Last year Ireland declared climate and biodiversity emergencies in response to an urgent crisis. Before COVID-19 the way we worked and lived was unsustainable. The old normal was an economy where GDP went up but so did: carbon emissions; social inequality; the destruction of Nature; plastic pollution; food waste; time wasted in the daily commute; stress from quality of life issues. When things can’t go on any longer they stop. Whether at an individual or organisational level the following questions went unanswered: “what is my purpose?” why does this business exist? how can my work make the world a better place?”
Today, in the COVID-19 crisis these questions are brought into sharper focus. Some individuals and businesses have excelled in protecting their employees, customers, communities; delivering their products and services; altering their supply chains; and going beyond what is expected for good social outcomes. Other businesses have not..
This COVID crisis is an acid-test of preparedness for how we handle large systemic challenges. To use a trending phrase we must #buildbackbetter rather than return to the unsustainable normal, and take this opportunity to reinvent what we do and how we do it.
This process starts by establishing what you stand for, the purpose of your organisation, and who you serve. A dialogue with stakeholders will help you to define your purpose statement, which should be about more than earning profits and delighting customers. Keep it real, and make it connect with a social and environmental cause.
Next, write more detailed policies for sustainable business. Be ambitious, set meaningful goals, with principles and ethical guidelines for how you do business. This is part of good governance. In times of crisis what structures will improve decision-making next time round? (e.g. more diverse Board, more inclusive stakeholder process).
Already a plethora of finance-related developments are challenging companies to make clearer connections between financial performance and sustainable outcomes. These include the Non-Financial Reporting Directive which is under consultation for an update; the EU classification system for sustainable activities (the “EU taxonomy”) as a step towards facilitating sustainable investment, and the role of influencers like BlackRock in changing the thinking around management of investments.
Sustainability is not a standalone area or policy and should be synonymous with everything the business does. Sustainability is about taking action and implementing the policies through a range of sustainable business practices across all organisational functions, measuring performance using new indicators of success. Everybody is a sustainability practitioner, especially accountants who have the right skills to measure impacts and disclose results. Change your assumptions about risk and the future. Design a carbon budget. Test your systems and controls using the Business Working Responsibly Mark framework.
We responded to COVID as a true emergency, as if our houses were on fire. The climate and biodiversity emergencies and problems in society demand a sustained call to action. Business in the Community Ireland has 20 years’ experience of sustainability leadership. We’re here to help.
This article was first featured in Accountancy Ireland.