Sustainability can often be a touchy topic in the workplace, particularly when it comes to dealing with pressure from above and below. We spoke to Aurélien Acquier, Associate Dean for Sustainability Transition at ESCP Business School and Henning Ohlsson, Director Sustainability for EMEAR at Epson to get their expert advice on successfully working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a manager.
Associate Dean for Sustainability Transition at ESCP Business School
Director Sustainability for EMEAR at Epson
We’ve all heard the old adage warning against mixing business and pleasure – but with over half of managers saying they have to cut back on sustainability initiatives as a result of Covid-19, it seems that mixing business and ecology can be just as problematic.
Entrepreneurs and business owners may struggle to find practical ways to work towards SDGs, and they’re not alone: managers can often experience challenges when it comes to supporting SDG-conscious initiatives at work.
SDGs: first things first
With 17 SDGs to choose from, making sense of how to integrate them into a company’s existing strategy can pose a challenge.
Our experts agree: failure to approach the problem correctly from the get-go is a significant block to getting SDG-related actions off the ground effectively.
Aurélien Acquier, Associate Dean for Sustainability Transition at ESCP, comments: “I’ve often observed that many executives tend to put all SDGs at the same level instead of prioritizing them. Today, from an ecological perspective, scientists are clear: climate and biodiversity are two pivotal issues for the future of our society and should be at the center of all policies. Unfortunately, many middle and top managers still misunderstand some fundamental mechanisms of climate change and biodiversity, and what they mean for their company, in terms of risks and strategic impacts.”
Henning Ohlsson, Director Sustainability for EMEAR at Epson, concurs: “There’s a real disconnect between perception and reality. Our latest study (the ‘Climate Barometer’), which surveyed over 15,000 respondents worldwide, showed a significant gap between how executives view climate change and the severity of the emergency.”
They [managers] initiate transformations as change agents, but their problem is that they are often at the core of the contradictions between ‘business as usual’, profitability imperatives and sustainability objectives.Aurélien Acquier
Major challenges for managers: support from the C-Suite
Businesses are certainly facing increased consumer demand when it comes to accountability and transparency on sustainability. Citing their Employee Expectations Report, which examined over 14 million survey comments from employees around the world, workplace experts PeakOn are blunt: “Businesses need to move beyond offering office recycling bins or organising the occasional litter pick-up as part of a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative.”
With this pressure in mind, what are the major challenges facing business managers when it comes to walking the walk? Lack of agility or clarity from management is a common source of frustration. For Aurélien Acquier, insufficient support from above is often linked to unfamiliarity with SDGs in practical terms:
“I see a frequent misconception surrounding SDGs. The first one is what I call a ‘box-ticking’ approach, where companies use the SDGs as a convenient tool to showcase existing CSR practices, i.e. to show that ‘they do something’. In organisational terms, too, managers are often between a rock and a hard place: middle managers have a central role to play, but they’re often in a delicate position. They initiate transformations as change agents, but their problem is that they are often at the core of the contradictions between ‘business as usual’, profitability imperatives and sustainability objectives.”
While recognizing the sometimes frustrating limits that are often placed on middle managers, Henning Ohlsson goes one step further: “Action as a team leader means to set examples and practise what you preach. Top management needs to lead and provide the best tools so that everyone is able to achieve a common goal. Middle management needs to share and prioritise information more than ever. It’s all about focus and motivation based on the vision of the company and society.”
Practical advice for pushing SDGs as a manager: involve your teams!
Commenting on the challenges entrepreneurs face when it comes to implementing the SDGs into their business strategy, ESCP Professor of Sustainable Entrepreneurship Robert Sheldon is clear: employers cannot afford to put SDGs at the bottom of the list, both from an ethical and a business point of view.
This might sound obvious from a profit-driven angle, but as IBM’s Companies with Purpose Report shows, sustainability is becoming a key issue for managers when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, with 87% of surveyed employees expecting employers to support causes and issues that matter to them.
It’s time to ditch the hierarchical structure of decision-making when it comes to sustainable actions. It should be a collaborative initiative.Henning Ohlsson
Ensuring ground-level support for SDGs is crucial, with the IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub noting: “In order to attain SDGs, leaders must manage resources, be visionary and ethical . . . and involve all stakeholders in the governance process.” A tall order – so how can managers best deploy their expertise to help work towards SDGs, while keeping their teams engaged?
From training schemes and partnerships to the UN’s official SDG Action Manager, managers can benefit from a number of tools and platforms to help them deploy their SDG strategy effectively. Surveying how companies have adapted their environmental sustainability efforts in light of Covid-19, Deloitte lists a number of interesting recommendations, from educating senior management on climate issues and supporting employee activism to creating positions specifically responsible for driving environmental sustainability initiatives.
For Aurélien Acquier, managers and employees work most effectively when in symbiosis, with a common goal or project that spans teams and departments: “A good way to leverage energy is to stimulate intrapreneurial projects by launching dedicated innovative projects and businesses. Some companies, such as the insurance company Axa, do this very well. There’s also a massive issue surrounding training: a big part of the challenge is to train top managers to improve their awareness and understanding of the scientific basis of climate issues and their inextricable connection to business activities.”
Henning Ohlsson agrees, citing the importance of involving teams from the ground up: “It’s time to ditch the hierarchical structure of decision-making when it comes to sustainable actions. It should be a collaborative initiative. Involving the younger generation will bring fresh ideas to the table. We should be involving everyone, it’s the only chance we have.”
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