Business Sustainability Challenges in 2018

Network for Business Sustainability members identified their top sustainability challenges, from effective individual action to systems change.

Last summer, Network for Business Sustainability staff consulted you, the managers and researchers in our network. Why? To learn which issues you see as important for business.

The result: You shared more than 20 topics, ranging from individual action to systemic change. We’re providing the list of topics to show what your peers are thinking about. We also encourage researchers to use this list to focus their work on areas useful to practice.

Over the coming months, NBS staff will look for ways to cover these issues with frontier knowledge. If you are a manager or researcher already doing work in these areas, please contact us. We’d love to consider ways that your insights can be shared.

How We Heard from You

We wanted input from managers leading front-line sustainability work, so, we surveyed 100 of our most engaged newsletter subscribers for their top three sustainability challenges. We received responses from 20 individuals, spanning eight countries and eight sectors.

We also reached out to researchers who collaborate with managers. This kind of “co-creation” produces evidence-based knowledge on challenges that matter to business. We surveyed researchers at 150 sustainability research centres around the world about their co-creation projects. We heard about 24 projects, spanning more than 15 countries.

NBS exists to bring together managers and researchers, so, we invited all survey respondents to discuss these topics in virtual focus groups. Participants connected with like-minded peers, in some cases sharing contact information for future collaboration. And NBS staff got an in-depth look at what our members need.

Long-standing and Emerging Issues

Some of the challenges discussed are ones that managers have been grappling with for years, but whose solutions remain difficult to implement. In many cases, NBS has already produced comprehensive research on these, but we will keep seeking opportunities to share frontier knowledge. Here are some examples:

Other challenges raised reflect recent changes in the business landscape. For example, NBS members are seeking strategic responses to emerging technologies (think blockchain) and business models (think circular economy). They’re also seeking a better understanding of how to advance particular systemic changes (think transition to a low-carbon economy).

Our Working List of Challenges

NBS staff often map sustainability challenges into three categories – those that are addressed within an organization, between organizations and with society. We put members’ challenges in these groups. (Some members also asked what they can do as individuals leading sustainability efforts. We included a category for that too.)

Without further ado, here are the questions we heard.

2 Personal Sustainability Challenges

  1. Today’s responsible leader: What characteristics do they possess?

  2. Inspiring action: How can individuals catalyze change at the pace needed to secure a sustainable future?

12 Sustainability Challenges In Your Organization

  1. Future trends: What’s on the horizon and how should business leaders respond?

  2. Block chain and digitization: What are the implications and how can business leaders harness these for good?

  3. United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: What’s the role of business in addressing the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals? (Note: Our members also asked about specific challenges covered by the UN SDGs, including reducing inequality and ensuring universal access to food, water and healthcare.)

  4. Innovation: Which processes enable the creation of new products, services and business models?

  5. Business models: Which models are emerging (e.g. circular economy, sharing economy)? How can companies identify new opportunities for revenue generation and implement them effectively?

  6. Change levers: What are the key levers in an organization?

  7. Funding: How can change agents secure money to implement new ideas when they fall short of an organization’s return-on-investment guidelines

  8. Impact measurement: How is non-financial impact best measured and reported?

  9. Impact investing: How should non-financial performance be applied to mainstream investment decisions?

  10. Social license to operate: How has it changed in the past 20 years? How much value should companies be creating and for whom?

  11. Corporate culture: What does it mean to have a sustainable corporate culture and how can leaders build and maintain one?

  12. Evidence-based case for change: A company’s stakeholders regularly call for new action, such as comprehensive and transparent reporting. Is there evidence to help leaders understand the likely financial and non-financial impact of these requests?

3 Sustainability Challenges With Other Organizations

  1. Collaboration models: Which innovative models are emerging, including across sectors, with competitors and with non-governmental organizations? Whose knowledge is needed? Which spaces and processes foster this collaboration?

  2. Value chains: How can companies manage them effectively, including leveraging unique value chains as a source of innovation?

  3. Government policy: Which policies and incentives are effective in catalyzing sustainable change?

2 Sustainability Challenges With Society

  1. Community engagement: How can businesses encourage engagement and move citizens from awareness to action?

  2. Catalyzing systems change: How can businesses advance realistic and inclusive pathways toward emerging systemic changes? And how can robust, locally-appropriate scenario analysis help? Shifts of particular interest to our members include:

    • Energy: Moving towards low-carbon options.

    • Mobility: Shaping the adoption of autonomous and electric vehicles.

    • Healthcare: Adopting new technologies and accommodating an aging population.

    • Market transformation: Re-inventing entire markets to ensure more positive social and environmental outcomes.

Special thanks to contributing NBS members

  • Al Thibeault, Amistra Consulting Ltd., Canada

  • Ans Kolk, University of Amsterdam Business School, Netherlands

  • Bob Willard, Sustainability Advantage, Canada

  • Chaminda Wijethilake, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University, Sri Lanka

  • Christopher Thomas, Occidental Petroleum, United States

  • Daniela Ortiz, FHWien der WKW University of Applied Sciences for Management & Communication, Austria

  • David Milia, Haskayne School of Business, Canada

  • Fabio Carnelli, Independent Consultant, Italy

  • Farzana Chowdhury, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, United States

  • Ferdinand Revellio, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany

  • Jenny Lieu, University of Sussex, United Kingdom

  • Jessica Yinka Thomas, North Carolina State University, United States

  • Joanne Norris, Social Value Canada and Futurpreneur Canada, Canada

  • Joerg Hofstetter, KEDGE Business School, France

  • Lori DiVito, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Netherlands

  • Lyn Brown, Alberta Innovates, Canada

  • Markus Strangmüeller, Siemens AG, Germany

  • Martina Linnenluecke, Macquarie University, Australia

  • Melissa Zaksek, Erb Institute, University of Michigan, United States

  • Nathan Maycher, Suncor Energy, Canada

  • P.S. Narayan, Wipro Ltd, India

  • Paul Bubelis, Sustainability Network, Canada

  • Peter Smalley, Balsillie School of International Affairs, Canada

  • Pilar Acosta, Universidad ICESI, Colombia

  • Ralph Hamann, University of Cape Town, South Africa

  • Rod Lohin, Rotman School of Management, Canada

  • Stephanie Bertels, Simon Fraser University, Canada

  • Subhasis Ray, Xavier University, India

  • Terry Nelidov, Erb Institute, University of Michigan, United States

We also appreciate the contributions of 16 other individuals whose names are not included above.

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Chelsea spent her master’s degree studying ecosystem health in Kenya and is the former Operations Manager for The Network for Business Sustainability. She’s also a certified life coach. Chelsea now splits her time between her two passion projects; sustainability writing and editing, and helping over-stressed mothers improve their mental health and find more joy in life.

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