The business case for sustainable development

Mandarin plant via  Cheung Fun  on flickr.

Mandarin plant via Cheung Fun on flickr.

If you want sustainability to move from being a nice-to-have, to being a must-have, at some point you will need to show that there’s a business case for it: that your organisation will meet its core mission better, faster, cheaper by paying good attention to sustainability than by ignoring it.

Five types of business case 

Every business case will look different, depending on what kind of organisation it is, where it’s based, and what level of robustness is required by decision-makers.  But there is an underlying pattern which will help you find the one that’s convincing where you are.

There’s a great model which I use in my book , developed by Gareth Kane of Terra Infirma

Kane opportunities pyramid.png

Your business case will appear in at least one of these layers.

  1.  Compliance – trading legally, in line with regulations and contractual obligations.

  2. Here is where the obvious eco-efficiency savings sit: using less, wasting less water, materials, energy.  Understanding things like supply chain risks from modern slavery, or how a site may become valueless as sea levels rise, also sits here.

  3. People want to work somewhere that makes them feel good about themselves, and they perform better when they are proud of their role and its purpose. If your organisation spends a lot of time and effort getting and keeping good people, this layer is for you.

  4. Looking from the outside in, do people want to do business with your organisation? Is it seen as cool, warm, happy, good? Or aggressive, old fashioned or irrelevant? Avoiding PR nightmares and building a great brand are so much easier when you are doing good as an organisation.

  5. As you understand better what the future holds: as the climate changes, as society demands more from organisations, as we move to a low-carbon, high-wellbeing future, the goods and services people want and the way they want them delivered is changing. Sustainability-savvy helps your organisation create and respond to new markets.

 Kane sees compliance as an underpinning foundation. When this is in place, the organisation can get the direct economic benefits in the second layer. Building on that you can take advantage of what Kane calls ‘internal but intangible’ people-related opportunities, and then the branding benefits. Being ahead of the game in new markets is the ultimate prize.

 What’s the business case where you are?

As you look at these hard-nosed reasons for paying attention to sustainability:

  • What jumps out at you as being especially relevant to your organisation? 

  • Which people who usually aren’t enthusiastic about sustainability might be interested, if you can present them with a good business case?

  • What aspect would appeal to them most?  

Making the Path by Walking

This post was first published in my Making the Path by Walking newsletter, December 2018. Scroll down to the footer to subscribe.