News | 20th February 2020

Going “All In” on corporate sustainability leadership

By David Grayson

All In: The Future of Business Leadership presents a roadmap for global businesses who have yet to embed sustainability into their corporate strategies.

Written by three leading thinkers in the field of sustainability – David Grayson, Mark Lee and Chris Coulter – the book is based on two decades of GlobeScan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey research, as well as more than 40 interviews with CEOs and CSOs from recognized sustainability leaders such as Unilever, Patagonia and Interface. At the centre of the book is a framework of five interlinked leadership attributes that help business executives cultivate a sustainability mindset:

  • Purpose: Why a company does what it does – the organizing idea for why the business exists;
  • Plan: What the business does and what it aspires to do as an organization;
  • Culture: How things are done within the business;
  • Collaboration: Who the company works with in other businesses and other sectors of society to be more effective; and
  • Advocacy: Where the company uses the authority of the business to encourage others to act to advance social justice and sustainable development.

All In argues that this sustainability mindset will be crucial to future commercial success, as well as essential in protecting society’s collective future. Thirty strategic and practical actions span across the five leadership attributes, so that any business can easily develop their own roadmap to world class corporate sustainability leadership.

The Future-Fit Business Benchmark complements the All In framework by providing concrete suggestions and answers for ways in which to achieve the strategic actions laid out in the thirty-point plan. The Benchmark is particularly relevant for the elements of Purpose and Plan.

An ever-growing range of companies today are claiming to be purpose-driven or purposeful, but what does that really mean? The Purpose of a company is the foundational element or the “North Star” that should be used as a decision-making framework to consistently drive positive impacts. The Benchmark can help companies ensure that their corporate purpose is both ambitious and authentic by identifying all the ways in which a company can help to speed up society’s transition to a truly sustainable society through the Positive Pursuits. If a company cannot draw a clear link between its purpose and any of the Positive Pursuits, it probably isn’t the force for good it may believe it is. Conversely, the Break-Even Goals identify all the things a company must do to ensure it is not slowing down our collective progress. If a company isn’t paying attention to these critical issues, it may be undermining the authenticity of its positive impacts. All In also suggests that a company’s Purpose should align with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Benchmark is explicitly aligned with the SDGs, so any company that orientates its Purpose around the Benchmark can credibly claim that its existence is not undermining, but rather contributing to, progress toward the global goals.

The Benchmark can also be used to complement the Plan aspect of the five-part framework. All In suggests that every company should develop a “comprehensive Plan for its full value chain including timebound goals, metrics and science-based targets plus rigorous measurement and reporting systems”. At its very essence, the Break-Even Goals fulfil these requirements. First, because the Benchmark is grounded in systems science, pursuing the Break-Even Goals enables a company to ensure it is in no way undermining the social fabric and natural systems that our shared future depends on. Second, the suite of 23 goals specifically covers every aspect of a company’s value web – from suppliers and operations, to products and wider society – so no element is left unaccounted for. Finally, each Break-Even goal has an accompanying “Progress Indicator”, a simple percentage that reflects progress, allowing for both quantitative and qualitative data to be collected and communicated in a credible, comparable and concise way. These Progress Indicators, in turn, make it easy to create a rigorous, yet straight forward, reporting template for extra-financial information so that any company can clearly communicate their performance to interested stakeholders, such as shareholders or investors.

For companies to go All In on sustainability, they are going to need actionable and defined guidance to supplement the leadership attribute framework. This is offered by the Future-Fit Business Benchmark, which can provide a guiding light for companies who are unsure where to start when beginning to tackle corporate sustainability.

To learn more about the five core leadership attributes of a sustainability mindset, you can read the open-access introduction to All In here.

David Grayson

David is Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management.