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Sustainability: changing behaviours through changing priorities

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 Oct 2021

Embedding sustainability into a business – even in a fledgling way – is, of course, to be celebrated. But that is no longer enough.

There must be real impact to change, and this starts with evaluating what you are already doing. Therein lies a huge benefit. Apart from changing your organisation in a profitable and sustainable way, a new focus can help you change the behaviours that often hold businesses back. These are the views of ICAEW member Mark Lumsdon-Taylor.

“I began my career in the very capable hands of MacIntyre Hudson,” says Lumsdon-Taylor. “I progressed to Director of Education, as well as becoming a non-executive finance director for an industrial enterprise, similarly for a financial services membership organisation, and I also became a board trustee of a charity providing hospice care. At that point, I was seconded directly into the education sector to implement a degree of change that was frequently recognised through the awards it attracted.” Two elements combined to deliver the awards and accolades. These were ‘finance’ and ‘sustainability’.

“We were very aware of the increasing profile of the then-new CSR (corporate social responsibility) but for us, its scope appeared vague and its purpose blurred,” he says. “Combining sustainability with financial metrics seemed to be the better option and with the more recent rise of ESG (environmental, social and governance), our premise has proved correct.”

He continues: “We were able to effect huge change through a new sense of purpose, driven by the values now incorporated in the better ESG programmes – more than that we had metrics to measure success and provide our people with both a greater purpose and a way to measure the achievements, all in a sustainable, commercial, and wholly pragmatic way.”

Lumsdon-Taylor says they didn’t just write a report for the board, file it and then not implement it. “We lived and breathed the sense of purpose we’d created,” he says. “That changed the organisation for the better, and it changed behaviours too.”

Throughout this exciting period, Mark retained a link with practice and ICAEW. He says that the chartered accountancy profession and its methods had been intrinsic to the delivery of the success.

Creating a culture shift

Lumsdon-Taylor is now back working with MHA MacIntyre Hudson as a partner, where a large part of his remit is supporting SMEs and mid-cap businesses to help shift culture and behaviours around sustainability. “We put together a structure, building on all my experience from industry and my former roles to support the change in culture at SMEs and mid-cap businesses,” he says. “We have created a new service suite called ‘Dynamic ESG’, which gets into the grassroots of the business, and as part of the process creates what I call an ‘Integrated External Engagement Framework – the first stage ‘Create’ of the service suite.”

The framework evaluates at all levels what a company is doing before it figures out what it needs to do next. “We have started looking at this within the agri, rural, food and farming sector, and people have readily engaged with it,” he says.

Lumsdon-Taylor talks about businesses needing to make a cultural shift across the entire organisation, winning hearts and minds and having an impact not only on the balance sheet and profit and loss account, but also on how business is governed and how the staff are treated from a wellness perspective. Next, the second stage is to ‘Evaluate’.

At the evaluation stage, he says businesses should ask themselves what they are contributing – good or bad – both socially and environmentally, and make sure the business has policies around its staff and their understanding of what the business is contributing socially and environmentally. “Do you have a clear line to your staff, your board, your customers or clients on what you aim to achieve over what timescale?” he asks. “For example: ‘We aim to reduce our overall climate impact by 10% over the next five years’. It means you’re working on it, and you have a basic set of principles to work from.”

He continues: “You have to look first at what you're doing already to establish your basic framework going forward, otherwise you might throw out some of the good work you're doing already. But you have to plan, and you should keep it simple and structured. The evaluative stage approach to net zero or climate balance around, for example, the supply chain could be as simple as checking that your suppliers have got a sustainability policy in place and, if so, the business should have a copy of it. And yes, you can look at distance, diesel or electric vehicle use, if that electricity comes from a sustainable source. These are the basic principles around evaluation. The final stage of ‘Implementation’ of that plan can be as complicated or as basic as you want it to be.”

Think differently or get left behind

Most importantly, any business that does not start to think differently – or just pays lip service – will get left behind. “You may survive in your space, but you will invariably get left behind. If you choose to engage with it and win your team’s hearts and minds, and culturally shift your organisation, you will gain a competitive advantage in the short term. In the medium term, others will catch up, but you then have to evaluate how far you have got and what you need to do next to stay ahead.”

While the conversation at present is very much about emissions and net zero, the next stage will be about climate balancing, and then the stage after that may be about positive contribution and improvement. “That means, overall, your net effect is to contribute positively towards improving the planet,” he says.

But Lumsdon-Taylor warns: “Do not be drawn into people telling you what you want to hear. Take advice from those who have been there, done it and are professionally qualified.”

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