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Navigating the sustainability shift (I/II): the role of board leadership in a changing corporate landscape

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By Alex Hong

· 14 min read


Sustainability has evolved as a defining issue in the corporate sector in today's quickly changing global scene. Companies are increasingly understanding that sustainability is more than just a phrase; it is the foundation of resilience, growth, and long-term success. This opinion examines the critical role of board leadership in steering businesses through the difficult transition to sustainable and regenerative business models.

Definition of sustainability in the corporate context

Within the corporate context, sustainability refers to a holistic approach to business operations that takes into account the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) components. It is about implementing practises that not only help the bottom line but also reduce negative environmental impacts, promote social fairness, and assure responsible governance. Beyond philanthropy, sustainability is a strategic goal that entails incorporating ethical, environmental, and social issues into decision-making.

The growing importance of sustainability in the business world

The significance of sustainability in the business world is undeniably on the rise, driven by several compelling factors:

  1. Investor Pressure: Shareholders and institutional investors are increasingly demanding ESG performance disclosure. According to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, sustainable investments will account for 33% of total assets under management globally in 2020, totalling $40.5 trillion.
  2. Consumer Preferences: Consumers are making deliberate choices, favouring companies that reflect their values. According to a Nielsen poll, 66% of respondents are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.
  3. Regulatory Mandates: Governments around the world are enforcing stronger requirements on sustainability reporting and carbon emissions. Examples include the EU's Green Deal and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.
  4. Risk Mitigation: Businesses face considerable risks as a result of climate change and social challenges. The World Economic Forum's 2021 Global Risk Report recognised climate action failure and extreme weather occurrences as top global threats.
  5. Talent Attraction: According to a Deloitte report, 64% of millennials and 75% of Gen Z workers prefer to work for organisations that support societal and environmental aims.

As sustainability becomes increasingly important to corporate performance, the board's role in managing this transformative path is critical. In the parts that follow, we'll look at the issues that boards face, as well as the substantial impact they may have on developing sustainable and regenerative business models.

The evolution of sustainability

Sustainability has progressed from a minor concern to an essential corporate strategy, transforming the core fabric of board governance and corporate decision-making. This commentary reveals the incredible journey of sustainability's evolution within the corporate landscape, tracking its passage from the periphery to the forefront of company strategy and demonstrating how it has emerged as a vital driver of competitiveness and long-term success.

Historical transition: sustainability as a minor concern

Sustainability was, at best, a secondary concern in the early days of corporate history. Profit maximisation was the sole goal, and firms acted in the short term, frequently ignoring the environmental and social repercussions of their actions. Environmental deterioration and social inequality were viewed as side effects rather than basic issues that needed to be addressed.

The gradual realisation of the dangers of unregulated resource depletion, pollution, and socioeconomic inequities, on the other hand, set in motion the transition toward sustainability. Consumers, campaigners, and some forward-thinking firms have become more aware of environmental and social issues. Early initiatives at sustainability were frequently localised, without the strategic integration required for long-term benefit.

Sustainability as a central strategy

The tipping point came when sustainability began to play a larger role in corporate strategies. Sustainability became recognised by boards as a source of innovation and competitiveness, rather than just compliance or altruism. Data offers an interesting narrative here:

  • According to an MSCI analysis, companies with higher ESG ratings beat those with lower ratings, producing a 5.4% annualised return over the global market index.
  • A Harvard Business Review report revealed that 90% of companies believed sustainability was important for their success.

Boards began to include sustainability into their basic strategy, resulting in a profound shift in business culture. They recognised that sustainability was an investment in resilience and long-term prosperity, not just a cost. Businesses that adopted sustainability not only reduced risks, but also earned a competitive advantage, attracting environmentally conscientious consumers and investors.

Competitiveness and long-term success

Data supports the notion that sustainability is a key driver of competitiveness and long-term success:

  • The Global Sustainable Investment Alliance estimates that sustainable investments will account for $40.5 trillion in assets under management globally by 2020, indicating the financial community's acceptance of sustainable practises as viable investments.
  • According to a BCG study, companies with strong ESG performance had greater market valuation multiples than their peers. These companies were better able to endure shocks and adjust to changing market conditions.

The evolution of sustainability within the corporate realm demonstrates its lasting importance. What started off as a minor problem has grown into a strategic priority. Board leadership is critical in directing this transformation, recognising that sustainability isn't just a choice in today's corporate world, but a vital driver of competitiveness and long-term success.

Challenges in embedding sustainability

The pursuit of sustainable and regenerative business models has marked the beginning of a new era in corporate leadership. However, the road to integration is not without its difficulties. In this opinion, we look at the main challenges that boards and leaders confront when attempting to integrate sustainability into company objectives. We investigate how these issues affect decision-making and organisational culture.

