While Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week has closed its doors for another year and the last of its international delegates have headed home, the question of exactly what sustainability means in a corporate setting will no doubt remain a talking point of many a 2016 boardroom discussion. The year is not even a month old, yet a person of nervous disposition will probably have gained little comfort from reading business news and some analysts’ economic predictions. While there are certainly many people confidently talking up projects and industries that promise consistent profitability, there are also other quarters speaking in less hopeful terms.
Although markets and sentiments are shifting continuously, it is a brave or foolish person who would wilfully ignore every whisper of this talk. Business leaders may well need to look at their industry and their markets, and revise their strategies accordingly. The idea of sustainability should be very much a part of this thinking.
The trouble is that the concept of business sustainability can often get somewhat lost in a fairly fuzzy confusion with understandings of corporate social responsibility. People might hear about a business focusing on sustainability and understand it to mean that the firm may have invested in some recycling bins or perhaps hosted employees’ families for a barbecue.
Obviously such initiatives are not without merit, but this is some way off a full understanding of what it means for a business to be sustainable. Really, any definition needs to spring first from the meaning of the word itself – that is something capable of lasting or continuing for a long period of time. In the midst of fears of potentially choppy business waters, the idea of a business lasting over a long time has an evident appeal.
Certainly this would appear true if you consider the topics discussed at last week’s gathering in Davos for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. Whether the subject matter was energy, health, climate change or the markets, the need to consider the long-term was a constant thrumming bass note.
Of course, if it was as simple as just saying it, we’d all have nothing to worry about. Ingraining sustainability in a business takes time and it needs to be entwined with every part of a leader’s strategy. This doesn’t mean ditching profitability for a warm feeling of doing good, but it does mean taking a long look at how a company sits in relation to wider society. Is it viewed as ethical and true to its word? Does its output add real value to those around it? Do employees consider themselves as a significant part of something great?
Such questions are important – aspects like reporting and transparency, relationships with employees and communities, and environmental efficiency are all crucial for long-term success. A firm focusing on these issues is far more likely to ride out short-term market shocks and maintain its bottom line. It will suffer less in the ups and down of public relations, and will benefit from straightforward supply chains that do not become mired in controversy or dispute. It will have less trouble attracting and retaining skilled employees, and it will more confidently approach innovation because staff believe they have the time to work on new projects.
The point about focusing on sustainability as part of your strategy is that it should neither be just a welcome pursuit when times are good, nor a necessity of survival when things look rather less so. Corporate sustainability means being profitable over the long term, being driven by talented, long-serving employees, and being focused on playing a constructive role in the community the business operates within. If it is a full and fixed part of a company’s strategy and vision, being sustainable can be both a ready counter to patches of gloom and preparation for sunnier moments.
Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group
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