Today’s sustainability investment options are extensive and broad ranging, including relatively straightforward efforts (e.g., energy conservation projects) to multi-year/multi-stakeholder initiatives (like those that target social and environmental improvements deep within an organization’s supply-chain). While doing any or all of these could yield significant benefits, it is often unclear which will generate the greatest, most enduring value. Faced with this dilemma, leaders often struggle to understand which choices are best and how they should evaluate the many alternatives to ensure the most effective, efficient and sustainable decisions are made.
One way to improve would be to encourage better, more quantitative analyses that examine the full costs and benefits associated each investment in sustainability, combined with an analysis of which could make the greatest contribution for the business, the environment and society simultaneously.
While most understand that “when the economics work, the social and environmental benefits last,” many barriers remain for those wishing to accelerate the pace and effectiveness at which sustainability initiatives are funded and implemented, including:
- the lack of a demonstrated link between sustainability and business value;
- failure to communicate the strategic potential of such efforts in a way investment decision-makers can understand and appreciate; and
- not leveraging proven, familiar processes (that other company functions have applied) to accelerate decision-making and scale solution implementation.
Accenture’s 2013 CEO survey (UN-Global Compact – Accenture CEO Study 2013: Sustainable business and the pace of change) seems to agree, reporting that 37% of 1,000 top executives feel that the lack of a clear link to business value is a critical factor in deterring them from taking faster action on sustainability. It should be noted that this percentage is increasing: in 2007, just 18% reported a failure to trace such a link and in 2010, this figure rose to 30%.
Our experience confirms this trend, as we regularly note good projects that do not receive sufficient (or any) investment as these initiatives are perceived as failing to deliver competitive business value.
From our vantage point, there are two principal challenges that need to be overcome for sustainability to be viewed as a more critical contributor:
First, the “equations” for presenting business cases do not sufficiently include all the benefits of investing in sustainability – specifically, these efforts should include an accounting of potential contributions such investments could make in terms of:
- Offsetting of risk (brand risk, reputation risk, supply/commodity risk, regulatory risk, etc.);
- Delivering efficiency gains; and/or
- Adding revenue/market share (via innovation and/or building brand/reputational equity).
Without accounting for and quantifying all these dimensions, sustainability investments risk appearing less important than other business investments and hence are perceived as not carrying as much “strategic weight.”