Identifying challenges in sustainability integration

    1. Short-Term vs. Long-Term Perspective: Boards frequently struggle with the conflict between short-term financial rewards and long-term environmental goals. Short-term thinking can impede sustainability investments, stifling development.
    2. Lack of Expertise: Many boards lack the knowledge and experience required to handle the challenges of sustainability. Understanding ESG indicators, environmental concerns, and assessing social effect can be difficult.
    3. Resistant Culture: Change may be difficult to implement in existing business cultures. Employee opposition to breaking away from old practises, as well as siloed departments, can all stymie growth.
    4. Measurement and Reporting: It might be difficult to develop consistent measures for sustainability performance and reporting. Standardising these measures for successful evaluation is a challenge for boards.
    5. Regulatory Uncertainty: Changes in environmental regulations, disclosures and reporting requirements can cause board members to be uncertain, making long-term planning problematic.

Impact on decision-making and corporate culture

These challenges in embedding sustainability have a profound impact on decision-making and corporate culture:

  • Risk Management: Sustainability challenges, such as climate change, pose significant risks. Boards must navigate these risks while ensuring sustainable growth.
  • Decision Paralysis: The tug-of-war between short-term gains and long-term sustainability can lead to decision paralysis. Boards may hesitate to commit resources to sustainable initiatives. 
  • Stakeholder Expectations: Meeting the expectations of investors, consumers, and other stakeholders adds complexity to decision-making. Boards must balance these expectations with financial performance.
  • Cultural Transformation: Overcoming resistance to change requires significant effort. Boards must drive cultural transformation to align with sustainability goals, fostering a mindset shift across the organization.

The path to sustainable and regenerative business models is fraught with difficulties. Boards and leadership teams must recognise and actively seek to overcome these obstacles. It is not only necessary to adapt to change, but also to drive change inside organisations. The route to sustainability requires resilience, adaptation, and a forward-thinking mindset. Boards that accept these challenges will not only develop a sustainable culture but will also ensure a more sustainable future for their organisations.

Sustainability as an ideology vs. strategy

In today's corporate environment, the growing landscape of sustainability poses a significant challenge and opportunity for board leadership. This commentary explores the subtle gap between sustainability as a strategic goal and as an overarching worldview. We investigate how corporate leadership has adapted to this transformation, as well as the ramifications for organisations on the path to sustainability and regenerative models.

Sustainability as a strategic goal

Initially, sustainability was viewed solely as a strategic goal. Companies saw the importance of addressing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues in order to reduce risks, improve reputation, and create long-term value. Sustainability efforts were frequently stand-alone, with specific goals and performance indicators. Boards establish sustainability targets that are consistent with broader corporate plans and financial objectives.

Sustainability as an overarching ideology

Sustainability has evolved into an overarching idea that pervades every facet of company culture and decision-making. Sustainability is no longer limited to a set of objectives; it has evolved into a guiding principle that shapes a company's purpose, values, and identity. This ideological change entails the following:

  • Long-Term Vision: Sustainable development has progressed from a short-term strategy to a long-term vision. Companies are becoming increasingly worried about their legacy and the impact they will have on future generations.
  • Cultural Transformation: Sustainability today necessitates a major cultural shift. It is more than just a collection of behaviours; it is a collective mindset that strives to align company operations with the well-being of society and the environment.
  • Integrated Approach: From product design and supply chain management to stakeholder involvement, sustainability is interwoven into every aspect of business. It is no longer the duty of a single department, but of the entire organisation.

The shift in corporate leadership's role

As sustainability transitions from strategy to ideology, corporate leadership's role has adapted accordingly:

  • From Oversight to Advocacy: Boards have moved away from simply managing sustainability projects and towards advocating for sustainability as a core principle. They advocate for incorporating sustainability into the company's DNA.
  • From Reporting to Impact: Sustainability reporting has progressed from a legal requirement to a tool for proving true effect. Boards understand the necessity of articulating their sustainability journey openly.
  • From Profit to Purpose: Profit and purpose are no longer mutually exclusive for leadership teams. Sustainability entails not only financial achievement but also positively contributing to society and the environment.

The transformation of sustainability from a strategic goal to an overarching ideology signals a watershed point in business leadership. It necessitates a comprehensive, integrated approach that goes beyond profits to include purpose. Boards of directors have a critical role in driving this change, recognising that sustainability is more than just a business plan; it is a commitment to a better future. However, the question remains if this knowledge has made a big impact on major boardrooms in ASEAN and Asia. 

Reflecting on the important on sustainability and the influence of Board leadership, Shai Ganu, Governing Council; Chair of ESG Committee, Singapore Institute of Directors said, “Companies that are successful in embedding sustainability priorities achieve the optimal balance between efforts and outcomes, between financial and non-financial metrics, between shareholders and stakeholders, between short and long-term orientation, and between harvesting vs sowing seeds for the future. This is a critical role for any board - to achieve that right balance for the relevant stage of the company’s lifecycle.”

Stakeholder perspectives

The importance of stakeholders in the pursuit of sustainable and regenerative business models cannot be overstated. This article addresses the various perspectives of stakeholders, including investors, employees, consumers, and the community, in the context of corporate sustainability. We investigate how different viewpoints influence board choices and the route to a more sustainable future.

