Few can forget the emotive scenes in Blue Planet II when albatross parents fed plastic to their chicks. It caused a rallying cry across the nation, with the public calling on businesses and the UK Government to do something about the plastic crisis.
Plastic is one of the major sustainability issues facing businesses today - but there are many more on the horizon.
People are becoming much more concerned with (and vocal about) sustainable business practices. Millennials, in particular, are known for being extremely invested in social good - and they reportedly will pay 10-25% more for a sustainable product.
Generation Z also follows this trend towards more sustainable living. Their top priority is to tackle climate change and 81% of them believe that businesses need to contribute towards this.
Seeing as both generations are set to become the majority workers and consumers in the future, businesses must quickly understand their attitudes towards sustainability.
Shoppers buy sustainable products
Becoming more sustainable, therefore, satisfies today’s and tomorrow’s shoppers. Reducing plastic, for instance, has become more of an incentive to purchase than price. Just like the move towards being GMO-free or organic, being plastic-free could become a competitive differentiator.
Some consumers might boycott any brands that they see as unsustainable. The controversy surrounding the use of palm oil shows this in practice. Now, ‘no palm oil’ symbols appear on many labels. Iceland has led the charge for sustainable shopping by becoming the first UK supermarket to ban palm oil. It is also removing plastic from its own-brand products.
Yet, becoming sustainable for marketing or PR purposes can backfire. Starbucks recently came under fire for banning plastic straws only for consumers to point out that its plastic lid replacement actually used more plastic.
Sustainability in the workplace
The need for sustainability is also felt in the workplace. 80% of Millennials and Generation Z prefer to work for organisations that have proactive sustainability practices in place. Businesses that are perceived as unsustainable, therefore, might find themselves struggling to recruit the right talent in the future.
We’re already fairly used to seeing recycling bins dotted around our offices. However, sustainability comes down to more than recycling, turning off electronics and reducing printing. It needs to become part of workplace culture, with employees actively engaged in sustainability schemes.
HP Canada has partnered with the conservation group WWF Canada to work together on environmental initiatives. Employees go on outings to beaches for shoreline clean-ups, which also helps with team-building.
Changes to equipment or other aspects of daily operations can help make a difference too. IBM has been upgrading its old servers to modern ones that use less energy and produce fewer greenhouse gases. As a bonus, the servers’ increased capacity also supports IBM’s future growth plans.
Investing in sustainability
Investors have also noticed the increased focus on sustainability. It makes sense for investors to pay attention to the sustainability of their portfolios, because of increased Government legislation around the use of plastics and other unsustainable business practices. Plus, the 100 most sustainable companies in the U.S were found to have higher share price growth compared to the S&P 500 index.
The measure of a successful business is no longer solely tied to its financial performance. Black Rock CEO Larry Fink explains: “The public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”
The stakes are higher
Companies are being called-out for unsustainable practices more than ever before. This trend is set to continue, especially as the spending power of Millennials and Generation Z increases.
Social media has put consumer concerns front-and-centre. The proposed purchase of Wonga’s loan book by the Church of England was swiftly called off after some backlash. It has also been criticised over its investment in Amazon, a company that many people see as having unethical and unsustainable business practices.
Sustainability needs a combined approach
For companies looking to become more sustainable, there isn’t a magic bullet. Instead, there needs to be a blend of approaches across all operations and the supply chain. The wider working environment of a business is important to consider. Nestle found itself in trouble because of child slavery within its cocoa supply chain. Partner organisations and suppliers should also be considered in a wider sustainability plan.
Working across industry, potentially with competitor organisations, is also important to make major changes. A sustainable project that works for one company, would potentially work for another and should be rolled-out sector-wide.
Partnering with NGOs and governments is another vital step to addressing worldwide sustainability. NGOs carry a lot of the load when it comes to stopping climate change or cleaning up plastic waste and could benefit from the resources of businesses.
Meanwhile, governments are trying to tackle the issues through legislation. Businesses which actively work with legislators will have foresight over incoming laws whilst providing valuable industry insight.
Without everyone working together, only parts of the problem will be solved. To ensure future sustainability, every business must put their differences aside for the greater good.
Leaders of the future
Companies which develop stellar sustainability practices now will be more resilient in the future. They will be more attractive to consumers, recruits, and investors - which will directly affect their bottom-line. New legislation will also be less likely to impact sustainable businesses, along with Internet activism and protests.
Therefore, today’s sustainable businesses are likely to become tomorrow’s industry leaders. Indeed, failing to address global issues such as climate change and slavery may ultimately be to a business’ detriment.
All companies have an opportunity to make some significant sustainable changes in their organisation. To create a better future - for all.
Photo by Guus Baggermans on Unsplash.