People, planet and profit: How to build sustainability into your business

Make sustainability core to new initiatives (Source: Getty)

Every business wants to be sustainable – this is, by definition, about being set up to succeed over the long term. For a business to be truly sustainable, it is important to balance three priorities: people, planet and profit. We all rely on people and natural resources, and we’re looking to achieve a profit. If these are out of kilter, long-term success is jeopardised.

What does this mean practically? First, it’s important to understand that there is no contradiction between building sustainability into your business and your duty to shareholders. It is factoring in the real impact of your operations, and trying to mitigate negative impacts and build on positive impacts – risks and impacts will affect your profits in the long term if not managed.

Mitigation need not be complicated. If you run a building, you can save money and reduce your energy consumption and corresponding emissions just by ensuring things are switched off when not in use. There are 1,200 people working in one of Investec’s London offices and we’ve saved about £1.5m over six years using such simple measures, while reducing our reliance on energy sources. Our focus areas include energy, waste, water, sustainable procurement, sustainable travel and air quality.

It all starts with measurement. Measure everything you can, then set targets. We’ve looked at areas as diverse as car-sharing and the single use disposable coffee cups used in our offices. Over 500bn disposable cups are manufactured globally every year, and as they can’t usually be recycled, end up in landfill or being burnt – both processes releasing nasty and/or carcinogenic chemicals for us all to breathe in. We now offer reusable take-out cups in our coffee bar resulting in an 80 per cent reduction of disposable cup usage, which also reduces waste, emissions and costs.

It’s vital to engage employees in making a difference. These are massive issues we’re trying to tackle, but it’s important not to lose sight of the link between these and our everyday decisions. If we’re to achieve scale, citizens and businesses have to adjust their behaviour. When it comes to engagement, positive messaging and education are key. Employees can gain a lot from support of sustainability initiatives. Business leaders risk losing connection with communities local to their offices. It’s easy to feel removed inside comfortable City offices while a few Tube stops away are some of the most deprived boroughs in England. Some argue business people can make more difference donating money alone, but getting people out and meeting beneficiaries of projects can transform the way volunteers feel about themselves, their company and the role they play in the community. We were honoured to have one of our entrepreneurship focused programmes recognised in the Business Charity Awards 2015 – this would be impossible without our committed volunteers.

Make sustainability core to new initiatives. More and more people are informed about sustainability, and there are higher expectations of the private sector’s responsibility to lead on these issues. It is also more common to be required to demonstrate sustainability credentials when pitching for business. Informed investors, consumers and potential employees want information on risks and impacts and how these are managed. The challenges are great and it’s difficult to change old-world practices, but if every employee and business strives to tackle issues within their sphere of control, we would make a massive difference.

This article is provided for information purposes only and should not be construed as advice of any nature. The views and opinions expressed are subject to change without notice.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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