The concept of corporate sustainability is nothing new, but how can companies develop the right kind of thinking that allows them to properly integrate sustainability practices into their business? We talk to Noémie Danthine, Head of Sustainable Hospitality Services at EHL, to find out why every business leader should have a sustainability mindset.
Securing a sustainable future
In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In the 36 years since then, it’s fair to say that the human race hasn’t done nearly enough to abide by this. Today, the climate crisis has become an emergency, a global energy crisis is highlighting our continued reliance on planet-sapping resources, and young generations are rightly angry at the mess their elders have made. More needs to be done – and quickly.
Yet, according to a 2019 UN report, while 92% of CEOs feel sustainability is important, only 48% are finding ways to implement sustainability measures. That’s supported by a 2022 Deloitte survey, which found a disconnect between ambitions and actions related to sustainability practices in businesses. For example, though a third of Europe’s largest listed companies have pledged to reach net zero by 2050, just 9% are on target to get there.
It’s not enough, and it’s going to have a severe impact not only on the planet and its inhabitants, but on companies themselves.
”Sustainability is now everybody’s business” says Noémie Danthine, Head of Sustainable Hospitality Services at EHL.
Action across these four pillars – summarised in the Social & Environmental Report 2022 – includes: implementing a mandatory course for preparatory year students about sustainability in business; developing a plan for diversity and inclusion; sharing EHL’s competences with the community by holding masterclasses at a local restaurant focused on professional reinsertion; and formulating a climate plan for long-term green goals such as the further reduction of energy use, waste, and water consumption.
The benefits of sustainability practices
The benefits of all this for people and planet are obvious, but how do these things boost a company’s profits? Simply put, explains Noémie, if you reduce your energy consumption you will reduce your bills. If you ensure that your board is more diverse, studies show that your company will do better financially. And long-term, if you do nothing to contribute to reversing the climate crisis, you might find your beautiful coastal hotel under water and your profits washed away.
What’s more, she adds, customers, investors and employees are increasingly looking to engage with sustainable companies. Studies show that more than 80% of customers will choose a brand with a good sustainability record, a conscience-salving step for many people who want businesses to make the responsible choices they find hard to make on a personal level, feels Noémie. Meanwhile, a 2019 report found that more than 70% of employees at large US companies were more likely to choose to work at a company with a strong environmental agenda.
Just as importantly, people want to work for companies who care for them, as well. “There are studies that show that social sustainability, diversity, inclusion, these are things that are important for companies,” agrees Noémie. “Even more in the hospitality industry where retaining staff is so difficult. People don’t want to work for dinosaur companies that don’t care for their people.”
On top of all this, if businesses don’t keep up, they’ll likely be left floundering when increased regulation forces them to change anyway.
In other words, having a sustainable business strategy is non-negotiable if a company wants to survive. “It’s not optional for companies and that’s why it’s not optional for our students as competences that they need to learn,” Noémie concludes.
Understanding why it matters is important, but taking action is even more so. How can business leaders ensure that action matches ambition? The key is to adopt a sustainability mindset that gets to the very core of their business.
Implementing a sustainability mindset in a company
“Having a sustainability mindset for a company means that you think about sustainability from the get-go, from the moment you start a new project or create a new business plan or think about a new product,” explains Noémie. “And that means that everything will follow: your processes will follow, your strategy will follow, your staff will try to go in that same direction, the design will be adapted for that very way of thinking. This is sustainability by design.”
It’s a big change from linear thinking, where sustainability is tacked on as an afterthought, an approach that only creates hurdles or sparks complicated chain reactions, she says. By contrast, thinking about it from the beginning, with the circular economy in mind, is more likely to lead to success.
Something that goes hand in hand with that is authenticity. To have a positive impact, business leaders must truly believe in what they are doing, and lead by example, Noémie says. “The biggest accusation regarding sustainability these days is greenwashing, and it comes out very quickly, very often, but if you are authentic I think it’s easier to just go for it. So walk the talk, don’t just expect others to make the changes – you lead the change.”
Going green through good governance
Once a company’s leadership has adopted a sustainability mindset, it can be channeled into creating a practical strategy. “The governance aspect is important and often overlooked,” according to Noémie. “Make sure you have a purchasing policy that is in line with your sustainable ambitions; that you have those conversations with your suppliers; that you ask for data from them or have third parties help you get the data; that you have a code of ethics; that you have a policy on diversity and inclusion.”
Properly evaluating progress is essential, too. “To understand the gaps between where you want to be and where you are, the only solution is to measure yourself. And then trying to figure out what your leverages are to reduce that gap. That’s the part that’s sometimes difficult.”
And that’s crucial to remember. Having a sustainability mindset and implementing a green strategy isn’t easy, nor is it a quick fix, Noémie stresses. It’s a journey, and there will be ups and downs, successes and failures. “So you have to be very transparent about where you are and you have to give yourself the time to get there. While on the journey, you might be inconsistent and this could lead to criticism and accusations of greenwashing: as long as you are going in the right direction and being honest about it, don’t let these critics derail you. No one will become sustainable overnight.”
Employee engagement as part of core strategy
The best way to survive the journey is to get everyone involved. Building a sustainability strategy is about your entire community, says Noémie; it’s not something to do top down. By identifying each stakeholder’s priorities and building a strategy from there, a sustainability mindset becomes part of a company’s culture.
“It’s about creating engagement, bringing people in with you, having something that is participatory, making sure that they can also contribute and are coming along on the journey. It can be a risk to have a sustainability department that is completely disconnected from the rest of the company – sustainability is everybody’s business and should be a part of each department.”
At EHL that means integrating sustainability into students’ classroom and practical work. It means holding sustainability weeks and opportunities for staff to join activities and attend conferences. It means encouraging students to take action themselves, for example by creating a student-led LGBTQIA+ taskforce on campus or volunteering in the community. And sometimes it means finding highly visible quick wins, such as banishing plastic straws, “something that makes people feel good about our collective effort,” adds Noémie.
Likewise, keeping everyone informed is key. “Having them understand where you are trying to go, and that you might not get there right away. Be vulnerable in your communication. Show that you aren’t perfect.”
The end result is a future-proofed business, engaged and happy employees who want to work for you, a loyal customer base and long-term financial return on investment. In other words, a business that works for planet, people and profit. What’s not to like?
On the flip side, companies who haven’t yet started to create a sustainability strategy face an uncertain future. Action is long overdue, says Noémie: “Get going, because you’re late!”
If a company wants to be financially sustainable today, it needs to address the question of environmental and social sustainability as well. It’s impossible to have a company and not look at its impact on the world. If it doesn’t, I think it will disappear; it will not be sustainable in a financial way. Why? Because nowadays, a company’s approach to green issues is inextricably linked to its profitability.