Record 40+ degree temperatures. Forests and homes ablaze. Rising tides. Destroyed habitats. When employees and customers face challenges like these, organisations can’t afford not to step up. Calls for action on sustainability are getting louder daily.

A clear moral directive for sustainable business

The evidence has been mounting for years that our current way of life isn’t sustainable long term. Temperatures soared to a record 40.3 degrees recently, seeing wildfires break out across the UK. The pandemic brought new awareness to air pollution and the links with poor health outcomes and early death. David Attenborough’s calm urgency boomed over 25 million TV screens within a month in the devastating ‘Life on our Planet’.

As recognition of these threats grows, so do calls for businesses to do their part. Globally, just 90 companies are responsible for nearly two-thirds of major industrial greenhouse gas emissions, for instance.But it’s not only a moral imperative that urges change.

Consumer demand for sustainable business is growing

In the UK, 85% of consumers made at least one lifestyle change to be more sustainable during the pandemic. But critically for organisations, one third of consumers now actively look for brands with strong sustainability and ethical credentials (and vote with their wallets).

The fact is, the tide of public opinion is turning.

Organisations have a huge opportunity to unlock new market share and revenue growth by proving they’re aligned with what buyers want. But on the other hand, organisations that underestimate the scope of change stand to become irrelevant fast, losing profits to competitors who are more responsive to customer expectations.

Right now, 35% of UK consumers actively avoid buying from brands that damage the environment – representing £150 billion of retail spend. EY UK found that ‘planet first’ consumers have now become the UK’s biggest market segment, with a 26% market share in February 2022. EY characterises these planet-conscious consumers as being ‘highly aware of consumption impacts, favour[ing] locally sourced products, [and] expect[ing] transparency’.

For EY, this shift in concern towards sustainability ‘signifies the start of a fundamental long-term shift in values for consumers.’ Their research found consumer behaviour is changing in broad ways, for example:

  • 53% of consumers cook more at home since the pandemic;
  • 49% of consumers are more likely to repair than replace goods;
  • 46% of consumers feel less pressure now to keep up with fashion trends;
  • 18% of consumers want to spend more on experiences over items;
  • 15% of consumers are looking for digital alternatives to physical items;
  • 6% of consumers are looking to rent rather than own.

The sweeping nature of these changes will raise questions across every industry about how to best serve customers and protect the business long-term.

That’s true even if you subscribe to the argument that the sustainability-focused consumer segment is unlikely to grow much in the immediate future, as the cost of living crisis sees UK living standards fall at a record rate.

Yes, conscious consumerism can be costly, and it’s an expense few can afford right now. But when consumers’ hands aren’t forced by tight budgets, the organisations that have done nothing to answer calls for sustainable business could find themselves cast aside. And not only by consumers, but by their employees too.

Employees expect sustainability in the workplace

Just as consumer buying behaviour is changing, so are employee expectations. ESG has become an increasingly important strand of your employer brand, as employees expect employers to act on the issues that matter to them (and vote with their feet).

Consider that 26% of British workers would take a pay cut to ensure their organisation acts responsibly in terms of the environment. A further 28% would quit their job for somewhere more environmentally-conscious. With this in mind, not having a sustainable business could be especially damaging in the wake of the Great Resignation, which affected some 85% of UK businesses.  

Attracting, engaging and keeping talented people should be every organisation’s biggest priority – but it’s a priority that’ll become ever more challenging if you fall short on sustainability. Without sustainable business, the business itself becomes unsustainable.

Why building a more sustainable business matters

There are business, recruitment and moral cases for making your business a more sustainable one. You may strive to improve your business’ sustainability to:

  • Protect the community and world
  • Improve consumer trust and strengthen your brand
  • Increase sales by capitalising on conscious consumerism
  • Attract the best people by building a sustainability-first employer brand
  • Engage your workforce by delivering on what matters for your people
  • Boost productivity and retention by increasing engagement
  • Reduce talent acquisition and workforce costs
  • Increase resilience, thus enabling your business to thrive long-term
  • Access funding and investment opportunities for sustainable business

What does sustainability in the workplace mean in practice?

The most obvious element of sustainability relates to environmental concerns. Consumers and employees want to know you operate in a sustainable way, providing products and/or services that have a positive impact on the world. These questions may help you assess where your business is now in terms of sustainability, and what you could do to improve:

  • What materials do you use for manufacture?
  • Where do your materials come from?
  • How do you move your materials from place to place?
  • What suppliers do you use, and what’s their stance on sustainability?
  • How carbon-neutral are your offices?
  • What’s the carbon impact of your workforce commuting?
  • Is sustainability a priority within your culture?
  • Where do you make donations or give charitable support?

Employee resource groups can be a helpful mechanism to address questions like this, demonstrating your commitment to building a sustainable business.

But at heart, sustainability in the workplace is about more than looking after the environment. It’s about your recognition and respect for the co-dependencies between employer and employee; industry and consumer; humans and the world we share.

Employees and consumers are calling for businesses that profit from the world to put back into the world. To mitigate negative impact and become a force for good.

For business leaders that recognise this and act now, there’s an unparalleled opportunity – not only to make the world a better place but to build a winning business that thrives into the future. 

That’s what sustainable business really looks like.