‘Sustainable business’ meaning, myths, and examples

1 Nov 21 | Blog

Business sustainability is often described as ‘doing well by doing good.’ This relates to the idea that organisations can carry out their operations without causing harm to society or the environment. Sustainable practices also offer a business benefit.

What does sustainability mean to you? Is your definition right?

When you hear the word ‘sustainable’, you might think of green wheelie bins, canvas shopping bags, and hemp clothing. And that’s understandable. But environmental sustainability is just one aspect of the overall concept. 

Just think of the other ways we use the word. Sustain a good running pace. Then, you won’t tire out and give up halfway through your route. It is also crucial to sustain the effort.

According to the dictionary definition, when something is sustainable it means it’s “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level”. 

What is business sustainability?

So what do we me by ‘business sustainability?’

When it comes to sustainability, there are several aspects being ‘maintained at a certain level’: the environment, yes, but also the wider society, both economically and in terms of social equity. 

There are several formal definitions of sustainability in business, but what it all comes down to is the idea that, by considering the impact of your organisation’s activities on the environment and society as a whole, you can create a more profitable business. Or, in other words, ‘doing well by doing good’

Why is sustainability important in business?

There are several reasons why sustainable business practices are important. Some of them are wholly unselfish: organisations have considerable power to affect change, from their impact on the environment and introducing and standardising eco-friendly practices, to D&I efforts that slowly but surely lead to a more equitable society.  

But business sustainability isn’t just good for the world…

Is sustainability good for business? Yes, and here’s why:

    • Align with purpose and values: the top motivator for focusing on sustainability was to align with company purpose and values, and it can strengthen their known benefits. 

    • Supports risk management: with many supply chains at risk from the climate crisis, and bad working conditions not helping, sustainability is a good call in the long-term.

    • Builds customer loyalty: consumers increasingly care about making a statement with their purchase power, and won’t back unsustainable business as carelessly as before.

    • Improves employee retention: employee morale, loyalty, and retention are higher in organisations with a commitment towards sustainability.

Do businesses care about sustainability?

Considering the many business benefits of sustainability, it’s not surprising that it’s become more of a priority across industries. Over 90% of CEOs say it’s a key part of their success. 70% of companies have a formal sustainability programme. 63% of executives say it’s a crucial part of staying competitive, and almost 60% of employees recognise that their organisation has stepped up sustainability efforts. So if you take it seriously, you’re in good company.

What do business sustainability strategies actually look like?

So business sustainability is important. How do you actually create a sustainability strategy? The first step is understanding the different components of a sustainable business. Being profitable and performing, while not harming (and ideally improving) the environment, and encouraging social equity across communities. Environment, society, economy. 

Examples of environmental sustainability in business

    1. Patagonia is a brand that’s vocal about environmental sustainability: from discouraging against over-purchasing, offering a repair service, and using recycled materials.

    1. Twice winner of the EPA Energy Star Award, Ford Motor Company uses sustainable materials, prioritises fuel efficiency, and even recycles its own paint fumes into fuel.

    1. Major drinks brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi have begun to focus on promoting sustainable practices, with their own efforts relating to water conservation.

Are there any examples of social sustainability in business?

    1. B-Corp Ben & Jerry’s have made consistent efforts to support social change movements like the United Workers Association – giving $2.5 million in grants every year.

    1. Starbucks made a commitment to tackle inequality by introducing mentorships for people of colour, aiming for 30% representation in corporate roles by 2025.

    1. With a lot of sustainability practices to mention, Lego recently committed to removing gender biases from their toys after evidence of stereotypes still holding children back.

Examples of economic sustainability in business

Economic sustainability is referred to as ‘governance’ – and it relates to the fact that a business has to be profitable to be able to uphold any other elements of sustainability. The big-name examples above show that, though it used to be the case, sustainability and profitability are not mutually exclusive. 

You actually need to think sustainably, about planet and people, in order to maintain any level of success. 

Why should you focus on engaging employees to create a sustainable business?

It’s not easy to be sustainable. But in a world experiencing a climate crisis and battling social injustice, it’s never been more important. If you don’t know where to start, there’s one obvious answer: by listening to your employees.

Whether a suggestion box or survey (we’d advise the latter!), there’s two big reasons to make listening your first step:

    1. Get feedback on how you’re doing so far

Sustainable practices should follow from your purpose and values as an organisation. Send a deep dive survey on that topic, and you’ll learn how highly your employees rate your efforts. Is sustainability even something they recognise as a company priority?

Click to view the demo

The Qlearsite Platform is ideal for gathering and analysing employee feeedback

You can look at different aspects of sustainability too, like the social aspect. This might mean asking them about inclusion in your organisation, and whether you’re practicing what you preach inside the workplace. 

2.   Get advice from the frontline of your business

Sometimes you get advice where you’d least expect it. Like in our Virgin Media case study: where workers who spent a lot of time outside. This finding indicated that employees lacked adequate clothing. This was affecting employee wellbeing and job performance. The company then supplied staff with Virgin media raincoats. A simple fix, but one you’d only get by listening to the workers you see least. 

Someone with no money

UK cost-of-living crisis: what it means for your business

A 9% rise in inflation has triggered a cost-of-living crisis. And like any other crisis, that’s going to have an impact on your business.

Missing staff

The UK labour shortage: what you need to know

Have you noticed it? The lack of response to your job advertisements, the overstretched teams? For...

HR’s guide to the EU Pay Transparency Directive

All too often, pay isn’t fair. From different wages for the same job, to a culture of silence...

How will the general election impact the job market?

Sometimes, we’re so focused on what’s happening in our organisation, we forget to consider what’s...
Overworked person

HR department of one? Here’s how to make a difference

It’s lonely to be in a one-person department. It’s even worse to be a one-person Human Resources...
Time out

5 things that HR doesn’t have time for

There’s only so many hours in a day. And there’s even fewer working hours… in theory. But for a...
What does HR do for employees really?

Seriously, what does HR do for employees?

“Oops, watch out - HR might be listening” “Don’t tell HR I said that!” “I’m not sure HR would be...
Window with money behind

Pay transparency is business critical: here’s why

‘Competitive’. What does the word mean? What is it hiding? Do people writing job advertisements...
Not talking about money

3 reasons bosses avoid ‘pay chats’ (and how benchmarks help)

No-one actually enjoys talking about money, do they? Whether you’re the employee or their manager,...

Salary benchmarking by Qlearsite Pro

Whatever kind of people leader you are - HR professional, CEO, team lead, line manager - then...

Get a live demo
of the platform 

Anne Therese Bogen, Head of HR, Thommessen

"Qlearsite’s platform is a really helpful tool to push through OKRs – it’s easier when you have statistics and concrete evidence to back up initiatives."