Num­bers aren’t enough – why con­nect­ing to na­ture is key to suc­cess

Ta­mara Withers, se­nior cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­ity man­ager at EWS WWF, ex­plains why CSR is vi­tal to to­day's busi­nesses

Gulf Business - - CONTENTS - Ta­mara Withers

COR­PO­RATE SUS­TAIN­ABIL­ITY IN the United Arab Emi­rates is the opposite of na­tions like the United States, where busi­ness is lead­ing on sus­tain­abil­ity is­sues. Here in the UAE, it's the government driv­ing sus­tain­abil­ity with the pri­vate sec­tor lag­ging.

While the government is ac­tively lead­ing the charge to­wards a sus­tain­able fu­ture here, the pri­vate sec­tor must en­act a se­ries of vi­tal steps to re­con­fig­ure its stand­ing on the sus­tain­abil­ity spec­trum and keep pace with na­tional am­bi­tions. Ur­gent trans­for­ma­tions are there­fore re­quired if busi­nesses here are to suc­ceed in a rapidly chang­ing cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­ity landscape.

This re­quires an un­der­stand­ing of the sus­tain­abil­ity spec­trum: a lin­ear tra­jec­tory, mov­ing from low to high cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­ity en­gage­ment. The spec­trum model is used to bench­mark where a busi­ness cur­rently sits on this jour­ney to­wards greater lev­els of sus­tain­abil­ity.

On the left side ( low sus­tain­abil­ity), we see phi­lan­thropy and piece­meal CSR, in­di­cat­ing an in­ter­est in sus­tain­abil­ity, but with low lev­els of long-term en­gage­ment. As a com­pany moves fur­ther along to the right side ( high sus­tain­abil­ity), we see strate­gic ini­tia­tives and long-term strate­gies em­bed­ding sus­tain­abil­ity think­ing into an or­gan­i­sa­tion's core busi­ness ac­tiv­ity. Here, sus­tain­abil­ity is no longer a stand-alone ef­fort but rather is in­cor­po­rated into job func­tions and into de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

While it ap­pears that most pri­vate busi­nesses in the UAE are still at the low phi­lan­thropy and piece­meal CSR end of the spec­trum, a few of the more es­tab­lished com­pa­nies are cur­rently sit­ting fur­ther along the spec­trum. What's in­ter­est­ing is that there are a hand­ful of in­ter­na­tional busi­nesses that are known to be lead­ing on sus­tain­abil­ity glob­ally – with strong tar­gets ad­dress­ing sup­ply chain and cli­mate risks, for ex­am­ple – that are not demon­strat­ing the same com­mit­ments lo­cally.

Fur­ther­more, we of­ten see that CSR is weakly im­ple­mented in the UAE, with a lim­ited un­der­stand­ing of sus­tain­abil­ity as a prac­tice be­ing demon­strated. For ex­am­ple, ‘hit and run' ini­tia­tives such as beach cleanups or tree plant­ing rather than strate­gic and long-term com­mit­ments such as NGO part­ner­ships are a com­mon oc­cur­rence.

For a busi­ness seek­ing to achieve higher lev­els of sus­tain­abil­ity, it is not nec­es­sary to in­clude ev­ery step of the sus­tain­abil­ity spec­trum into their ac­tions, how­ever we must see the in­clu­sion of many of the core el­e­ments in a sus­tain­abil­ity strat­egy.

Fol­low­ing a full as­sess­ment from a sus­tain­abil­ity con­sul­tant, busi­nesses should seek to in­cor­po­rate core el­e­ments in­clud­ing tar­gets to re­duce waste, en­ergy, wa­ter – ex­tend­ing to the sup­ply chain; col­lec­tion of data, data trans­parency, and bench­mark­ing; the de­vel­op­ment of in­no­va­tive prod­ucts and ser­vices re­lated to sus­tain­abil­ity; a strong as­sess­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal risks through­out the sup­ply chain and a plan to ad­dress them.

Ad­di­tion­ally, there should be an em­ployee en­gage­ment pro­gramme with mea­sur­able im­pacts, and the em­bed­ding of sus­tain­abil­ity ob­jec­tives into train­ing and em­ployee KPIs, al­low­ing a cor­po­rate cul­ture of sus­tain­abil­ity to thrive. And fi­nally, en­gage­ment in the com­mu­nity to sup­port per­ti­nent com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives and part­ner­ships with rel­e­vant stake­hold­ers.

The busi­ness case for cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­ity is of­ten not enough to en­sure nec­es­sary ac­tion. Ul­ti­mately, de­vel­op­ing an un­der­stand­ing of the is­sues and con­nect­ing to na­ture on a per­sonal level is needed to drive de­ci­sions in favour of long-term cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­ity; eco­nom­i­cally, so­cially and en­vi­ron­men­tally.

Busi­nesses seek­ing out quick wins and short-term projects may cre­ate a one­time PR buzz for the com­pany, but as the government pro­gresses fur­ther with its am­bi­tious plans for a sus­tain­able fu­ture, we will see greater need for a gen­uine ap­proach to the sus­tain­abil­ity cause, with higher lev­els of un­der­stand­ing and en­gage­ment. In­deed, we are al­ready see­ing sev­eral com­pa­nies tak­ing the lead and pro­gress­ing along the sus­tain­abil­ity spec­trum in the UAE, mov­ing more in line with the government's am­bi­tions and com­pa­nies in coun­tries like the US.

In the not too dis­tant fu­ture, we can ex­pect to see a chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tion for many com­pa­nies here that fail to take this is­sue se­ri­ously. As his­tory has demon­strated else­where, those who take the long-term strate­gic view to­day, will be sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter po­si­tioned to thrive in the cor­po­rate sus­tain­abil­ity landscape of to­mor­row.

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