Why bother with sustainability in business?

Estimated reading time: 2 mins

Some people, and indeed Presidents, might tell you that sustainability is less important than other things in business, like growth. Sustainability hasn’t been easy, for sure, because supply-chains, societies and whole cultures need to change to make it work, and seem fair.

But let me pick up on that word – fair. ‘Fairness’ is the key to driving sustainability, and it’s also something that every one of us should ignore. To become more sustainable as an industry, or as a country, it takes investment and/or sacrifice and can cause disruption. In competitive markets, it can be very difficult to make the case for it. It might seem unfair to change to sustainability and allow competitors to eat out breakfast. It might seem unfair to switch away from fossil fuels, whilst another country burns them and enjoys cheaper production costs. It might seem unfair to not be sponsored millions by unsustainable companies, whilst our competitor reaps the benefits. If we waited until it was fair, nothing sustainable would be done – until it was too late.

Let’s not expect fairness. But what we can expect is pragmatism.

Consumers are more demanding on sustainability issues, and a shift towards more sustainable, ethical buying is evident across many markets. For example, the shift in the last decades towards renewable energy has given rise to energy suppliers who supply energy only from renewable sources; their consumers are well aware they could purchase energy from cheaper sources but choose to buy from them anyway. Douglas Healy also discusses the challenge that renewable energy supply and demand isn’t steady, and therefore requires safeguards supported by fossil fuels to prevent brownouts/blackouts.

The motor industry is shifting to electric, yet the infrastructure for recharging and battery capacities are not quite there yet to make it completely disruptive to gas powered cars. Hence why many manufacturers offer self-charging hybrids that use petrol engines to recharge the battery even when in use. This is a pragmatic way forward, even if it’s a stop-gap solution until battery technology improves and ubiquity in charging points is observed.

The myth about the singular importance of price.

Price is not always the most important information that causes consumers to buy. For example Katie Leggett is the sustainability manager at innocent drinks, who said in a Telegraph interview: “It’s the truth that we’re often charged more to purchase products that have embedded purpose.” Yet consumers still buy, just like they do their sustainably-generated power. You might have seen Ecover products on the shelf – these products have been around for well over a decade – they’re generally higher in price than other leading brands, but they have a strong sustainable purpose and clear messages (e.g. ‘TOO GOOD TO WASTE’) that consumers love.

Kate Leggett says “The benefit to the business may not be short term but may instead be for the planet, and the knock-on impact associated with that.” It’s clear that there is a strong case for business to position around sustainability, and less around price. Consumer value isn’t just on the price-tag, it’s also on the purpose.

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