Defining and building a business strategy for sustainability

  • Defining and building a business strategy for sustainability

It's prudent for every organisation, large or small, to have a defined strategy that sets out the organisation's approach to sustainability.

But for some businesses, sustainability is at the heart of everything they do.

Queensland render and paint business Rockcote is one entity that puts sustainability at the forefront of its operations. As Professor Andrew Griffiths, sustainability expert and Dean of UQ Business School explains, the foundation of its strategy is built on innovation in the way products are made and materials are sourced.

"A lot of paint and paint products have damaging chemicals in them and Rockcote's products don't have these poisons," he explains.

Rockcote is so committed to their sustainability program that they are prepared to trial processes until they get it right. One example is the process used to filter water. "One of the by-products of rendering is waste and waste water," Professor Griffiths says. “They came up with a natural solution to filter this water through sand to produce crystal clear water, which they're able to reuse in the production process."

Professor Griffiths describes how the Rockcote management team studied how the Renaissance masters made paints and renders and turned this knowledge into a range of eco-friendly products for the building industry.

Rockcote's low odour, eco-paints have inspired other paint producers to release similar products. The business also won the Queensland Premier's sustainability award for its design showroom and warehouse at Nerang on the Gold Coast, which generates its own energy and water.

"There's no artificial heating or air conditioning in their facility. It's made from natural products, for instance walls are rendered in hay and clay and gardens around the facility generate food. A caretaker tends the gardens and opens up windows and panels to let light or breezes in. They want to be a ‘restorative' company, which means they give back more than they take," Professor Griffiths explains.

While Rockcote's products are relatively expensive, demand for them is driven by the green building movement. Their sustainability efforts also help them to stay competitive. They use rain water rather than buy water, and are able to use less electricity and gas as their plant is gravity fed.

Professor Griffiths says it's likely the business will remain a niche player, rather than be acquired by a bigger operator. "I think they're going to always be that type of niche player, driving an agenda."

For other businesses that want a commitment to sustainability to drive their operations, the starting point is ensuring there is someone in the business who is a committed champion of sustainability, says Professor Griffiths.

"Most CEOs see sustainability as a cost to the organisation. But companies that proactively engage in sustainability and resource it find ways to turn it from a cost to something that helps save money and create new products, services and market opportunities. By framing it as a strategic issue companies are able to see sustainability as a driver of innovation," Professor Griffith notes.

A commitment to sustainability also has other benefits. Consumers expect large businesses to discharge their sustainability obligations as part of their license to operate. They increasingly want to know how companies approach sustainability before they purchase products, which is encouraging more companies to examine how they prioritise sustainability.

"For large companies, shareholders and boards are questioning their business's impact on the natural environment, which is also driving companies' sustainability choices," he adds.

However, to be able to genuinely demonstrate a commitment to sustainability, organisations must be able to develop an integrated system for collecting data around sustainability.

"It's really that old adage that if you can measure it, you can act on it. Companies are improving systems to collect information on energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. We're also seeing businesses develop measurement systems around corporate social responsibility and how they engage with communities," says Professor Griffiths.

"All this data is increasingly fed into organisations' investment strategies and new product development," he says, adding that increasingly, large businesses are also looking to third parties to independently audit the information they produce around their sustainability commitments.

"Sustainability creates a niche for owners of small and medium-sized companies to create some real outcomes," he explains.

A commitment to sustainability does not necessarily require a formal approach or substantial resources. Rather, it's about embedding sustainability principles in every aspect of the business and requiring staff and also third parties such as suppliers to work towards having the same commitment.

Businesses that do this give their company the ability to plan for climate change. They also allow the organisation to turn sustainability into a positive, helping to reduce energy bills and develop innovative products that allow other organisations to meet their own sustainability obligations.

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