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Defining Sustainability in Business as a New Decade Dawns

Companies are making some meaningful progress in their pursuit of sustainability. Explore the current landscape and next steps to help define sustainability's role in your business.

Panoramic and perspective view of high-rise buildings, where greenery and trees are reflected in the glass windows

A multitude of reports show that companies are digging in and making progress when it comes to sustainability. All the sustainability planning, initiatives and tracking are starting to pay off in the way of meaningful reduction in energy and resource use, ultimately diminishing companies’ carbon footprints.

As trials turn into results and years turn into decades, we have the benefit of hindsight and lessons learned as we define what sustainability means in business today. In 2020, as companies continue to grow, change and learn, here are a few insights that paint a picture of the current landscape and propose next steps to help define the role of sustainability in your business.

It’s complex and interconnected

To be effective, sustainability must infiltrate every aspect of the business. Sustainability is at the core of “continued viability” for businesses and includes grappling with challenges such as supply chain complexity, innovation safety, full production life cycle visibility and future-focused brand management. Gone are the days of a siloed sustainability team acting to support sustainability alone.

BSR’s State of Sustainable Business 2019 indicated 63% of executives surveyed said sustainability is now aligned and integrated with their corporate purpose. More than half (54%) indicated that sustainability is included in the company’s key performance indicators (KPIs) and 49% said that sustainability is integrated into the company’s products and services. This data points to a clear and complete shift of sustainability from sidebar project to fully integrated strategic initiative. 

Complexity also extends outside of the organization’s walls to partners, suppliers, transporters and other collaborators. Gaining visibility into the environmental impact from the time of a product’s conception through end use and disposal can be a daunting task involving dozens of players. In a survey from UL, Unpacking Supply Chain Complexity, 68% of respondents classified their supply chain as “somewhat to very complex.” Only 40% of companies with highly complex supply chains indicate they have high visibility into their supply chain.

The good news is that companies are more aware of these challenges and are taking steps to address it, with solutions ranging from supply chain mapping and deploying new evaluation tools, to leveraging connected technologies that enable the collection of data across the entire organization and broader supply chain.

Data and insights are key to it all

Data is fundamental to successful sustainability initiatives and to advancing companies’ abilities to measure, track and report on goals and accomplishments. While new technologies abound, many companies still lack the smooth integration of systems necessary to fully realize in-depth sustainability reporting. A report from the GreenBiz Group and Schneider Electric indicated an impressive 80% of respondents have energy and sustainability collection projects underway. Unfortunately, data access is not as comprehensive or effective as needed. According to the same study, only 22% of respondents share data across the enterprise. The obstacles cited include insufficient tools for data collection (41%) and unreliable or incomplete data (48%).

Many technologies exist to help companies collect, share and analyze the data needed to allow them to effectively identify and pursue sustainability initiatives. UL’s Unpacking Supply Chain Complexity reported 81% of companies with high visibility across their supply chain have completed or are in the process of deploying connected devices across the supply chain. Quickly following suit, 39% of companies with low visibility into their supply chain are now in the process of deploying connected devices. 

Sustainability is a moving target

As companies advance their sustainability initiatives, there is cause for celebration. At the same time, predictions of dramatic climate change call for increasingly effective action that will push companies out of their comfort zone. Whereas the single-attribute sustainability program was once cause for celebration, current trends point to a critically important transformation from take-make-waste business models to circular models. The sense of urgency grows alongside heightened consumer awareness, advancing regulatory measures and ever more complex health, safety and privacy risks. 

According to a Newsweek Vantage report, Going Circular: How Global Business is Embracing the Circular Economy, while fully 98% of senior executives surveyed were familiar with the concept of circularity, only 9% of the global economy is circular today. A completely novel concept introduced just 10 years ago, circularity is increasingly a transformational goal for companies. In this survey, 30% of executives said their companies are adopting circular practices, while 77% said they expect to implement or align incentives around circularity targets within the next five years.

The pursuit of circularity will completely transform our businesses, communities and lives, meeting the new demands and resource limitations of today’s world. These transformational changes, however, will not occur overnight and will take place one leap at a time. As companies become comfortable in one area, they will then move to tackle another, compounding their beneficial effects and positive financial results. 

With data-driven insights and scientific acumen, organizations can achieve quality while meeting aggressive sustainability goals. Sustainable innovation will be made possible with data-driven decision making and technology, building trust among partners, consumers, investors and other stakeholders. The time is now to embark on this journey of transformation for your business, people and the planet.
 

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