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15 August 2020
Change by Degrees

As the world starts to emerge from the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are planning their recovery and wondering what the future holds. To support this, the Irish Development Education Association (IDEA) hosted a Bridge 47 webinar on 17 June, facilitated by Change by Degrees, exploring the role sustainability can play in building resilience and helping business to build back better.  

The workshop used our SDG 10 Point Plan to introduce the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to provide a framework for businesses to assess and strengthen their commitment to sustainability. The beauty of the SDGs is that they help businesses to balance their social, economic and environmental goals and to expand their purpose beyond traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to contribute to societal transformation.  

Ireland has a lot of progress to make on the SDGs to achieve the targets set for 2030. At present we are placed 10th out of the EU 15 for our efforts to achieve the goals and we rank particularly badly on the environmental goals where we are at the bottom of the EU 15. Yet the business case for sustainability is well established.  

Customers and clients want to support sustainable businesses: Research has showed that 73% of millennials are prepared to pay higher prices for products that are more sustainable, as are 66% of global consumers. A 25% price hike in green packaging has also been tolerated by consumers once they are assured that the company is operating in a sustainable manner and this reflects their purpose and vision. Sustainability is no longer niche, it matters to a business’ bottom line and to its reputation.  

Employees seek out and stay with companies that commit to sustainability: Research shows that when it comes to employee productivity, loyalty and engagement, companies with strong sustainability strategies are more attractive to work for. Retention of staff is a growing concern and this is echoed by the statistic that 86% of Gen Y would think about leaving a job if the company they work for does not have an impactful CSR policy This is echoed by 50% of employees who said they would take a 15% pay cut to work for a responsible company Businesses have never been more exposed and transparency has never been more demanded of them by both employees and customers alike so that they are assured that businesses are practicing what they preach.  

All this means that business needs to go beyond traditional CSR, which in many cases relies on philanthropy and volunteering, to develop new partnerships that engage their staff and their community. It also means moving CSR from the fringes to embed social and environmental responsibility into all aspects of the business. Setting new transformative CSR strategies that incorporate social and economic metrics will help future-focus organisations from the inside out, ensuring that all three pillars of sustainability are being addressed and true intergenerational and transformative CSR occurs. This requires innovative approaches and cross-departmental programme design. Transformative CSR programmes leave no business unit within their company side lined.  

When businesses adapt their strategies to align them with the SDGs and invest in the employees as change agents and champions, benefits accrue not just to the business but to wider society, locally and globally.

In the 'Beyond CSR' webinar we explored the role of Global Citizenship Education and lifelong learning in empowering employees as a force for positive change. Citizens only have capacity to create change when they are supported and educated to do so. Organisations have an opportunity to assist in the lifelong learning of their employees. A cradle to grave approach should be adopted where organisations pick up where formal education leaves off thus supporting employees and engaging teams to think more holistically about their local communities and by extension, their responsibilities and dependencies on the world at large.

Tapping into the motivations of employees and desires to be active participants in creating a just and safe world can add value to any business. It strengthens connections and loyalty to the brand both internally and externally.  

As a result, staff engagement and education is key. It is no longer enough to have one or two members of the team working on CSR – it must be an all of business endeavour. So, engaging, informing and empowering employees is a critical success factor.

In the webinar, we also shared our experience working with the National Treasury Management Agency in Ireland to build the capacity of their employees to embrace sustainable work practices through a Town Hall meeting, a series of workshops, a train the trainer programme, and an employee engagement campaign. The result is an all of business commitment to sustainability across business units and from the boardroom to the canteen.  

Epson were included as another example of a company who have invested heavily in employee education and engagement as a cornerstone of their commitment to what they call 'Eco Corporate Citizenship'. Their focus on the role of their employees as global citizens through local volunteering, in-house education and partnerships with conservation organisations around the world is core to their commitment to social responsibility.

Participants in the webinar came from sectors including ICT, trade and professional services and included sustainability professionals as well as management and other staff. 100% of participants surveyed left the webinar stating that they were likely to apply their learning from the webinar to their own practice, with a particular focus on addressing the SDGs as a whole rather than goal by goal.  One participant commented that “I had limited knowledge of SDGs and today's session helped clarify how our organisation could align. In addition, to date our organisation has been considering the SDGs in isolation, so now having the understanding of the interconnection between goals has been a highlight. Also, the corporate case studies will further support our strategic vision...”

Feedback from the breakout rooms revealed a sense of positive momentum and an opportunity for a renewed commitment to sustainability as businesses emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and re-evaluate their business strategies for a ‘new normal’.   

Note: The webinar was the first of three events being organised by IDEA for 2020 to bridge between civil society and the private sector. The next event is a masterclass for business professionals on how to build CSO-business partnerships that deliver on the SDGs. Watch this space for more details. For more information about the upcoming events or IDEA's partnerships work through the Bridge 47 project, please contact Ji Hyun Kim, Bridge 47 National Officer, at ji.hyun.kim@bridge47.org.  

(Image credit: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University) 

About the Author

Change by Degrees

Dr.Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray are Directors of Change by Degrees.

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