Josh Matthews

Sustainability Services: Why is “making sustainability native” critical to businesses and governments?

Successful trends follow similar paths: first, they’re a competitive advantage for early-adopters—then they become native to everyone who stays in the game. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a forced shift to digital; companies and individuals are learning what digital transformation really means and what “making digital native” looks like. The same will happen to sustainability—in all its forms from environmental, to social, to financial. Sustainability must become native to all businesses and government policy globally—as a part of every decision—from the leadership team to the shop floor.

Sustainability services will be instrumental in making the changes we know we have to make.

I’ll define sustainability service providers broadly as any firm providing services (shock) that can help clients with all things sustainability through strategy consulting, design, implementation, managed services, technical consulting, and technology: think Accenture, IBM, McKinsey, Google Cloud, all their competitors, and all the niche players that might provide “boutique” consulting or technology. Of course, these firms provide a massive range of services and technology, but we’re seeing sustainability find its way into their portfolios in a variety of ways.

Sustainability must be woven end-to-end throughout operations, ecosystems, and policies.

Sustainability service providers hold the keys to what you could call sustainable transformation—and so do the partners they bring to the solutions table; however, for now, the sustainability services ecosystem is fragmented, undefined, and poorly understood.

Many service providers are starting to develop their sustainability capabilities and embed it in their portfolios. They’re also coming up with new ways of measuring value; check out Accenture’s 360-degree value efforts (and broader services) to measure impact internally (its own corporate social responsibility [CSR]) and in all its work with clients (whether they specifically asked for sustainability services or not).

The technology these service providers bring to life in delivering sustainability will also be instrumental. That’s not individual technologies like a one-off artificial intelligence (AI) project—it’s the combination of technologies, for example, automation, analytics, and AI working in partnership underpinned by cloud and enterprise management platforms—and then add on internet of things (IoT), blockchain, 5G, Edge computing, quantum computing, and a lot more as required. Through these combinations, anticipatory insights can help to optimize operations, reduce emissions, and inform decision making around multiple key performance indicators (KPIs), including sustainability. Digital infrastructure can also be designed with sustainability in mind, for example, sourcing renewable energy for cloud storage and processes, or migrating away from inefficient, energy-intensive datacentres.

Customers and employees will demand sustainability: we’re already seeing it in the customers’ demands for sustainable products and employees’ demands for their employers to think beyond shareholder value. Modern slavery in supply chains is one example that Tony’s Chocolate recently campaigned on. Sustainability is becoming native to the next generation, but existing leadership needs to champion it for now: CEOs and CFOs in particular. Of course, sustainability is beyond the efforts of a few—but it needs respected champions to trigger cultural shifts and put the money behind it. There needs to be a strategy for sustainability—but it can’t stand alone. Bring sustainability into every decision—from the shop floor to the global supply chain and finance. It must flow from the top down and the bottom up.

Service providers—across strategy and design, implementation, and continuous improvement—have a pivotal role in addressing all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainability and the climate crisis will dominate business and policy decisions for decades. One way or another, businesses and governments need to make sustainability native to the core of everything they do; their customers, regulators, and voters, will force them to change. Strategy, operations, and innovation must be sustainable, or businesses will become obsolete, and governments ousted—no matter how much time they buy themselves by lobbying, achieving short-term wins, or simply committing funds to fix the damage their current actions cause.

To make sustainability native, businesses and governments must embed it end-to-end. Service providers can do this and be the defining factor in transforming business and policymaking. Despite recent waves of activity, the sustainability services ecosystem remains fragmented and poorly understood.

Josh Matthews is Chair of ALDES (the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists), a Cambridge City Councillor and Climate Change Spokesperson, and an analyst at HFS Research.