In this series of three brief articles, Ron Ainsbury, Visiting Fellow at the Cranfield School of Management and Senior Fellow at the Research Centre Business Innovation at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, sets out why and how New Zealand directors should be directing efforts to ensure that their businesses have a clear purpose and have the governance systems in place to ensure that the purpose is followed. In this second article we look at the evidence that businesses that do embrace responsibility and sustainability outperform competitors.
The Business Case
Business leaders, seduced by the lure of shareholder value maximisation, often proffer multiple excuses for not taking more positive action on ESGissues, that they can’t afford it. Costs will go up. We are too small. Yes, we understand the triple bottom line – but for now it needs to be profit first, people and planet can come later, when we can afford it.
Yet, the evidence reveals these to be false arguments. Businesses that are embedding responsible and sustainable business practices show, lower costs, higher employee engagement and productivity and improved returns.
It may seem strange to have to set out a business case for being responsible and sustainable. Keith Weed, Unilever’s Chief Marketing Officer, has said “I’d love to see the business case for being unsustainable!”
The evidence is now conclusive. As the late Ray Anderson said – it is a better business model.
In 2010 Britain’s Business in the Community recognized a divide between those that “embrace sustainability-driven strategy and management, and those that don’t. These ‘embracers’ are the businesses that will survive and thrive”. BITC commissioned the Cranfield School of Managementto compile the business benefits for being a responsible business, “to help those currently at an earlier stage of the journey”. The studydemonstrated seven ways in which business benefits:
- Brand value and reputation
- Employees and future workforce
- Operational effectiveness
- Risk reduction and management
- Direct financial impact
- Organisational growth
- Business opportunity.
Since that study, several further research papers have highlighted the benefits. In 2011 a Harvard studyprovided “evidence that High Sustainability companies significantly outperform their counterparts over the long-term, both in terms of stock market as well as accounting performance.”
In 2014 a study by the Smith School at Oxford Universityand Arabesque Asset Managementshowed that Companies with strong sustainability scores show better operational performance and are less riskyand that Investment strategies that incorporate ESG issues outperform comparable non-ESG strategies.
In 2015 Project ROIbuilt on the 2010 BITC findings cited above and provided detailed economic analyses on business benefits:
- Share price and market value
- Sales and revenue
- Reputation and brand
- Human resources
- Risk and license to operate.
The report concluded that a “more productive approach will be to develop business-aligned and integrated CR strategies.”
In January 2016 the Financial Times highlighted a reportby HBR Analytica and EY’s Beacon Institute that found “companies with a purpose beyond profit tend to make more money.”
In 2017 in a HBS Whiteboard session Andrew Winstonneatly summarises the arguments in “The Business Case for Sustainability.” No wonder then that so many leading global businesses are not just dabbling with ESG issues but going “All In”.
When Larry Fink, the CEO of the world’s largest investor, Blackrock, writes to the CEOs of companies he invests in and urges them to find their purpose and that the “board is essential to helping a company articulate and pursue its purpose” purpose – it is time for NZ Boards to sit up and take action.
Environmental, Social, and Governance issues.
The Business Case for being a responsible business” 2011 available on www.bitc.org.uk
The Impact of Corporate Sustainability on Organizational Processes and Performance by Robert G. Eccles, Ioannis Ioannou, and George Serafeim HBR Working Paper 2011
From the stockholder to the stakeholder:How sustainability can drive financial outperformance”by Smith School, Oxford Universityand Arabesque Asset Management 2014
Project ROI Defining the Competitive and Financial Advantages of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability by IO Sustainability and Babson College 2015
“All In: The Future of Business Leadership” by David Grayson, Chris Coulter, Mark Lee Greenfield Publishing 2018