The long game: why strategy is the key to environmental sustainability in business


In 2019 it seemed as though the whole world was talking about environmental sustainability. As a result, more businesses began to implement paperless policies, introduce recycling bins and encourage their staff to choose greener commutes.

But when lockdown saw many of us switch off, the plummeting levels of pollution and the return of wildlife really brought home the true impact of business and industry on our planet – and how much more needs to be done.

Now that we are working towards getting back to work, there are strong calls for us to make this return a clean and green one and use the loosening lockdown as an opportunity to fundamentally change the way business works. It’s time to think long term – if we truly want business to be environmentally sustainable, then a more strategic stance must be adopted.

Tactics vs strategy

In 2018, energy consultancy Carbon Credentials discovered that just 10% of UK companies in their research had a strategy for reducing carbon emissions. And yet, 70% of heads of sustainability thought that their company was doing enough.

These findings were mirrored within our own research.

In our environmental report, Reduce, reuse, recycle: what SMEs are doing to save the planet, few respondents made references to a commercially-relevant strategic plan that included environmental considerations.

Instead, most of the actions undertaken could be viewed as short-term and ‘tactical’ – separate, individual actions that focused on the here and now rather than the possibility of long-term, business-wide change.

But how does this help to gain environmental sustainability?

This is not to say that tactics, such as switching to electric vehicles or cutting down on paper, are not useful or beneficial, but without a structure or logical framework these measures can become difficult to maintain or accelerate. The regulatory framework for the environment and the technology to support it are likely to evolve at a rapid pace, and a long-term strategy and robust framework are essential for meeting this changing landscape.

“It will be interesting to see how things develop over the coming years,” said Simon Hughes, operations manager and principle geologist of TerraDat. “It’s challenging for UK businesses to really know what to expect given regulatory uncertainty and different territories and legislative systems.”

By transforming sustainability into a business strategy rather than a piecemeal collection of actions, business leaders can create a framework of processes that can build success, evaluate effectiveness and strive for continual improvement. This framework can also diffuse sustainability throughout the whole business, making it a part of every decision-making process.

Doing so transforms sustainability into a proactive rather than a reactive business endeavour. The consequences of this can lead to bigger and bolder steps being taken. It can also ensure that a business remains in-step with regulations and laws, or even exceeds them, reducing the likelihood of fines or prosecution.

Tactics or commercial opportunity?

By adopting a tactical approach to sustainability, businesses only scratch the surface of what they could do. It also means that they are probably not recognising the commercial opportunities of integrating sustainability into their business.

This could be a key failing, according to the London School of Economics: “The technical shifts for net-zero will likely require a groundswell in popular support and acceptance of new technologies and ways of living. But societal shifts unlock new commercial opportunities too, and net-zero could drive growth for new industries and products. These could be positioned in business strategies and marketing as being in line with societal trends.”

By integrating environmental sustainability into other business goals, businesses could begin to see sustainability as giving them a competitive advantage. It could encourage product development and push businesses to respond to customer demand, which is likely to become more discerning as more and more of us recognise the impact of our consumer habits.

Adopting the long game

Switching to a more strategic approach clearly has a lot of arguments in favour of it. But how can businesses begin?

Adopting an environmental management system, such as ISO 14001, can be one way of aligning business interests with environmental ones. Implementing this Standard creates a framework which businesses can use to monitor, evaluate and improve their environmental goals.

It can help them to set baselines for their business’ environmental impact while regular reviewing ensures that the goalposts do not remain still. Instead, a business can strive towards continual improvement and check that it keeps up with new rules and regulations.

The majority of our respondents did not have an environmental management system in place, but 80% of those said that they didn’t do enough for the environment and that a system could help them.

The importance of using ISO 14001 for environmental sustainability

Of those with ISO 14001, 60% revealed that it had increased their understanding and compliance with environmental legislation with a reduced potential for fines.

Implementing a system can also help to spread sustainability throughout the business. “The practical efforts that go along with adopting an environmental management system have transformed our way of working and the results we’ve been able to get for our customers,” said Nigel Glover, HSBQ manager of WMQ Building Services.

Simon Hughes of TerraDat agreed: “ISO 14001 isn’t just about box-ticking to win business. For us it has been a practical foundation for a culturally important element of how our organisation is run.”

Develop your own system

With the end of lockdown nearing, there has never been a better time to adopt new ways of working and to put sustainability at the heart of your business.

If you would like to drive a new environmental strategy within your company, feel free to get in touch with us to discuss ISO 14001. You can call us on 0333 344 3646 or email us at [email protected].

You can also read our full report, Reduce, reuse, recycle: what SMEs are doing to save the planet, to find out more about SME attitudes towards sustainability and the action being taken.

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About the author

  • Name:

    Claire Price

  • Company:

    Content Marketing Executive

  • Bio:

    Claire worked for Citation ISO Certification between 2020 and 2022 writing creative and informative content on ISO certification and consultation to help businesses reach their potential.


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