In 1970, Nobel Prize-winning American Economist Milton Friedman argued the following: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud”, writes De Wet Bisschoff, Director of Operations and Sales at Accenture Africa.Friedman’s comments epitomise the popular attitude toward ethical business at the time: profits are the priority (and try not to do anything too heinous in the process). These days, however, prioritising profits simply will not cut it. In fact, numerous research studies and plain common sense shows that businesses that engage in sustainable practices are more successful overall. In addition, stakeholders up and down the value chain are becoming increasingly concerned about whether businesses they engage with are operating sustainably.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability. Broadly, a sustainable organisation can be defined as one that balances profits with its effects on social and environmental structures. That is, an organisation committed to engaging in ethical supply chains and practices with a minimal carbon footprint. Discussions around sustainability usually see these things at odds – how can one prioritise sustainable practices – which are often more costly than alternatives – while keeping costs affordable to consumers and benefitting other key stakeholders?

Accenture’s Managing Director of strategy, global sustainability and board effectiveness, Debra McCormack says that it begins with the board: “The data is clear: executive teams who want to be competitive in the marketplace need to develop strong stakeholder relationships and cultivate a sense of shared ownership to drive change within their organisations.”

McCormack also outlines the importance of boards taking initiative in building the organisation’s “Sustainability DNA” which is “cultivating ​practices that embed stakeholder-centricity at the core of the culture of the organisation.”

These are practices that draw on collective intelligence, as opposed to enforcing a top-down approach. They also prioritise genuine human connection in organisational relationships and promoting accountability at all levels of the business so that stakeholder value creation takes place at all levels of the company.

According to a recent report from Accenture titled Shaping the Sustainable Organization, organisations with strong sustainability DNA outperform other organisations by 21% on both profitability and positive environmental and social outcomes. Strong sustainability DNA comes from CEOs and boards working together to embark on a continuous, cycle that places stakeholders at the core using three words to guide their operations: diagnose, define, and develop.

The first step involves gathering perspectives from across your organisation to ascertain company attitudes and existing sustainability DNA. Next, organisations must use this information to define what areas need to change to achieve sustainability goals while maximising stakeholder benefits. Finally, organisations must develop a plan based on clear metrics and KPIs to achieve the goals defined in the second stage.

Although these steps provide a straightforward methodology for building a sustainable organisation, there is always the risk that organisations will treat sustainability goals as a box-ticking exercise. This common faux pas goes against the ethos of what it means to be a sustainable organisation. Ensure that sustainability is not just a list of items to check off, by focusing on the qualitative rather than the quantitative, and pairing sustainability goals with innovation and purpose. Finally, consumers know hollow words when they hear them, and speaking without acting is a cardinal sin.

Shaping a sustainable organisation may take some demanding work and reflection but, as the data shows, sustainability is key to future growth.

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