Sustainability, ensuring the future of life on Earth, is an infinite game, the endless expression of generosity on behalf of all. ~ Paul Hawken

For nearly a decade, Team CauseBecause has been propagating the ‘people’ and ‘planet’ aspects of sustainability amongst Indian corporate houses that have sort of mastered the profit aspect of business.

This writer has, in the last two years or so, engaged in one-on-one interviews, telecons, insightful conversations and light-hearted tête-à-têtes with sustainability and responsibility decision-makers at large corporate houses (see names toward the end of this article) in India. During these discussions, the writer collated their views on what efforts they were making, approaches used, and programmes implemented as well as the big and small decisions they took to make their company fare better on the sustainability index.

Here we share the gist of the conversations in terms of the common thoughts, ideas and practices that emerge – and thereby also get a broad overview of the dynamics that are shaping this domain.

The common and constant refrains

Right intent but ambiguous plans

One common aspect amongst all leaders – whether they are spearheading mining companies, FMCG and food processing giants, automobile entities, or fashion brands – is a desire to improve the sustainability performance of their respective organisations. However, most of them do not have enough sustainability content and information available and have not been able to answer our queries with regard to future targets. The ones who do have some targets do not have a structured strategy or long-term action plan to share.

Holistic problem?

Most of us will agree that ‘sustainability’ as a concept is yet to be decoded in the Indian context. Most sustainability leaders we spoke to have developed unique skills of their own to implement sustainability solutions. While some professionals heading large corporate groups (with stakes in almost every kind of business) will impress you with their knowledge of subjects like green building certifications, efficient lighting, solar and other renewable energies, some others at comparatively small companies seem to have mastered the talk about recycling, reusing and reducing waste, water efficiency, etc. The ones in the services sector seem to have excellent understanding of green jobs, carbon accounting, green finance, green skills and so on.

Only a handful of companies have a holistic suitability model on paper. Nevertheless, their execution plans sound challenging, if not impossible.

Interestingly, when some leaders were quizzed about ‘their understanding of a holistic approach to sustainable projects’, they agreed that while that was the need, the Indian industry (read business owners/shareholders with controlling powers) was not necessarily at that level of maturity. A holistic sustainability approach with long-term outcomes is difficult to explain in a 10–15 minutes window with our CEO who prefers 5-slide presentations, an experienced CSR leader at one of the country’s largest consumer goods companies had told this writer on the condition of anonymity.

At this point, after the interactions as well as looking at the sustainability reports of major companies, it would not be wrong to say that many of the Indian companies’ approach to sustainability unfolds in fragments – they tend to practise it in a focused way, usually on narrowly scoped projects or programmes that are woven around their technical speciality. When you go to a sustainability-focused event in India, you see a roomful of ‘green leaders’ engaged in a sustainability project linked to their own or their businesses’ speciality – they fail to achieve a holistic sustainable solution that can make their company/brand a truly sustainable one. Fact is, none in India can confidently boast of being a sustainable brand. The ones who do so in their reports are yet to answer some of the simple questions that CauseBecause has sent them in the last couple of years.

The case of missing indices

This writer also scanned the sustainability reports (44 organisations from India filed GRI G4 reports in 2017 – see all reports here) of all who published them last year. In all of the reports, a promising vision has been articulated and some fresh and innovative strategies have been discussed with half-heartedly narrated implementation plans. In most of the reports, impact-measurement indices are limited to a particular strategy; the planner of the strategy missed out on the holistic impact or outcomes that would make the whole business actually ‘sustainable’ – the larger picture or the outcomes (even if hypothetical) do not really match the well-articulated vision in most reports.

Anyway, when the same was pointed out to some leaders, they agreed that this was one of the major challenges. While the need is for larger scalable plans, their linear approaches are falling short. Off the record, most sustainability and CSR heads also agreed that they feared any unintended consequence of their board of directors being in denial or being short-sighted with regard to sustainability issues.

Who can connect all the dots?

To move towards a holistic approach, sustainability leaders at this point need an outside eye that can give them a bird’s eye-view of their sustainability practices. There’s a need of the outsider who can draw linkages between sustainable manufacturing and sustainable packaging and sustainable supply chain and ethical promotional and HR practices and meaningful corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes and superior governance. A generalist—not a specialist—can help organisations build their ‘inner sustainability culture’ – an environment where capacities and ideas from different domains are welcomed and a balance is struck regardless of competing interests and opinions.

Bookkeeping in fashion

The lack of holistic approaches (read fundamental understanding of the meaning of sustainability) has brought us to the point of ‘sustainability bookkeeping’, an exercise being done by accountants.

Rather than recognising that all human activities have an impact and taking responsibility for them, sustainability bookkeepers use a limited set of performance indicators that can obscure the real issues. Competing organisations in any sphere, from retail stores to car manufacturers to telecom companies, vie to be more ‘sustainable’ than the other. Social media discussions, Tweetathons about sustainable leadership, or conferences on how to ‘leverage’ sustainability in businesses are now a common sight and are apparently being hosted or organised mostly by ‘business’ consultancies and event companies. However, come to think of it, if one understands the real meaning of sustainability, all of this is utter baloney.

CSR is good, but it is just one pillar of sustainability

In the Indian context, CSR has a different, relatively skewed and a legal meaning, and is being executed quite well by India Inc. (CauseBecause is doing another story on India Inc.’s three years of mandatory CSR, and initial updates from companies’ performances are quite encouraging). Yes, it has its own significant role towards making a business sustainable, but it alone cannot shoulder the company’s unsustainable deeds.

