Close article 4th April 2021

Sustainability mindset key to long-term commercial success, say Cambridge experts

Getting to grips with sustainability in the business world can be overwhelming. Where do you start – and how do you show that sustainability really means something and isn’t just a buzzword to mask old-fashioned attitudes?


The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) is the premier academic centre in this field and offers a range of online courses for business leaders looking to grasp the agenda in a meaningful way.

“We can’t do business on a dying planet – which will happen if we don’t ensure a rapid transition to a net zero economy,” says Zoë Arden, a Fellow at CISL. “That makes the context in which we are operating very real to business leaders.”

Arden, co-convenor of CISL’s High Impact Leadership and Communicating for Influence and Impact online short courses, adds: “We need businesses to promote responsible practices, to contribute meaningfully to climate justice and social justice, and to enable employees, communities and the environment to thrive. This requires leaders who can operate in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world which entails a new kind of leadership.”

Her colleague Ian Ellison, co-convenor of CISL’s Sustainable Supply Chain Management online short course, explains: “Sustainability is literally about being able to stay in business indefinitely – the very thing that business leaders are primarily charged with.

“With so many sustainability issues now rising to the top of the agenda, embracing them is a matter of ensuring prosperity and even survival. Gestures will not be enough to deal with urgent, global issues like climate change.”

Alice Chapple, co-convenor of CISL’s Sustainable Finance online short course, accepts this is a tough path for businesses to follow.

“It is critical to be honest that this isn’t easy and will require a significant shift from business as usual,” she observes. “For the finance sector, a shift towards ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] goals within the same profit-maximising construct will not deliver sustainable outcomes. A message that all will be winners from the move towards a sustainable economy does not properly recognise the fact that the transition will be challenging and painful for many organisations and individuals.”

Zoë Arden says understanding sustainability is crucial. “A sustainability mindset does not start with ‘What’s in it for us?’. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, we must ask ‘not what the planet can do for you but what you can do for the planet?’.”

A positive next step is a sustainability action plan, recommends Ellison. “Things are moving very fast now,” he says. “A robust sustainability plan has not necessarily been the norm, but many businesses have started to take it seriously in the past couple of years. Mark Carney put it well when he was Governor of The Bank of England: those that don’t get it will be punished by investors and go bankrupt, yet there are great fortunes for those who embrace the issues.”

Taking staff on your organisation’s sustainability journey is another absolute must.

“It’s essential for the future of a business,” advises Arden. “Evidence of commitment to sustainability is a major reason why employees choose to join an organisation and decide to stay. In their 2019 Mission & Culture Survey, Glassdoor found that 79 per cent of adults across four countries would consider a company’s mission before applying for a job there. What’s more, over half of the 5,000 respondents said that their company’s mission is one of the main reasons they stay in their job. Increasingly, employees are making their voices heard and taking action on environmental and social justice issues such as #FightFor1Point5 and #BlackLivesMatter. Businesses can no longer get away with greenwashing or virtue signalling. Also, if they are engaged and listened to, employees at all levels can offer rich insights on sustainable innovation.”

Sustainability experts (from left) Ian Ellison, Zoë Arden and Alice Chapple

As well as from staff, businesses are feeling the sustainability heat from many other directions.

“Downward pressure in terms of legislation and regulation is most likely to have the overarching effect we need to change pricing and behaviour across the economy,” says Alice Chapple. “Upward pressure in terms of public perceptions and activist campaigns also have a vital role, not least to send clear signals to governments.”

Ellison adds: “Pressure is exerted every day, up and down supply chains and from investors too. In many sectors, the majority of impacts are embedded in supply chains, so it’s not enough to get your own house in order; look where your products and services come from and go to. It’s a big challenge to engage stakeholders along supply chains several layers deep. We spend a lot of our time helping people with tools and techniques to do this efficiently and effectively.”

Which organisations have grasped this complex agenda and have begun to align business success and resilience with the delivery of positive approaches to sustainability? “There are now great examples across all sectors, such as Arup in the built environment, BNP Paribas in the banking sector, and consumer-focused businesses such as IKEA,” says Arden.

Ellison highlights disruptors like Tesla: “They not only seek to produce electric cars but to provide supporting renewable energy sources and revise the business model of how cars are sold and used. We also see traditional companies like DSM, formerly a mining company, now focused on nutrition, health and sustainable living; or Lloyds Bank, once ranked one of the least sustainable banks in Europe, but which became one of the most sustainable.”

Arden stresses that positive sustainability work must be underpinned by great communication.

“We’re increasingly seeing how the power of communication and storytelling can deepen understanding of complex sustainability issues and inspire action,” she says.

“To be effective, stories need to be told by leaders and organisations that first understand the importance of listening. We’ve seen the intractable problems that come about through lack of listening or generated by only listening to ‘people like us’. In addition to listening, it’s essential that our communication starts from a place of authenticity, humility and transparency.

“We need to keep learning, unlearning and relearning how to be effective and inspiring leaders of change.”

The suite of online courses offered by The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership also includes: Business Sustainability Management; and Business and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Emissions. Full details here.

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