Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act

Posted on: 23 August, 2023

If your business or client is falling behind in embracing sustainability and ESG, here’s how to make the case for change.

In the aftermath of recent climate disasters across the globe, education, interest, and participation in sustainability is on the rise.

This year, a Deloitte survey of C-Suite executives found that 75% claim to have increased their investments in sustainability over the last 12 months. Furthermore, investment in Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) programmes is increasing – 88% of publicly-traded companies are now running ESG initiatives, according to Navex.

Interest is rising from a consumer perspective, too. Research from PwC found that over three-quarters (77%) of people are influenced by a company’s environmental record when deciding where to make a purchase. Support for environmental sustainability is particularly high among Generation Z – people born between the mid-to-late 1990s and the early 2010s. 40% of this demographic in the UK are more likely to buy from brands with strong environmental credentials.

Learn more: Should we prioritise climate change or sustainability?

Clearly, businesses are starting to take notice of the increasing regulations and the changing tide in consumer sentiment. This is great news, and provides some more hope for us in our mission to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2050. But it isn’t enough.

Many business leaders are reluctant to place sustainability at the heart of their company’s operations and investments. A survey of Asset Managers by the Index Industry Association found that there are significant concerns about ‘the lack of transparency and disclosure’ displayed by corporations in their ESG activities. Some firms are even resorting to greenwashing their products and business practices to avoid public scrutiny.

Making sustainability a part of your business strategy is about more than green marketing, vague promises and box-ticking. Taking real action and committing investment can give businesses a competitive advantage in today’s marketplace. And with the number of businesses getting involved increasing every day, there’s a good chance you’ll be left behind if you don’t.

If you’re looking to make a business case in your organisation or to help a client adopt sustainability practices, here’s what you need to consider.

The importance of sustainable literacy

One of the biggest challenges for anyone advocating for change is being able to articulate it clearly across large groups and different disciplines. The key to overcoming this – and some of the potential objections that you’ll encounter when advocating for sustainable business practices – is to develop your sustainability literacy.

Sustainability literacy is having the theoretical knowledge to understand the interconnection and dependence between humanity, development, the environment, and the earth’s resources. Comprehending the language of sustainability allows individuals to make informed and effective decisions that contribute to a better future for the environment.

Learn more: Why sustainability literacy is in such high demand

Sustainable literacy covers a vast array of subjects within sustainability and encompasses what has come before as well as what can be done now and in the future. With new discoveries, innovations and intelligence constantly arising, it’s an everchanging field.

It’s a skill that’s also in increasingly high demand. The number of job listings requiring sustainable skills is quickly outpacing the percentage workers with these talents in the UK. There’s also a push to build sustainability literacy on an interdisciplinary level, as businesses can no longer rely solely on one expert and subsequently create a knowledge and decision-making bottleneck when it comes to the environment.

Learn more: Built environment careers: top trends driving the construction sector during uncertain times

Any initiative or effort that demands large-scale change will be met with opposition from some factions. If you’re unable to convey the paradigms and intricacies of sustainability clearly or keep up with the changing landscape, you won’t be able to operationalise it and bring about the change that’s needed.

Sustainability is a commercial movement

Along with being able to understand concepts and formulate arguments to drive corporate sustainability practices, it’s also important to understand how your organisation frames its responsibility to the environment.

For many, sustainability is purely an environmental concern. When viewed through this lens, it’s easy (albeit frustrating) to see why it can so often be removed from the corporate agenda and treated as an afterthought or a ‘nice-to-have’. In short, if sustainable practices aren’t linked to an immediate goal or objective, they can be discarded and sidelined.

The solution? View sustainability as a commercial movement, not an environmental one.

This isn’t to say that it should be emphasised purely for commercial incentives, but that highlighting its impact on financial performance is the most effective way to make people pay attention and change the conversation.

What’s more, there are plenty of reasons why sustainability should be among the highest priorities of all businesses and organisations.

4 business cases for sustainability

Here are four key arguments for sustainability that your stakeholders, investors, senior executives, and clients need to hear.

1. Sustainability can have revenue and cost-saving benefits

In the built environment, sustainability is becoming more and more linked to both value and revenue.

Sustainable practices can be applied throughout the entire building lifecycle to reduce energy consumption and subsequently decrease spending. Environmentally friendly buildings are 14% less expensive to operate than traditional buildings, and while they can cost more to build, new methods like prefabrication are helping organisations consume less energy in the construction process.

2. Legislation and regulations are getting stricter

Sustainability also offers significant financial benefits for asset and portfolio management.

In line with the UK’s pledge to achieve net zero by 2050, pressure to comply with ESG legislation and regulation is rising, and constantly prone to change. Incorporating ESG and the UN’s SDGs into the building lifecycle can not only maintain the value of your organisation or your client’s existing assets, but also help to maximise them in the long term, ensuring they meet and comply with the latest regulations and standards. What’s more, many businesses are showcasing their commitment to sustainability efforts with forms of self-regulation like the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) business model.

Learn more: A guide to ESG: what is it and why does it matter?

3. Your competition could already be ahead of you

If sustainability is a commercial movement, it’s also by nature a competitive one. If your business or client is just starting to take notice of the shift in landscape and priorities towards sustainable initiatives, there’s a good chance your competitors have noticed it too. They could have already adopted a circular business model and developed an understanding of  sustainability language, which in today’s marketplace can be the competitive advantage that makes the difference between gaining and losing clients.

There’s plenty of evidence for the positive impact sustainability can have on revenue, but being at the forefront of this movement rather than simply reacting to it is also crucial for businesses. Rather than letting other brands have the competitive advantage, shape the movement and reap the financial, employment, and consumer-oriented benefits, getting started now is the best way to position your brand or client for the future.

4. Today’s talent cares about how sustainable you are

It’s not just in consumption habits that Gen Z are displaying more concern and awareness about the environment – the youngest generation of today’s workforce are also factoring sustainability into their career trajectory.

According to Deloitte, 40% of Gen Z would consider switching jobs over concerns around the environmental activities of their employers. A further 50% claim they’re actively pressuring businesses to take action on climate change.

Lear more: 5 tips for becoming an environmental champion

These priorities reflect a shift in priorities among incoming generations. They don’t just care about salaries or benefits anymore – they care about the values and ethos of the companies they work for. They want to work for the ‘right’ organisation.

Gen Z and Millennials hold the key to bridging skills gaps that are emerging across multiple industries and disciplines. Investing in ESG and sustainable initiatives is one of the most effective ways to attract them.

Final thoughts

If your business or client is falling behind when it comes to adopting sustainable business practices, there are plenty of compelling commercial reasons available for you to build a strong case for change. Today, the latest generation not only demand it, but they also look for it in the careers they pursue. And with more and more organisations taking notice of increasing regulations, time is running out to avoid the risks of not being sustainable.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want employees that inspire and action change in their careers, UCEM’s Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship will give your teams the skills they need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship – University College of Estate Management