The doomsday scenario of a planet tottering on the brink of self-destruction can be hard to fully grasp. And in a fast-paced business world, with a daily focus on simply getting the job done as efficiently and effectively as possible, it may be difficult to connect what happens now with tomorrow or, indeed, with what happens beyond the office walls.
According to Amanda Mackenzie, chief executive of national charity Business in The Community (BITC), it’s all too easy – and understandable – for companies to jot down a few buzz words related to sustainability, zero carbon targets, responsibility and equality, make a few changes, and then carry on largely with business as usual.
And while ticking boxes that suggest a purpose-led ethos which appears to embed solid ethics and a sense of connection with the world may look good, the impact of failing to follow through could, Mackenzie warns, come back to haunt them, us and all those who come after us.
“You can’t have ‘purpose’ without action,” she says. “If purpose doesn’t have a real sense of tackling sustainability within the way you run your business, then that will do a massive disservice to the company and erode long term value. Purpose is important. But it needs commitment, or we will suffer.”
When Mackenzie says “we”, she means all of us. For when it comes to the big issues facing the world – among them waste, carbon emissions, poverty, sustainability – how businesses collectively respond and act today could well define our world tomorrow.
But getting the balance between making a paper pledge and seeing it through to real results – particularly when there are so many issues to tackle at once – could feel a bit like herding cats. In an effort to gauge just how well businesses are managing to live up to their responsibilities, BITC, which was launched by HRH Prince of Wales nearly40 years ago to promote responsible business, asked 64 businesses across 24 sectors to honestly – warts and all – track their performance.
Based on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the scheme aimed to shine a light on where those businesses (dubbed “forerunners”by BITC) are achieving, where there may be gaps between purpose and delivery, and to highlight what still needs to be done.
Far from shaming well-intentioned businesses which may be trailing, the hope was to create a baseline to help motivate and stimulate change. Forerunner businesses could see where to focus, invest and collaborate towards achieving best practice and, in doing so, inspire others.
Once replicated by businesses across the UK, the Responsible Business Tracker guidance could help make steps towards reaching those important UN goals by its 2030 target. The results of the initial tracker phase shed fascinating light on how that snapshot of leading companies is faring in the bid to marry purpose with action.
While there were positive signs along with clear gaps in some areas, Mackenzie, who is also a non-executive director at Lloyds, says she was heartened and also not so surprised to see that work remains to be done.
“Anecdotally, I had a sense there would be a disconnect between the global goals that people want to aspire to and the action plans they want to deliver,” she says. “But I think it was honest for people to say, ‘We have set ourselves a purpose, but don’t yet have strategies’. It’s a good leader who can say, ‘I couldn’t quite connect this yet, but this is the plan for how to achieve it.’”
The global goals were agreed by world leaders in 2015 as vital components in the battle against poverty, inequality and climate change, yet the tracker found that just 42 per cent of BITC’s forerunner businesses used them to evaluate business priorities, and only 25 per cent to spark innovation. Just under a third (30 per cent) realised the risks involved in not meeting the 17 goals.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the demands on waste control and carbon emission reduction, the tracker found that while firms placed “Health and Wellbeing” and “Diversity and Inclusion” as high priorities, a “Circular Economy” and “Healthy Ecosystems” trailed behind. The “concerning lack of reporting and performance on key environmental issues” was set against 63 per cent of businesses issuing carbon reduction targets and 44 per cent reporting collaboration with their value chain on environmental issues.
However, change – particularly when it involves a major shift towards a circular economy or reducing a carbon footprint – takes time, stresses Mackenzie.
“If you are going to shift a business to be net zero carbon, you have to make serious commercial decisions. With ‘Health and Wellbeing’ you can see almost immediate results, employers can benefit immediately and it’s very tangible. It’s harder if you are going to redesign your supply chain, change the nature of products or no longer use single-use plastics.”
To help, BITC recently launched its major Waste to Wealth initiative which aims to encourage businesses to break the waste chain by being innovative, collaborative and brave. Some of the UK’s largest businesses, including Sky, Sodexo and Sainsbury’s, are already on board, along with scores of SMEs.
Mackenzie adds: “Companies know they have to do this, but a lot of real engineering needs to go on in the supply chain or the business model. It’s a much tougher ask.“But it does raise the stakes on the urgency of businesses having a clear plan, or we’re not going to achieve carbon targets.”
The BITC tracker also revealed that while 94 per cent of businesses have senior leaders setting ambitions for responsible business, only 17 per cent followed through with team-specific targets relevant to day-to-day roles.
The implications of failing to “walk the talk” could be severe, Mackenzie warns. “Consumers expect it and increasingly investors will look at this too,” she says. “We know of investors who have had tough conversations with businesses about what they are doing about plastic, and we are learning that consumers have a lot of power.”
So do employees, she adds, with some calling out bosses on what they regard as irresponsible or unsustainable practices.
Greater openness to collaboration with other businesses and stakeholders was a key recommendation, as was a call to be brutally honest about shortfalls in meeting goals – but also to celebrate their achievements.
“We have to encourage people to tell their stories and be proud of what they have achieved. No company is perfect,” Mackenzie adds. “There’s always a reluctance to say what you’re not good at and what you want to work at. Companies should be willing to be more vulnerable.”
That is an opportunity becoming available to more businesses. The Responsible Business Tracker, supported by Sky and developed with help from the Lloyds Banking Group’s Centre for
Responsible Business of the University of Birmingham, is being launched for BITC member organisations from September. The hope is that it can provide focus and crucial feedback that will inspire businesses to achieve key goals. “This first Responsible Business Tracker was our test model,” says Mackenzie. “Imagine what we can achieve for real.”