Sustainable development is considered one of the great political, economic, ecological and social challenges of the 21st century. The global goal of achieving a new relationship within the world community in the use of limited resources, and of achieving social participation and respect for human rights, are no longer in question. Only the subsequent analyses and concepts are subject of manifold controversies today.
What rules or guidelines for action can be established? How should conflicting goals be dealt with? Are incentives sufficient or should misconduct be sanctioned? This is a real challenge for governments around the globe. The controversies that have arisen are certainly explicable. Also since the idea of sustainable development is largely a normative guiding principle that is essentially determined by the interests, values and basic ethical attitudes of the social actors on development issues. In other words: It is difficult to agree on a universally valid course based on objective facts. In particular when it comes to sustainable development. Sustainability is always a matter of negotiation.
The responsibility of companies
Companies find themselves in an influential but also delicate role in the debate on sustainability:
- Companies that produce goods have a central responsibility: Their economic activity draws on natural resources, it requires energy, and it strains the atmosphere via emissions. They have learned that active resource management and efficient processes pay off – both for the environment and for the bottom line. There is hardly a large or medium-sized company that does not have basic management systems in place for operational environmental protection or product ecology.
- Sustainability is more than just environmental protection. Sustainability also means keeping an eye on the social role of the company and the social consequences of its own business activities. It means comparing long-term stability aspects with short-term return expectations. It also means weighing short-term opportunities in one’s own market against the long-term goals of society. In some cases it may even mean questioning one’s own growth philosophy. In any case, it means ensuring the acceptance of the involved public for entrepreneurial decisions.
- The pursuit of sustainability goals has proven to be a complex matter, and their control via existing management systems is not trivial. The formulation of coherent sustainability strategies and the agreement of suitable sub-goals and key figures alone has proven to be a highly political task.
- Valuation: The economic valuation of natural resources remains a complicated issue as long as the socially considered value is not reflected in the costs of the companies. Similarly, the impact of sustainable development on intangible assets remains a difficult quantity to describe. However, as long as sustainability does not have an impact on the balance sheet, it will lack real influence on corporate decisions.
- Time preference: Experience shows – Despite all the good intentions for sustainable development, current economic constraints receive more attention than the needs of the future or the next generation.
Since the early nineties, companies have gained some experience in dealing with sustainability requirements. They have learned a lot about integrating sustainability content into the target system of corporate management. Also about the connection between corporate culture and sustainability. And on top of that about the possibilities of playing out a sustainability advantage on the market. Above all, however, they understood that sustainability processes require above all communicative support in order to achieve their goals.
Key factor communication
The topic of sustainable development has proven to be unwieldy for media relations since Rio. Nonetheless, communication is a key factor on the path toward sustainable development.
- The often cross-divisional tasks of sustainability pose major challenges for internal communications. Sustainability practice calls for new networking, and sometimes also for creativity in the search for new approaches.
- As a concept, sustainability often eludes everyday experience in the workplace. Good communication involves employees and makes them participants in the practical shaping of the sustainability concept.
- Stakeholder approach: Sustainability communication requires proactive collaboration with stakeholders. Only those who understand and respect their interests will be able to engage in appropriate interaction and dialog.
- The concepts of sustainability and their often complex aspects overtax the public media. It is important to communicate the manifestations of sustainability clearly to the respective interests of stakeholders. For this purpose, the appropriate channels have to be used.
- Progress status: Corporate reports must provide a regular overall view of the company’s sustainability status. Employees, customers, analysts and other stakeholders should receive reliable information on their areas of interest.
- Above all, the power of the customer: Companies operate in an extensive network of dependencies, from employees to suppliers to shareholders. However, the customer always has the greatest influence on business strategy. Only if the sustainability strategy can be translated into trust or even preference among stakeholders the company can benefit from it.
You can find out more about our approach to sustainable transformation on our subpage on this topic.