As concerns around sustainability increase, from energy consumption to resource scarcity, businesses are realising that a more sustainable business model can add value and benefit the business in the long-term.
Ruth Holroyd, owner and consultant of Oakleaf Business Solutions Ltd, which aims to support businesses in becoming more sustainable, explains that moving towards such a model doesn’t have to be hard work.
“My main feeling is that sustainability doesn’t have to be anything other than doing business in a better way. It doesn’t need to be something that is a whole lot of additional work – it can be but it doesn’t have to be. It’s about changing people’s way of working to ways that are better,” she says.
Oakleaf specialises in helping businesses to “take those first steps” towards action, whether this is aiding with business strategy, producing a sustainability report or providing and facilitating training.
The broad meaning of the word ‘sustainability’ often frightens people into inaction, Holroyd notes. As a result, improving understanding and demonstrating that sustainable practices can be implemented relatively easily whilst delivering benefits is vital.
She adds, “The hardest bit is getting people onto the journey. I think once people step up and take the time to understand what this is about then they are more receptive to it.
“I think there’s a lack of understanding, and if people don’t feel confident about the topic, then they tend to shy away from it because they either don’t want to make it obvious that they don’t understand or they don’t want to stick their head above the parapet because then they think they are really in danger of people examining their business.”
The area most commonly focused on by businesses is environmental management, such as reducing their energy usage and recycling initiatives, Holroyd explains. This is because it generates measureable benefits, which often have additional positive impacts on the business, such as cost savings.
The other area businesses tend to consider is it the social side, such as charitable work. However, many are not planning these activities in a strategic way, partly because it is harder to measure.
“I think you can find a way to support the local community and local charities but in a way that is also beneficial to the business,” Holroyd adds.
“The social side can bring lots of benefits to a business but it is harder to focus your mind because it’s a vast area, there’s a lot of things you can do but you don’t always know where to start. When you do something to address the social need it is also much harder to measure success, it makes it more difficult to know what to do and understand what the benefits are.”
As businesses move towards more sustainable and responsible practices, shareholders, particularly the large ones such as pension funds, also have a role to play in driving long-term thinking and putting sustainability issues on the agenda.
Holroyd explains, “I think that a more proactive and interested shareholder base could generate far more action than it does because if they genuinely showed an interest and built expectations of businesses performance on business sustainability then that would push action within businesses a lot further than it has done.”
With a background in the sustainable tourism industry, she adds that the sector provides a perfect example of why sustainability is important and how an industry can progress.
Tourism is reliant on beautiful natural environments and authentic positive experiences with local people. As a result, sustainability and responsible business practices can add a huge amount of value to the sector and businesses working in it.
While the industry first focused on carbon emissions and promoting more efficient travel, there has been a shift towards its impact on destinations. This includes ensuring that the benefits tourism brings have an impact on the whole area and community, and protecting the natural environment. By incorporating these issues into the mass market and working with other organisations tourism has changed its reputation.
“In the past 10 years there’s been a shift from criticism of the industry to working with the industry. I think this shift has generated a lot of change because working together has a more powerful impact than people who are quick to criticise but aren’t there to come up with solutions,” Holroyd says.
“Working together in stakeholder partnership is a successful way to produce results. It is the best way to create change.”