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As companies grapple with uncertainty caused by the UK’s vote to leave the EU, it would be easy to dwell on immediate concerns and lose sight of longer-term goals such as environmental sustainability and engaging with local communities.
Yet those are the very things that can help to carry businesses through a difficult period, according to some companies and campaigners.
“Many organisations have a sustainability strategy that’s delivering strong business value,” says Sally Uren, chief executive of Forum for the Future, a sustainable development group whose members include Unilever, Marks and Spencer and Sky. “In turbulent times it could be a passport through those choppy waters.”
According to M&S, for example, the net financial benefit from its “Plan A” sustainability programme was £185m in 2015-16. This includes savings such as lower fuel costs and new business generated by the programme. A sustainable approach attracts both customers and high-calibre employees, Ms Uren adds.
The winners of this year’s Responsible Business awards, run by the UK charity Business in the Community, reflect some of the best work that is being done in this field. The awards recognise companies for achievements ranging from improving the health and wellbeing of their workforces and helping marginalised groups get into employment, to reducing environmental impact.
Veolia UK, the waste management company and winner of this year’s Responsible Business of the Year award, has put environmental sustainability at the centre of its strategy. It aims to create a low-carbon, “circular economy” in which much greater use is made of energy generated from waste.
Staff pay is linked to sustainability targets and the company measures its success by the social and environmental improvements it helps create as well as its financial performance.
Estelle Brachlianoff, Veolia’s senior executive vice-president for the UK and Ireland, says: “The money we make is absolutely needed because it’s the fuel in the engine . . . but it’s not the final objective. The objective is to be more sustainable.”
The strategy helped to cut costs and attract customers, contributing to a 7.6 per cent rise to £225.8m in UK earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in 2015. Being “purpose-led” also helped Veolia attract and retain talented staff, Ms Brachlianoff says.
Unipart, the logistics and manufacturing company and winner of the Bupa Wellbeing at Work award, has also seen benefits from its focus on sustainability. Its employee wellbeing scheme, Unipart Workwell, helped reduce staff absence. It includes training for managers on mental health, fitness sessions, workshops on stress and health checks.
Frank Nigriello, director of corporate affairs, says Unipart will maintain its focus on wellbeing regardless of post-Brexit uncertainty. “If something improves productivity, increases customer service and brings lower absence rates and higher levels of employee engagement, it would be foolish to think you could disaggregate it from your business systems,” he says.
Whitbread, the retailing company that runs Costa Coffee and Premier Inn hotels, is the winner of this year’s Asda Environmental Leadership Award. James Pitcher, corporate social responsibility director for hotels and restaurants, agrees that sustainability work is too central to abandon in difficult times.
The company won this year’s award for two new environmentally friendly building projects, the Premier Inn Hub hotel and the Costa Eco-Pod. Both were designed and built to cut energy use. The hotel, in Covent Garden, London, uses 30 per cent less energy than building regulations demand and the coffee shop, in Telford, Shropshire, uses 52 per cent less than similar-sized branches.
The projects have brought immediate cost savings from reduced energy use, as well as lessons on environmental impact that will be applied to future projects, Mr Pitcher says.
There are good reasons for staying the course on social and environmental responsibility, says Laura Spence, professor of business ethics at Royal Holloway, University of London. Such commitment can provide “ballast and security” in an uncertain world, she says.
“The firms that have been doing [sustainability work] as a ‘nice-to-have’ add-on will find it easy to stop,” Prof Spence says. “But others will see its importance for their reputation, their integrity and their intention to have a long-term impact.”
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