Everyone likes to talk sustainability, but who takes responsibility?

The business value placed on sustainability has undergone rapid transformation over the last decade. In the past, it was seen as a premium business option or a ‘nice-to-have’; a strategy to explore should an organisation have the resource to tackle its environmental footprint. Today, its necessity is comparable to the advent of digitalisation. Businesses either embrace the new agenda or fall swiftly behind their peers.

That’s why we now see a vast amount of ‘net-zero’ declarations and planetary commitments across different sectors. As many as 87% of consumers want brands to act now to encourage future sustainability, so the demands are not just widespread, but also immediate. Yet, alongside the desire to present green credentials, and fast, where lies the responsibility within a business for driving sustainability policy and strategy can be a source of contention. In fact, 34% of UK businesses believe it’s the CEO’s responsibility, while 22% say it’s the Chief Sustainability Officer. But are we fundamentally missing a trick by taking such a narrow view on accountability?

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A backdrop of urgency

For many, this year’s COP26 was another reality check. Despite the commitments made under the Paris Agreement in 2015 to limit the planet’s temperature rise to under 2C, scientists explained that this is likely to be missed unless stronger action is taken. More than just words, missed targets could translate into rising sea levels, global heatwaves and permanent disruption. As a result, there’s both a public and employee spotlight on how businesses respond.

Many across enterprise technology, healthcare, retail and manufacturing, are rightly setting themselves ambitious targets. Commitments to be completely carbon neutral, pledges to contribute to the circular economy and policies to track supply chain footprints are now permanent fixtures on quarterly or yearly earnings, annual reports or in product roadmaps. But the scale and significance of the task ahead means that no one stakeholder can bear the burden and enact the change required.

With such significant attention on the green agenda, resting the weight of sustainability transformation on the shoulders of one individual or including it as a ‘part-time’ responsibility of an employee will inevitably lead to underwhelming results. In turn, this could lead to accusations of green-washing and reputational damage.

A self-imposed shelf life

Instead, responding to this urgency requires a cohesive, united plan of action. It’s no longer enough to rely upon a small pool of employees to drive, inform and implement widespread change. Meeting these ambitious targets will only be possible if they are accompanied by a top-down mentality to change alongside a groundswell of employee support. Ultimately, responsibility for change needs to fall under the remit of the entire workforce, not just one individual.

At the heart of this is ensuring that the sustainability function is not siloed from the rest of the business, acting as its own separate entity with different KPIs or activations. To be successful, it needs to permeate the wider business and encourage others to embrace a ‘sustainability by design’ mindset with new policy, direction and solutions. At first, this might mean that meetings should have a dedicated sustainability champion, whether that is the CEO or Chief Sustainability Officer, as outlined in the above research, or another individual, who knowledge-shares, coaches other employees and ensures the business is on track against its targets.

Many organisations have dedicated sustainability teams that are omnipresent throughout the business, keeping the organisation on-track against targets. Their position at the heart of the business also helps customers and partners to successfully transform their businesses into intelligent, sustainable enterprises. Extending beyond waste reduction, the value placed on sustainability has meant that organisations can accelerate their product roadmaps.

Actions speak louder than words

There’s no doubt that an organisation’s sustainability credentials are now closely tied to its reputation. Leaders cannot afford to be behind on the sustainability agenda or they face the risk of being figuratively cast into the wilderness by their customers, partners and the wider public. Yet, with such pressing demands on them to drive change and make a difference in both the short- and long-term, they cannot rely upon one individual or business unit to support green objectives.

Instead, all employees, from the C-suite to entry level graduates, must feel accountable and think holistically about how business processes, products or solutions can support the planet. Dedicated sustainability champions or functions are an important piece of the puzzle, raising awareness of issues, measuring business performance and setting strategy, and employees must do what they can to learn from them. Ultimately, the end-goal must be for the entire business to feel appropriately equipped to take ownership for action, and in turn, sustainability leaders should find that they take on a more consultative role without sole responsibility to address climate change.

Written by Michiel Verhoeven, managing director at SAP UKI

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