Just as we think about long-term sustainability in terms of business models, succession planning and leadership development, our interactions with the natural world are equally vital to long-term success. Are you setting yourself up to last?

On 25 September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted the universal, integrated and transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development along with a set of 17 SDGs and 169 associated targets . The EU has committed to implement SDG both in its internal and external policies. This led to emergence of new concepts which is expected to fulfill both goals of sustainability and new business opportunities. Adopting concept of sustainability does not hinder business opportunities but open more doors for staying relevant. How is sustainability strategy changing business environment? International Chamber of Commerce published a business statement on opportunity and importance of SDGs:

“The SDGs provide all businesses with a new lens through which to translate the world’s needs and ambitions into business solutions. These solutions will enable companies to better manage their risks, anticipate consumer demand, build positions in growth markets, secure access to needed resources, and strengthen their supply chains, while moving the world towards a sustainable and inclusive development path.”

Five distinct drivers of financial value compel companies to make both social impact and SDG alignment part of their core business in order to:

  1. Generate new revenue by creating new opportunities for market differentiation and growth;
  2. Recruit and retain talent by optimising your work- force;
  3. Increase supply chain resilience by enhancing supply chain sustainability and operational efficiency;
  4. Spawn investor interest by increasing attractiveness to a wider range of investors; and
  5. Assure license to operate by addressing regulatory compliance and managing risks

There is a growing consensus among business forums that if  they have to continue their business today, they have to deliver a low carbon economy along with a strategy to optimize resource use to meet economic and environmental goals. There are clearly certain types of business models and business strategies that make it possible to deliver a low carbon economy. It is to be understood that our natural resources are being extracted and disposed of faster than they can be renewed.

Sustainable development: 3 pillar model

Sustainability has become an all-purpose word. To make sense of different sustainability objectives, it helps to categorize them in three pillars; economic viability, environmental protection, and social equity.

I. Economic Viability

A business is economically feasible (sustainable) when:

  • It can sustain its financing based on the perceived value by its stakeholders whether they are customers, shareholders, sponsors, etc;
  • Sustain its access to material resources;
  • Sustain its license to operate.

Only if all of the above requirements are met, a company can future proof its business. This implies that a business has to add value, not only to its stakeholders but also to the environment and society. It has to avoid wasteful consumption of material resources, and comply with social and environmental regulations.

The more businesses adopt these basic requirements, the more it impacts the aggregate economy.

This pillar counters the failures of a linear economy and supports the transition towards a future proof, circular economy.

II. Environmental Protection

We have taken our natural resources for granted. We ignored both their scarcity and role in the workings of the ecosystems that provide us with the most valuable resources that make life possible; clean air, clean water, and rich soil. Protecting the planet from further exploitation and neglect especially applies to corporations. Industries are key agents in shifting from the exploitation of natural resources towards restoring the ecosystems that are the foundation of future prosperity.

This pillar sets goals to help restore our natural capital, think; reducing fossil fuel emissions and deforestation, evolving sustainable agriculture and promoting circularity within industry value chains.

III. Social Equity

We have an ethical responsibility to fight injustice and poverty and ensure inclusiveness, yet we also benefit from developing Social Equity. Talent, skills, and ambition are not distributed exclusively amongst the most privileged. Companies will benefit when everyone gets an equal opportunity to develop their skills. It ensures a skilled, healthy and vital workforce.

This pillar supports initiatives to promote peace, inclusiveness, social justice, and economic autonomy, within business networks and grassroots movements.

Because a business model can be executed in different ways, your strategy matters too. You must know how you will be competitive and how you will create the required conditions to be part of a sustainable society.

SDGs: A $12 trillion business opportunity

The good news is that business does not need to wait for a top-down goal-setting process.

According to the Better Business Better World report by the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, achieving the Global Goals could open up an estimated US$12 trillion in market opportunities in four economic systems that represent around 60 per cent of the real economy: food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being.

What skills do successful sustainability professionals need?

The greening of our economies is expected to bring about long-term benefits in the form of reduced environmental damage but, also, significant opportunities and challenges. A growing concern is that the diffusion of environmentally-friendly technologies and organisational practices may trigger labour market disruptions such as faster obsolescence of worker know-how and a rapid acceleration of the demand for existing and new competencies that, if in short supply, would lead to skill gaps. As a consequence of such concerns, the catchword ‘green skills’ has become common parlance in policy circles, even more since government interventions like Europe’s 2020 strategy.

Last year, the World Economic Forum produced a report on the ‘Future of Jobs’, in which they outlined the 10 skills we’ll all be needing by 2020. Few of the most important and achievable are outlined here:

Complex problem solving 

This is probably the most important skill to have on your CV by 2020. Designing solutions to meet complex challenges will be the Number 1 activity of the future sustainability professional, even more so than it is now. Problems will occur across multiple business-critical areas, sometimes out of nowhere, and companies will need people who are ready, willing and able to respond effectively. Start thinking about how you can hone your problem solving abilities in your current position and look for ways to evidence them on your CV for your next role.   Best not to call it “problem solving” on your CV as that is vague.  But show the reader with an accomplishment statement of what you did and how.

Critical thinking (and innovation)

This connects to problem solving above, but it’s distinct, in that it describes the ability to ask the right questions from a variety of different perspectives and to really interrogate the options. It also implies a solid understanding of the business landscape, as well as the trends in technology, science and socio-economics.  Bringing that macro-level view down to the micro-level of decision-making and picking apart the assumptions and biases will add serious value to your offer as a sustainability professional. Again prove this to the reader in a solid accomplishment statement or two that shows how you have challenged the status quo and can think with an innovation lens on. 

Creativity (and adaptability) 

This is something no machine can do. Creativity is crucial in telling and selling sustainability stories, both internally and externally, which you need to do if you want to inspire people and have them follow on the journey. The best sustainability professionals take a creative approach to their work and understand its role in translating complex messages for diverse audiences (I talk about sustainability communications in greater depth in this post). But there’s more to it than simply storytelling. It’s about the way you respond to change too, how adaptable you are, as Alex Grey at WEF points out: “With the avalanche of new products, new technologies and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes.” 

Negotiation (and influencing) 

This one isn’t new, but it is more crucial than ever. How do you expect to broker change if you can’t negotiate effectively? Being able to strike difficult compromises with internal and external stakeholders requires a robust rationale and a titanium-strong evidence base, as well as influence. Some people are born with an innate ability to negotiate, and lucky them! For the rest of us, it’s something we learn in the heat of the fire. If you are yet to develop this side of your professional practice then look out for a senior mentor who you can shadow at meetings. Great negotiation skills can really set you apart in the jobs market, so commit to enhancing yours. 

Emotional intelligence 

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, has been on the radar of the corporate talent agenda for many years since 1995 when Daniel Goleman wrote a book by the same.  Just look at all the mindfulness courses and CPD modules that major companies like Google are offering their employees (I wrote a post on this recently). They understand the importance of being able to keep your ego in check and empathize with other people, especially when things are fraught and solutions seem hard to find. EQ is also connected to the ability to coordinate with others and manage teams of people, which are crucial skills when moving towards a common goal. Evidencing these more subtle qualities on a CV can be tricky, so look for tangible proof points to highlight in your personal achievement statements.

Companies with business models that make use of renewable resources, that are ahead of the curve on environmental regulations, and that design strong and responsible supply chains will be a step ahead of the competition as business shifts into the next century. Every indicator shows that the next generation of customers, clients, and talent will increasingly demand these companies.

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Girish Sharma

An enthusiastic learner with interest in field of Data Science and Strategy building!!


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