Published on in Responsible Business

No poverty. Zero hunger. Gender equality.

These objectives might sound idealistic, but they’re all part of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by every member of the UN. The overarching aim is to create a sustainable society, that leaves no one behind, by the year 2030.

At a time when digital disruption is stretching businesses and creating a pace of change that was previously unimaginable, it can feel like sustainable development is an issue that’s too big for private companies to face.

As Laura Bonamici, VP Corporate Communications, Fujitsu, has pointed out, “60% of business leaders agree that balancing the needs of their employees, customers and wider society is challenging, according to Fujitsu’s research.”

Human-centric innovation – essentially using technology to improve people’s lives – is at the heart of our business strategy, but balancing purpose with profit is a challenge that we experience too.

This year’s Fujitsu Forum brought together thought leaders from a wide range of sectors. In this time of unprecedented change, we set out to explore how important sustainable development is to business success – and how it can really be achieved on the ground.

The UN’s sustainable development goals

To gain more insight on how businesses can deliver for society, we were very pleased to host Filippo Veglio of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in a breakout session at Fujitsu Forum.

As Filippo explained, the Sustainable Development Goals are incredibly significant because they were agreed by every UN member state back in 2015, at a time when global political consensus was very hard to come by.

“The SDGs are a blueprint for a better world by 2030 and an acknowledgement that it was important to look beyond the political priorities of the day,” said Filippo.

“Many of the SDGs are ambitious and even lofty, but just their articulation is important. It’s an acknowledgement that business as usual doesn’t work and we must go beyond incremental change.”

The World Business Council is a vehement advocate of the role for businesses to play in the SDG agenda. Businesses occupy a powerful position of agency, by creating new technologies and sparking economic growth, so their policies will influence the future.

But Filippo was also adamant that there is an opportunity for companies to transform existing systems – and create business opportunities as a result.

However, at a time when resources are tight, can businesses rank sustainable development above other business priorities?

The new age of trust

For many years there has been a tendency to consider corporate social responsibility, including sustainable practices, as a ‘nice to have’: a PR exercise to improve a business’ reputation.

Laura explained, “there’s a growing sense that building trust is fundamental to overall success. In fact, 78% of business leaders believe that it’s critical”.

Expert Rachel Botsman delivered a keynote session on why trust is increasingly relevant and changing in the digital age.

In a memorable exercise, Rachel asked everyone in the audience to unlock and then swap their phones – and then do whatever they wanted on their new handsets.

Responses were very mixed and included taking selfies, downloading apps and even sending messages to colleagues. But what was palpable in the theatre was a mixture of laughter and discomfort.

Rachel explained that the exercise was essentially a trust leap: taking a risk to do something fundamentally new and different.

Throughout history, people have taken trust leaps to try new innovations, be that the first rail journeys, using your credit card online or jumping in an Uber.

Today, we’re being asked to leap faster and higher than ever before, as new innovations come out all the time. But in the technology industry, it can be easy to forget how disconcerting it feels to take a leap into the unknown.

Rachel defined trust as a confident relationship with the unknown, a trait that businesses earn from their customers through competence and reliability as well as empathy and integrity.

Incidents from data misuse to cyber-attacks have underlined the damaging impact that breaches in trust can have for companies and individuals.

Everything from reputational damage to legal action can have a serious impact on an organisation’s bottom line. And of course, from a sustainability perspective, the long-term impact of inaction will be a failed planet – which is in nobody’s interest.

Right now, it’s vital that businesses can instil trust in their consumers – and that they deserve the trust that they receive in turn.

The sustainability dividend

There are also more positive imperatives for organisations to embrace sustainability, as the panellists in our breakout session highlighted.

Two thirds of global consumers say that they would be willing to pay more for sustainably sourced goods, rising to three quarters of millennials. Work to support ethical sourcing throughout the supply chain and improve working conditions for all contributors can pay dividends at the point of sale.

Ethical behaviour can also support better performance when it comes to diversity, noted Fujitsu’s Liz Parnell, as more diverse boards and companies are shown to outperform their peers.

Ultimately, the way a company treats its employees, customers and stakeholders is intricately linked. If a business can’t create the right environment for innovation, then they will lose customers.

Likewise, if companies don’t operate in a way that adds value to society, they will alienate employees and customers.

But while many businesses acknowledge the desirability of sustainable practices, there is a lingering scepticism about what individual corporations can do.

Our research found that a significant proportion of small businesses believe in sustainability but think that they are too small to effect change.

So how can businesses develop lasting sustainability programmes that will deliver results?

Sustainability from the road to the data centres

Both Fujitsu and BMW Group are members of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and it was fascinating to explore how very different sectors can approach sustainability.

Ursula Mathar of BMW Group explained that the history of the company instilled a very clear link with society, as the factory began on the outskirts of Munich, but grew to become a big part of life in the city.

Sustainability is a key part of BMW Group’s business objectives, as the company assesses how growing urbanisation and climate change will affect how we move. The company appointed an environmental manager as far back as the 1970s and today has a sustainability team that sits with BMW Group’s strategy group.

For Ursula, stakeholder engagement is key to enable the company to understand the priorities of governments, urban planners and of course customers, to devise the best next-generation transport technology.

Likewise, sustainability has been at the heart of the ‘Fujitsu way’ for more than a decade. Our corporate vision is aligned to delivering the UN’s SDGs.

As Liz explained, this is realised in many ways, from ethical operating practice to enabling people to be completely themselves at work and taking care of local communities.

But it’s also about how Fujitsu delivers its services. On the environmental side, we just opened our first data centre within a wind turbine, creating a near zero emission source of computer power.

Similarly, many of our innovations are focused on using technology to help people live better, longer lives, such as our Internet of Things system to help elderly people stay in their homes.

For both Fujitsu and BMW Group, it’s crucial to avoid the idea of sustainability as a sacrifice.

In the long term, businesses must engage consumers with new and better approaches to existing issues to instil sustainable behaviours.

How to accelerate sustainability

Every company’s approach to sustainability will be different, but our panellists shared a top-line insight for attendees to consider.

  • Build a strong business case – Liz Parnell, Fujitsu
    • To get buy-in for change in your business, explain why sustainability will support your long-term growth – and in the short-term, poor practice will lose out. Start small, stack up wins and build momentum
  • Combine a top and bottom approach – Ursula Mathar, BMW Group
    • Listen to everyone in your organisation when you’re outlining your approach – from the CEO to front-line staff. And remember the importance of ‘symbols’, however small: be that getting rid of disposable coffee cups in the cafeteria to developing electric vehicles
  • Stories matter – Laura Bonamici, Fujitsu
    • Employees’ perceptions are crucial. Small organisations can feel like they’re not making a difference, while initiatives in large corporations can get lost. We’ve had great success with a global storytelling campaign, explaining why our employees are proud to work for Fujitsu
  • Put sustainability in your PNL – Filippo Veglio, World Business Council for Sustainable Development
    • There’s no business case for a failed planet; every organisation should build sustainable activities into their PNL. Innovation, collaboration and measurement will be key

Balancing profit and purpose

In the near future, businesses pursuing sustainability will require organisations to balance profit and purpose. Sometimes, organisations must prioritise profit to stay in business and protect their employees.

At other times, addressing sustainability must come first, even if it requires significant upfront investment. But Rachel Botsman left us with some profound advice:

“Efficiency can be the enemy of trust; it takes time, energy and continual effort. Companies have to ask if their intentions are genuinely aligned with the wellbeing of people. These are the companies that will win.”

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