For me, the word ‘sustainability’ is a nonsense word. It’s completely meaningless. Victoria Halina notes that when the word ‘sustainable’ was first used in an environmental context in 1972, it didn’t mention ‘sustainability’, and what’s more, it had its origins in ideas of radical change. Looking around at a business landscape in which ‘sustainability’ has sprung up as a buzzword, a greenwashing slogan, and even a disguise for increasingly unsustainable behaviour, it’s clear that the meaning of radical change has been lost in the colloquialism of ‘sustainability’. The truth is that the word is pointless unless it is attached to something tangible, such as ‘sustainable enterprise’ or ‘sustainable business’.
Both of these terms describe our purpose here at Impact, as we set out to improve our profitability by achieving positive radical change. Indeed, it is a fundamental belief of mine that business can and should be a force for good. Our founding principle was to use Impact as a vehicle for creating a better world. Our first tagline was ‘Adventure with a Purpose’. In 1980, when Impact was established, our first clients were young offenders. Our work was about helping them to get back on track and we did just that. When the ‘short, sharp shock’ was introduced as an alternative, we graduated into working with young people who were unemployed or just starting out in their first job, helping them to recognise their true potential and inspiring them to achieve more than they could have dreamt of. Through these experiences, we soon realised how much systemic change was needed in the workplace to enable ongoing development and learning to take place, so we shifted our strategy to start working with senior managers and influencers in organisations, working with businesses, charities and government departments.
From this point onwards, we genuinely started to live our purpose: ‘Liberating human potential to solve economic, environmental and social challenges.’ Impact grew in size and in influence; our clients became a who’s who of multinational companies and civil society institutions. We developed our organisation organically, opening offices across Asia Pacific, the Americas and Europe. The work became more consequential, and we built on our reputation for putting people at the heart of behavioural and organisational change.
Momentum was building for a concept we had embraced called ‘creating sustainable enterprise’: innovating new business strategies and activities that accelerate positive social change and protect and preserve environmental integrity, whilst enhancing business performance. And then came the financial crash of 2008. The crash exposed a clear irony in business: the organisations that were already focused upon sustainable enterprise were the ones that survived best, but despite this, the majority of companies immediately put a stop to any expenditure of this nature. At the time, many called it Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and it was perceived as something separate to the main business operation – something that could easily be cut when times get tough.
Progressive organisations are now recognising that if you establish a purpose around business as a force for good, it actually makes your organisation more sustainable. And an organisation that recognises the opportunities in tackling some of the biggest issues of our time – the climate crisis, social injustice, biodiversity decline – understands that their profitability will improve if they focus on making a positive difference. As in the case of CSR, there used to be a school of thought that said it was an either/or: you either pursued a sustainable agenda to the detriment of your profitability, or you pursued a profit-first agenda but operated in an unsustainable manner. That’s no longer the case. The future of business is that a sustainable business model is now a prerequisite for survival: for attracting customers, engaging with employees, and playing a positive role in a world of change. As we become more aware of the challenges we are facing, we also become more aware of their urgency, and there will be more and more pressure on organisations to take a stance and to make positive change happen.
So how can we help organisations to focus on sustainable enterprise? It starts with people.
When you focus on people, change happens. When you focus on people inside an organisation and you discover what motivates them, you find that they want to work for an organisation that is making a profit out of doing the right thing. Many people still believe that achieving sustainable ways of life on the planet is a scientific agenda or that it requires specialist expertise, but in fact, it’s a people agenda. It’s a people agenda because if we liberate the human potential we have in our organisations, we will discover untapped wells of experience and ideas, as well as a passion for doing things differently and for doing different things.
At the end of the day, sustainable business is about innovation, creating new products and services that will enable an organisation to operate in a more sustainable manner. And innovation comes from people talking and working in cross-functional teams with a sense of adventure and a passion for change, having facilitated conversations about what they can and will do differently. It starts with asking some of the right questions: What relationship does our organisation have with its suppliers? With its financial model? With the environment? With the community? With our employees? What can our organisation do to stop the climate crisis? To develop restorative environmental strategy? To promote social equity both inside and outside of our company?
For me, ‘sustainability’ is a meaningless term, but ‘sustainable business’ is something tangible that we can all work towards.
This term has evolved from a ‘nice to have’, something you do with your spare cash and with volunteers; through to a marketing driven activity designed to attract customers; to the present day where a sustainable business model isn’t an optional extra, it’s an absolute imperative! And I’ve never been as excited as I am now about the radical change we can make happen together.
David Williams is Impact's CEO and founder.