From ineffective implementation to accusations of greenwashing, approaching sustainability from a business point of view is often fraught with pitfalls. So, how can entrepreneurs be leaders in the effort to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Co-academic director of ESCP Business School’s MSc in Sustainability Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Professor Robert Sheldon discusses the implications of sustainability on your business goals.
From learning a new skill to finding purpose at work, there’s never been a more exciting time to become an entrepreneur. However, how can the enterprising managers and business founders of today reconcile profitability and responsible business choices, particularly in line with the SDGs?
The latest IPCC sustainability report’s implications for agriculture, health and housing are sobering, to say the least. While many organisations are taking huge steps forward when it comes to reducing their footprint, a 2019 PWC report found that only 25% of companies felt it necessary to include feedback pertaining to SDGs when evaluating their overall business strategy. A luxury soon to become a necessity, as ESCP Business School Robert Sheldon makes clear:
“Given the way in which things are going in terms of global demographics, resource limitations and climate change, maximising sustainability is not going to be optional as we move forward. Whether they like it or not, managers will have to start operating businesses with environmental and social responsibility in mind. It’s soon going to become as critical to decision-making as questions of efficiency have always been. It will be about the survival of the firm.”
Make a mission, and mean it
Citing several examples of well-known brands’ efforts to commit to sustainability, IBM’s global Companies With Purpose study notes: “Companies and brands fail to execute corporate purpose when their core values and beliefs do not align with their behavior and actions. When purpose is used merely as a marketing tactic or advertising tagline, the lack of authenticity is transparent.”
Related to purpose, Robert Sheldon explains why a mission is a must: “One of the things that differentiates our approach to sustainable entrepreneurship at ESCP is our definition of the concept. What we call sustainability entrepreneurship doesn’t just mean that a business maximises environmental and social responsibility across the value chain – to us that’s a given. It means that the company also has a specific environmental or social mission. This is where the SDGs can have a direct hand in informing not just how a company operates, but in its raison d’être. Environmental and social activists are no longer channeling their efforts only through non-profits and NGOs – they’re starting companies too. Concerned about carbon emissions, food waste or deforestation? Start a company with a business model that will accomplish your mission. This is what we teach at ESCP Business School.”
Whether they like it or not, managers will have to start operating businesses with environmental and social responsibility in mind. . . . It will be about the survival of the firm.
Entrepreneurs and firms can choose to lead the way
First and foremost, then, a global vision or mission is the sine qua non when it comes to implementing an impactful sustainability strategy. But managers and entrepreneurs face another major challenge when it comes to successfully approaching sustainability: lack of support from customers or potential clients, which is closely linked to concerns about profitability. For Robert Sheldon, it’s up to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial managers to lead the way when it comes to the SDGs, instead of putting the onus on the customer.
“It’s, of course, OK for businesses to take cues from their customers, but we need to move away from the idea that change has to originate from the consumer. This can be a recipe for inaction, at a time when firms need to be proactive. Being proactive means that managers and entrepreneurs maximise environmental and social responsibility to the extent that economic constraints allow, and that they try to innovate when the economics don’t work. The responsibility for change can’t solely rest on the consumer’s shoulders, not least because businesses have the potential to have a far larger and speedier impact than individuals.”
In the era of greenwashing, many companies may feel they lack the ability to effectively deploy communication and other resources linked to awareness, despite excellent tools such as the UN Global Compact’s SDG Action Manager. Robert Sheldon is pragmatic: “Aside from a handful of exceptions, no business is ever going to be perfect when it comes to, say, totally eradicating its waste, pollution impact, or greenhouse gas emissions. It’s far more important that every business try to maximise their efforts to help the environment to the greatest extent possible. Where those efforts are stymied by the market, well, that sounds like an opportunity for a sustainability entrepreneur, be he or she internal to the firm or launching a start-up. It’s up to sustainability entrepreneurs to make sure that both consumers and businesses have sustainable options.”
It’s far more important that every business try to maximise their efforts to help the environment to the greatest extent possible. Where those efforts are stymied by the market, well, that sounds like an opportunity for a sustainability entrepreneur.
Where to get started
So, what can any and all entrepreneurs be doing to help incorporate SDGs into their business strategy? From actively prioritising partners that share your vision to supporting peer-led initiatives, the experts are clear: surrounding yourself with – and remaining inspired by – other actors in the sector is a prerequisite for an effective sustainability strategy.
Robert Sheldon concurs, and goes further: “Choosing suppliers or partners that are more aligned with the values associated with sustainability is a good place to start, but I’d encourage any entrepreneur or entrepreneurial manager to be particularly attuned to those situations in which such alignment is impossible or doesn’t make economic sense. These sustainability gaps in the value chain, or places where there is no economically viable sustainable alternative, which is what economists call market failure, are opportunities for innovation. If companies don’t fill these gaps through innovation, external entrepreneurs eventually will.”
Ready for the brave new world of sustainability? Sheldon is enthusiastic: “Right now it can be tough for companies to be both profit-driven and sustainability-minded, and that frustrates consumers who want more sustainable alternatives. However, the collective pain points associated with that supply-demand mismatch are creating a plethora of potential opportunities, and entrepreneurs – sustainability entrepreneurs – are responding in droves. The future, in which sustainable operations are not antithetical to profits, and in which consumers can satisfy their needs without compromising their principles, is being built by these people now.”