Let’s define sustainability again

Sustainability as defined in the Oxford Dictionary is ‘the property of being sustainable’.  I checked ‘sustainable’ too. It means ‘to be capable of enduring’. So, a sustainable business will mean a business that is capable of outliving us all, while an unsustainable business will someday cease to exist—in any case, it will not exist in its current form.

In simple terms, it will not be wrong to say that a leader who fails to lead a business sustainably will sooner or later bring about its demise. Hence, the only variable to define a ‘sustainability timeline’ is how long the organisation can survive or sustain.

Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability as per the Oxford Dictionary is defined as ‘the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintain or continues while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources’. Hence, environmental sustainability means a continuous system or cyclic activity that maintains an ecological balance. Holding on to this thought, will you not wonder how companies that manufacture products, build infrastructures, or provide services by utilising natural resources (that are rapidly depleting and will be ‘exhausted’ some day) still claim to be sustainable?

All sustainability leaders must understand that sustainability is inherent to the system or activity – it surely cannot be added afterwards through political or corporate leadership.

Sustainable development

While we were yet to come to terms with the real meaning of sustainability, the Brundtland Commission made lives more difficult. It provided a definition of sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  It went on to define ‘needs’ specifically in terms of prioritising the essential needs of the world’s poor.  This was a body blow to business leaders for whom development had become synonymous with economic growth. So, now they use sustainability bookkeeping to convince commoners that sustainability can be achieved through economic progress alone.

Writer’s thoughts…

In one of my sustainability-focused talks with the CEO of one of the largest automotive OEMs, she said: at this growth rate in the industry, ours will be one of the richest companies in this business space…’ Can this growth be called sustainable? I asked. She thought for a while and said: I think it will be, but frankly I need to go back and look at the investments that are yet to be made on the sustainability front. I am yet to get a figure form the respective department. I refrained from asking another question about how did they even create a separate budget for sustainability – wasn’t that supposed to be the way to do business?

I did tell her that contrary to popular belief, sustainable companies were not the ones who focused solely on some programmes finding solutions for the doom and gloom around their business and stakeholders. They are in fact the ones with a positive and empowered view of the future. They focus on innovation, improvement, and furthering knowledge and understanding of sustainable ways of doing ‘business’. They are the companies that understand that the business of business is not solely making profits and multiplying its capital…  While I was at it, she intervened saying, I know what you mean, therefore I admire Google… Our talk concluded with an anecdote about her experience with one of those quick-nap couches at the Google office in America, and I did not bother to question more.

At this point in time, businesses have to understand that in order to sustain our communities and our environment, they will have to do with ‘less’ of everything. This will mean this: less usage of natural resources, creating less demand for their own products, which in turn will mean less advertising, less sales and less production of whatever they produce. And yes, this will mean less money for the shareholders too.

This writer interacted with relevant representatives of the following companies (in alphabetical order)  in the last couple of years.

  1. Adani Group
  2. Aditya Birla Group
  3. Amul
  4. Apollo Tyres
  5. Avantha Group
  6. Axis Bank
  7. Ballarpur Industries Limited
  8. Bharti Airtel
  9. Biocon
  10. Bombay Dyeing
  11. Café Coffee Day
  12. Cosmos Group
  13. Dabur
  14. Delhi Metro
  15. DLF
  16. Reddy’s Laboratories
  17. Eicher Motors
  18. Fortis Healthcare
  19. Finolex Industries
  20. Future Group
  21. GAIL
  22. Godrej Group
  23. Haldiram’s
  24. HCL
  25. HDFC Bank
  26. Hero MotoCorp
  27. ICICI Bank
  28. Idea Cellular
  29. Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS)
  30. India Cements
  31. Indiabulls
  32. IndiGo
  33. IndusInd Bank
  34. Infosys
  35. ITC
  36. Jindal Steel and Power
  37. JK Tyre
  38. JSW Ispat Steel
  39. JSW Steel Ltd
  40. Jubilant FoodWorks
  41. Kotak Mahindra Bank
  42. K Raheja Corp
  43. Larsen & Toubro
  44. Liberty Shoes
  45. Mahanagar Telephone Nigam (MTNL)
  46. Mahindra & Mahindra
  47. Marico
  48. Maruti Suzuki
  49. Mindtree
  50. MMTC
  51. MoserBaer
  52. Mphasis
  53. Muthoot
  54. NTPC Limited
  55. NBC Bearings
  56. NIIT
  57. Panasonic
  58. Pantaloons Fashion & Retail
  59. Parle Agro
  60. Piramal Enterprises
  61. Power Finance Corporation
  62. Raymond Group
  63. Reliance Industries (Inputs from Reliance Foundation)
  64. RPG Group
  65. Shoppers Stop
  66. Shriram Group
  67. State Bank of India
  68. Sun Pharmaceutical
  69. Suzlon
  70. Tata Consultancy Services
  71. Tata Global Beverages
  72. Tata Motors
  73. Tata Steel
  74. Tech Mahindra
  75. The Times Group (Times CSR division)
  76. Toyota Kirloskar Motors
  77. TVS Motor Company
  78. UltraTech Cement
  79. Vedanta Limited
  80. Wipro
  81. Yes Bank