Sustainability and strategy

Updated: Oct 11

In this Covid-recovery era, there’s so much talk of a new normal, building back better and a general sense that some fundamentals of business as we knew it have changed forever. Sustainability is now up at the top of businesses and professional service firms agendas.


Given global increased discomfort/awareness/concern around inequalities (eg around access to healthcare/vaccinations), discrimination (eg black lives matter), the fragility of globalisation (eg sensitivity of supply chains to international borders), plus increasing numbers of enterprises transitioning to net-zero by 2030 (or similar), marketers and business development (BDM) professionals need to take stock and review.


As Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”


Given the big changes already and looming in the market, plus the changes in the markets of clients and their clients, BDMs are well advised to reflect on the degree to which previous plans and strategies are still valid, even if they are tweaked, finessed and updated a bit. Are BDM teams driving the development of a business that is sustainable in the medium-long term through delivering a business development function that is operating in a sustainable way. In short, are offerings and operations sustainable?


To help consider this, we plant a few seeds, first by myth-busting, secondly by sharing some inspiration from the world’s best B2B sustainable corporations:


MYTH 1 – “Our Board is laser focussed on the bottom-line, sustainability is an extraneous cost”

Sustainability is a concept that comprises many elements, often described under the headings: Economics (financial viability), Environment (impact to and use of resources), Social (society, people and business processes) and Governance (leadership and ethics), taken together, EESG (or sometimes just ESG, since Economics is assumed in the “for profit” commercial world).


Already every enterprise will be addressing at least some of these factors, as they are necessary to do business eg compliance with local law society requirements. Such minimum standards to operate are one aspect, but there is so much more value-creating upside to be had from reflecting on these topics and integrating their consideration into the business.


Take digitalisation of services… that could improve process efficiency, save printing costs, reduce consumption of paper, provide a means to improve relationship management, position provider as an innovator in the post Covid-19 world of delivery, and depending how it’s done could become a USP and brand differentiator. Such a change in business processes could provide various demonstrable financial and non-financial positives if executed well.


MYTH 2 – “Yes we do CSR, so we’ve got sustainability covered”

Sustainability is often misunderstood as being a nice to have and add-on to regular business, summarised in the formula: run your business with tracking the bottom line + financially related metrics factor in some acts of kindness in the community + look after the team = job done. Savvy companies are however realising that embedding sustainability concepts in business strategy and approach makes for a more responsible business that is better governed and managed, factors in all risks and opportunities and is more likely to be successful on an ongoing basis. So yes, elements such as pro-bono work and D&I policies that are often considered under the CSR banner can be important and in multiple ways, but such activities do not of themselves denote a business that has sustainability covered.


MYTH 3 – “We rent our office and we’re in a service industry, what can we do around sustainability?”

EESG comprises many different components. And sustainability is driven by what’s important or material to any business eg while water consumption is likely to matter to a clothes manufacturer it’s less likely to matter to an accounting firm, which environment-wise could be more concerned by its carbon footprint from staff air travel.


So it is worth periodically reviewing what sustainability components are a factor in your business, and focus on them. For a B2B service provider consider: Revenue – what streams are under threat and what are emerging? For example, many providers are declining deals involving fossil fuels, for climate change, reputational and other concerns, whereas many are looking to redesign their business models – more below; Where and how are points being awarded for sustainability on proposal scorecards? For example, do potential clients expect you to disclose your sustainability strategy and report, or expect you to have certain specifics, like being based in offices that are green?; Where are the points of concern for brand management and potential reputational crises? For example, is your cyber security robust to support online service delivery, and avoid a breach and potential disaster?


Inspiration from the world’s best B2B corporations

Oftentimes, it’s more obvious and or more readily relatable to cite B2C brands as being leaders in sustainability – think Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Toms. The latest Corporate Knight’s Index of the world’s 100 most sustainable corporations, issued in January 2021, includes five different professional services providers in the top 20 providing inspiration for more sustainable approaches for operations and offerings in the B2B environment. Highlights from each of the five:

  1. Banco do Brasil shows strong commitment to socio-environmental factors including throughout the loans it makes and more. It’s “BB’s 10 commitments” is a very succinct overview.

  2. Canadian consulting firm Stantec Inc has many noteworthy highlights all flowing from their guiding belief: “We envision a world where infrastructure gives back, water is protected, natural systems are valued, biodiversity is prioritized, nothing gets wasted, development is responsible, everyone can access renewable energy, and society is just.”

  3. Despite being in dirty sectors – including mining, aggregates and metal refining – Finnish engineering services group MO Group anchors it’s business around a Planet Positive offering

  4. Norway’s largest asset manager, and insurer, Storebrand “strives to evaluate economic, social and environmental aspects before we make any decision”. Their Sustainable Operations and Sustainable Procurement guidelines provide useful inspiration for other professional service providers.

  5. Coming in at 18th on the ranking is Australia’s logistics brand, Brambles. Their top sustainability highlights include their circular business model and commitment to pioneering regenerative supply chains.

Sustainability and BDM are bedfellows: they are business functions that have a shared strategic view across an entire firm and are all about long term value creation ie how an enterprise operates in a responsible way to achieve various financial and non-financial returns. Thinking about BDM holistically by factoring in EESG issues is sure to create a more future-ready, successful and sustainable business.


Fiona was guest author for The BD Ladder, where this article was first published.

The article was also released on the website of ICAS - The Professional Body of CAs - and CityA.M.


Click the link to learn how the Red Links Sustainability Consortium can help you review and improve your sustainability strategy and more.


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