up at tall glass buildings with trees in the reflections

Sustainability is no longer a fringe issue. It is becoming crucial to the integrity and values of organisations across the globe. The UK government has set a goal of being net zero by 2050, which has driven many businesses to seriously consider their sustainability goals. CMI’s North-East, Humber and Yorkshire branch brought together a group of experts at the front line of sustainability and design to bring these management challenges to life. You can watch the full conversation here.

For those that haven’t yet, it’s ‘imperative’ that they start to look at their sustainability goals, according to Jonathan Oxley, Humber Cluster Plan manager at Humber Local Enterprise Partnership.

“Different businesses are responding in different ways,” says Oxley. “But there have been recent surveys showing that up to a third of businesses actually don’t have any plans for how they’re going to navigate the pathway to net zero.”

However, sustainability is more than just net-zero targets and ‘green thinking’ – it’s a multifaceted issue.

Jonathan was joined by Carl Andrew, finance business partner at Northern Gas Networks, and Carrie Hamer, marketing lead at Rowlinson Knitwear, to host this discussion about how businesses should approach sustainability. Here are some of the highlights.

Do good and do well

The first step towards greater sustainability is to ensure you have a definition, says Hamer.

“For us, it’s really focused around being kind and doing the right thing for people and the planet today, so that we’ve got something left for the future,” she says. “There’s a lot of focus on sustainability being about just environmental practices, and for us it’s much bigger than that. For us it’s quite an expansive definition of sustainability.”

This involves lessening Rowlinson Knitwear’s impact on the environment, but also looking after its supply chain. The business has B Corp and Planet Mark certification to help direct those efforts.

Carl Andrew works in finance and agrees that it’s important to get to the crux of what sustainability means to you, before you start the how process.

“It’s all to do with culture and having a sense of purpose. That means the why, what and how. An organisation needs to understand and ask those questions first, and then the financial practices can build underneath that,” he says.

In previous years, sustainability was often an ‘add-on’, with specific sustainability officers and departments. Instead, the issue should instead be front and centre across the business, says Oxley.

“It’s a case of embedding a sustainability agenda within your business structure and core strategy,” says Andrew. “So that you’re living, breathing and talking about sustainability every day.”

Leadership with heart

Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on how companies treat their staff, suppliers, as well as their values. Beyond green thinking, over the past year sustainability has been about protecting people.

“The whole world was being put under scrutiny, and how you acted during the pandemic was going to be your reputation – or at least that's how we viewed it,” says Hamer.

“And we certainly didn't think that there was anything more important than looking after our people, both in the UK and in that supply chain. That had to be the highest priority.

“Fundamentally, people were extremely frightened about their health, their families, friends and job security. I really feel quite strongly that a lot of businesses are going to have suffered lengthy reputational damage as a result of the pandemic, because they didn't stop and think about what really mattered.”

The generation coming through has been paying particular attention, she adds.

“Without a doubt, the younger generation is entirely critical of organisations and behaviours that aren't socially responsible,” she says.

Finance as an enabler

Sometimes money can be viewed as a barrier to sustainability. But sustainability can also give businesses a commercial advantage – both in saving costs and in future-proofing the company.

Take a simple step such as adding energy-efficient, longer-lasting LED lights; that’s just one way to save costs through choosing something more sustainable. Treating staff well – and therefore retaining them – is also a cost saver.

Rowlinson Knitwear has invested in a solar panel system, a fleet of electric and hybrid cars, and uses a not-for-profit waste and recycling company to recycle 80% of its waste.

“We're an SME, and we've been able to do those things – and they all equal savings,” says Hamer.

Oxley says that people are starting to view sustainability as a means to future-proof their businesses.

“While some people might still view it as worthy, there are those who are starting to view it as a potential commercial advantage,” he says. “At some point down the line, businesses that are operating or acting in a very unsustainable manner, however you choose to define that, will eventually have a licence-to-operate issue, because they won't be able to carry on operating in that fashion.”


Businesses should also take a collaborative approach to sustainability, rather than a competitive one.

Asking for help is one of the key elements of this, whether it’s approaching an organisation like B Corp, which has a B Impact Assessment tool to help you measure your sustainability levels, looking at the Climate Change Committee website or approaching like-minded businesses to ask how they’ve effectively made transitions.

“It’s clear that many businesses are struggling to understand what practical things they might need to look at in order to help navigate their way towards a more sustainable and net-zero future,” says Oxley.

“It’s definitely not going to be a one size fits all, but there’s an importance of starting to measure your metrics, making sure you understand the magnitude of the problem and also reaching out and speaking to others.”

We’d love to hear your stories about how you’re managing and leading in a more sustainable manner. Please email us and let’s start a wider conversation.

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