An inevitable path to corporate sustainability? Many are still struggling to make the business case

We have heard much in recent years about the importance of sustainability and the growing acceptance of a wider definition of the word which moves beyond environmental, to include economic and social dimensions.

Given our rising collective consciousness of sustainability issues, I think many of us have come to assume that governments, businesses and society at large, have taken the messages on board and are now collaborating and moving forwards on an inevitable journey to sustainability.

So job done, right?  Well, maybe not.  Recent evidence seems to suggest it is not an immutable commitment accepted by all and in some instances it may be more a case of ‘green wash’ rather than real change.

The results of the world’s largest CEO sustainability study certainly make disappointing reading as it provides evidence that for many, their journeys towards real business transformation have ground to a halt.

The survey shows that some business leaders do not believe conditions are in place for them to meet the challenges of sustainability and indicates that CEOs can struggle to make the business case for long term investments.

These findings follow on from two other recent surveys, one from the UNGC and the other from the global NGO CDP, which also provide concrete evidence of the lack of corporate progress.

But there is some room for optimism as my own research into this area from a property perspective has shown.  I am writing a new paper assessing the real estate implications of corporate sustainability objectives and in doing so I have come across many case studies of large corporates that are taking positive steps to embed sustainability into their businesses overall and into corporate real estate practice more specifically.

Just a couple of examples include:

  • The leading UK pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca have been working to connect workplace design with improved employee productivity and hence business effectiveness. Firstly, one of the CEO’s three strategic priorities is that the company be a great place to work, and he is focused on making the workplace new, fresh and exciting. Secondly, the company’s corporate strapline of ‘health connects us all’ means that health and wellbeing is a major motif of the brand and of the working culture of the company.

In response to these twin drivers, the workplace and change management team at AstraZeneca formalised a global workplace strategy covering a number of major components including people, culture and health.

In 2012, when they decided to re-locate their R&D Information team of 150 people next to the R&D staff that they supported, the workplace team carefully designed the space to support vibrant collaborative working practices and employee wellbeing, as well as increased occupational density. Pre-and post-move evaluations revealed how effective the strategy has been: productivity has increased by 20%, while running costs per occupant have dropped by 40%.

  • Deutsche Bank have put a programme in place to ensure: the buildings they use meet commercial requirements and comply with sustainability criteria; they negotiate green terms into tenancy agreements to encourage landlords to make more sustainable choices before taking occupancy; establish practical standards and instruments for green lease agreements; define ecological selection criteria for new sites and their construction and demand energy and environmental ratings for leased real estate properties so that lessees can compare sites.

So, to conclude, I guess that we are at an emotional crossroads as 2013 draws to a close. We could justifiably feel either despondent or optimistic.  The glass could be half empty but it could also be half-full.  I am in the latter camp.  I hope that those companies progressing on their sustainability journey can prove the value to others by improving the bottom line as a result. Some have made strong progress and I personally want to see that being built upon and taken forwards. It may only be hard commercial evidence from these corporate sustainability pioneers that leads to others jumping on board.