Sustainable business: more than a buzzword?

I was extremely pleased to read this week that Unilever has achieved zero waste to landfill across its European operations, and is well on the way to reaching its global target. Unilever has always been at the forefront of sustainable business practices, and its brightFuture campaign has paved the way for a revitalised and positive attitude towards corporate responsibility. It is increasingly evident that large corporations in all sectors are beginning to embrace sustainability, and the progress made lately seems to lie less in vague promises than it has in the past. Is sustainability moving beyond the buzzwords?

The supermarket sector has been a particular target for ethical and environmental initiatives in the last year or so, and has been in the press lately thanks to England’s introduction of the 5p bag charge on the 5th of October. A lot of thought has also been going into the global problem of food wastage, with estimates now suggesting over a third of food produced for consumption ends up as landfill. Jamie Oliver campaigned for the place of oddly shaped fruit and veg on supermarket shelves in January, and Asda took up the suggestion. The trial at Asda has thus far not yielded much, but a much wider experiment launched in France last year was met with success. In fact, the popularity of the initiative in France is particularly interesting given the recent unanimous parliamentary decision to ban food waste in major French supermarkets.

Europe often seems to be leading the way with sustainable policy, but there have been some remarkable UK-based disruptors around the issue of food waste. I’ve written before about Jenny Dawson’s Rubies in the Rubble, which landed her the Veuve Clicquot New Generation award in 2014. Jenny’s venture is so impressive because it represents a marriage of sustainable focus with business acumen – a combination that may prove invaluable in the current climate! A recent article by Dell’s entrepreneur-in-residence Elizabeth Gore, who was previously in a similar role at the UN, makes the important point that sustainability goals can, and should, inspire fresh innovation. She believes that businesses in all sectors should be addressing the issue as a valuable force for profit turning, as well as a responsible practice. I’m inclined to agree!

The good news is that this already seems to be inching towards the norm, and 2015 has been an important year for environmental awareness amongst large corporations. Another British national, Deloitte, recently unveiled the world’s most sustainable office in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, the White House-sponsored ‘American Business Act on Climate Change’ bill, which comes ahead of a global climate deal in Paris, is attracting special attention because 68 global US conglomerates have recently signed on, in addition to the 13 original signatories.

Unilever is one of the companies involved, and the list also includes giants such as Dell, Nike and Ikea – all of whom have committed to some of the most ambitious sustainability pledges ever seen. Ikea, for instance – alongside its recent game-changing shift to exclusively certified seafood – has committed, by 2020, to produce as much renewable energy as it consumes globally. Officials have said the bulk of promises made as part of the bill are either new or expanded on.

This kind of story is an example of how useful insights can emerge from government and business overlaps. What the flood of sign-ups to Obama’s bill tells us is that companies are now quicker than ever to respond to changes they perceive in consumer priorities. And consumer priorities are more ethically and environmentally-geared than ever before!

So, it seems that there is a good deal to be optimistic about. Both grassroots companies and international powerhouses are no longer deeming sustainable strategies irrevocably unprofitable or unachievable. Indeed, there seems to be an increasing trend – in both directions – for utilising responsible priorities to drive innovations with huge potential.

Have you seen any exciting sustainable developments recently? Let me know at, and have a lovely weekend!