Investor perspectives

Investors have become increasingly attuned to sustainability performance as a risk and value proposition. Mainstream research supports this trend:

  • According to a new survey done by the Sustainable Investment Forum (SIF), sustainable investments are growing at an astounding rate. Sustainable investments will account for 40% of total assets under management globally by the end of 2022, totaling an astonishing $54.8 trillion. This significant capital allocation emphasises the growing relevance of sustainability in the investment landscape.
  • The ESG Analytics Institute conducted another major research study that revealed the financial ramifications of ESG integration. Companies with strong ESG practises outperformed their peers with lower ESG ratings, producing a compelling 6.2% annualised return over the global market index. This study supports the notion that sustainable business practises not only reduce hazards but also lead to greater financial success.

Investors now consider sustainability to be an important aspect in determining a company's long-term success. Boards must recognise that meeting investor expectations can improve access to finance and boost stock performance.

Employee perspectives

Employees are increasingly seeking purpose and alignment with their values in their workplaces:

  • A Deloitte survey found that 64% of millennials and 75% of Gen Z workers prefer to work for organizations that contribute to societal and environmental goals.

Board leadership is critical in developing a workplace culture that promotes sustainability. Employees that are engaged and committed to a company's sustainability aims can generate innovation and improve brand perception.

Customer perspectives

Consumers are exercising their purchasing power to support sustainable brands:

  • A Nielsen survey indicated that 66% of respondents are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

Board decisions to implement sustainable practises might result in improved brand loyalty and market share. Sustainability is more than just a cost; it's an opportunity to engage with environmentally conscientious customers.

Community perspectives

Local communities increasingly expect corporations to be responsible neighbours:

  • Community backlash against environmentally harmful practices can result in reputational damage and legal challenges.

Boards must take into account community interests and ensure that their sustainability initiatives are in line with the well-being of the communities in which they operate. In other words, they have to be engaged with the communities that they operate in. 

Influence on board decisions

Stakeholder perspectives wield significant influence over board decisions:

  • Boards must manage the demands of investors looking for financial returns, workers looking for meaningful employment, customers looking for ethical products, and communities looking for responsible corporate behaviour.
  • Failure to address stakeholder complaints can result in reputational harm, legal ramifications, and a loss of trust, all of which can have serious financial consequences.

Stakeholder perspectives are no longer secondary, but rather essential to business sustainability. These voices must be heard by board leadership, who must recognise that sustainability is about more than simply profits, but also about the well-being of investors, employees, consumers, and communities. Adopting these viewpoints can lead to a more sustainable, regenerative future that benefits all.

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) framework

The adoption of a holistic Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) framework emerges as a critical compass as board leadership navigates the challenging terrain of sustainability and regenerative business models. This opinion highlights the crucial importance of embracing a complete ESG framework, emphasising its ability to transcend environmental considerations and embrace critical social and governance components.

Significance of a holistic ESG framework

A holistic ESG framework is pivotal for several reasons:

  • Risk Mitigation: ESG factors are instrumental in identifying and mitigating risks. Neglecting social or governance aspects can lead to unaddressed vulnerabilities that might threaten a company's long-term sustainability.
  • Resilience: An integrated ESG framework fosters resilience by ensuring that a company is prepared to face a variety of problems, such as environmental catastrophes, societal unrest, and governance errors.
  • Long-Term Value: ESG performance is becoming increasingly inextricably tied to long-term financial value. Sustainability and ethical governance are recognised by investors, consumers, and stakeholders as contributing factors to a company's long-term viability and profitability.

Beyond environmental considerations

While the environmental dimension of ESG remains vital, a holistic framework extends beyond this aspect:

  • Social dimensions: This component covers a wide range of issues, including labour practises, diversity and inclusion, community engagement, and human rights. Socially responsible practises are no longer optional; they are required for long-term board leadership.
  • Governance dimensions: Governance principles provide the foundation of a company's ethical position. At all levels, board leadership must prioritise transparency, accountability, and ethical behaviour. Shareholders are increasingly demanding governance practises that are consistent with long-term goals.

ESG is not a siloed checklist; it's an interconnected ecosystem where each element influences the others. For example, poor governance can lead to environmental neglect, which, in turn, can impact social well-being. Conversely, ethical governance can drive positive social impacts and environmental stewardship.

Impact on sustainable board leadership

The adoption of a holistic ESG framework profoundly influences sustainable board leadership:

  • Balanced decision-making: ESG-guided boards make balanced decisions that evaluate not only financial outcomes but also societal and environmental impacts.
  • Alignment with stakeholder expectations: Companies are increasingly expected to embrace ESG ideals by investors, employees, customers, and communities. Trust and reputation are enhanced when board leadership coincides with these expectations.
  • Resilient organizations: Organisations with ESG-informed boards are more resilient, and able to endure unanticipated shocks while remaining committed to sustainable goals.

A thorough ESG framework is more than a compliance checkbox; it is a strategic need for long-term board leadership. It helps organisations succeed in a fast changing world by guiding decision-making, aligning with stakeholder expectations, and fortifying them. Board leadership that adopts this approach is not only forward-thinking but also plays an important role in crafting a regenerative future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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