21 March 2019

When the fifth-largest company in the world decides to link the pay of its senior executives to progress towards carbon reduction, it's clear that 'sustainability' is no longer just a buzzword, writes Professor Kenneth Amaeshi.
plastic bottle on a beach

Royal Dutch Shell's shift, following pressure from investors, is part of a broader trend in which organisations are having to adapt to keep up with public priorities.

For example, look at the surge in consumers identifying as vegan, or the mass youth protests over the climate crisis. Or the fact that in China, sales of electric cars in January this year were double those of January last year. While at London Fashion Week, second-hand clothes from Oxfam stole the limelight.

In South Africa, production company Film Afrika has switched to using water trailers on the set of Ridley Scott's new sci-fi series, keeping the 400-strong crew hydrated through the summer while eliminating single-use plastic water bottles. In South America, animal feed supplier Cargill has announced a raft of new policies on sustainable soy, human rights, and protection of forests.

Sustainability is shifting from optional extra to must-have. It's never been more important for organisations to fully equip those staff responsible for delivering this agenda. In May, a three-day programme at the University of Edinburgh Business School will give people the tools they need to drive sustainable change within their organisation. We'll look at current trends, strategies for overcoming challenges, market opportunities for businesses, and how to manage relations with investors, analysts, consumers, and regulators.

Many people who move into sustainability related jobs are motivated by changing the world and helping organisations respond to environmental and social challenges. Many of them learn on the job and have to navigate through a labyrinth of organisational dynamics and politics.

A key challenge in developing economies is that they simply want to grow, and worry about environmental and social challenges later. Another challenge is the ever-increasing demand to justify the role and its advice as a business case. Should sustainability automatically make money? Should it be profitable? If not, why not? The sustainability professional needs to adequately answer these questions to gain credibility and legitimacy in the organisation.

Faced by these challenges, most sustainability professionals end up pushing up to win the support of doubting senior management and pulling up to carry along colleagues who are sceptical of senior management's interest. The sustainability function, in most organisations, is still seen as peripheral to the core business and the first to lose its budget in times of emergency and turbulence, which appear to be often these days.

It's tempting to wish for some external force to change attitudes, such as corporate scandal. Organisations can respond well to such experiences but how often do they happen? Most organisations do not survive such crises and it is not in the interest of sustainability professionals to wish for such unless they also want to be out of a job.

Regulation is a strong way to nudge organisations on to the right path. The regulator should be the sustainability professional's best friend and ally. Civil society can also be a force for good, holding organisations accountable. Organisations sometimes understand these pressures and sustainability professionals can take advantage of this.

Despite the challenges of the sustainability role, it is a necessary job. Some will have zeal to take on new and complex work, powered by the hope of a fruitful outcome. The job requires extra care and social awareness. It is a role that requires a lot of emotional strength, diplomacy, and courage. It's not an easy role but it has the potential to change the world.

Kenneth Amaeshi

Professor Kenneth Amaeshi holds a personal chair in business and sustainable development at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

He tweets @kenamaeshi.

Advanced Sustainability Programme