Over the past 20 years, David Grayson has seen the same companies forming the ESG mainstay, but now sees positive signs of awareness and commitments taking root in organisations

I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of COP26 in Glasgow. The Financial Times seemed to sum up the consensus:  “COP26 has achieved more than expected but less than hoped. More ambitious climate plans are vital at the next conference a year from now.”

Whilst the FT analysis is primarily based on the inter-governmental agreement, we might also apply the words to business and investors, too.

Glasgow saw some exciting new business-to-business collaborations as well as further cross-sectoral partnerships. There are though, still only just over 1,000 companies with science-based climate targets according to the Science Based Targets initiative.  And whilst the climate emergency is one of the existential challenges facing humanity, the Covid-19 pandemic has reminded us also of the systemic risks to business and society from hyper-global inequalities too.

These global threats need systemic action by governments, regional bodies and the international institutions. They also, however, need the mass of businesses – not just the few hundred leaders who have been the mainstay of responsible business coalitions and who have been featured in Ethical Corporation magazine and conferences over the past 20 years.

A sustainable culture is one which engages and empowers employees; is open and receptive; ethical and responsible; and transparent and accountable

The challenge for the next decade is to get the mass of businesses to embed sustainability as “the way we do business”. Businesses in global value chains; family business aspiring to be long-term stewards; entrepreneurs wanting to find profitable solutions to the problems of planet and people and not to profit from doing harm; and managers in multinational businesses grappling with the challenges of translating global sustainability commitments and strategy into their operations and practice.

There are some positive signs. This year, at the Cranfield School of Management, we asked our executive MBA students – men and women already often holding significant managerial accountabilities in their organisations – to interview the most senior person they could get to in their organisation with a series of recommended questions about the employer’s approach to sustainability.

I’ve read reports from more than 150 individual students this year, covering four of our exec MBA cohorts. I have been struck by the repeated references to organisations appointing their first ever chief sustainability officer or head of sustainability; and to how their organisation is pulling together previously disparate projects and initiatives into a more coherent and ambitious overall strategy.

The pandemic has highlighted the risks of global inequalities. (Credit: Arko Datta/Reuters)

Similarly, we read of major consultancies announcing dramatic expansion of their ESG practices. Personally, I welcome the boldness of traditional corporate responsibility coalitions such as CSR Europe calling on sustainability leaders to build the capacity of their sector and the trade associations in their sector around sustainability. I am also excited by the increasingly comprehensive coverage of sector-based initiatives and coalitions on specific issues of responsible and sustainable business from health and wellbeing to fighting corruption and paying the living wage.

For me, this has to be the future focus: getting the mass of businesses engaged. The business case for embedding sustainability is now made. The mass of businesses need to start pulling together, what at best now may be current, isolated activities and strands into a comprehensive sustainability strategy – which, in turn, requires identifying the business’s most material impacts and then having operational plans to put the strategy into action. They will find this easier if they have clarity of purpose and crucially the culture of the business can make it easier or harder to achieve success. A sustainable culture is one which engages and empowers employees; is open and receptive; ethical and responsible; and transparent and accountable.

Such a sustainable culture relies on good communications, engaging (not just managing) stakeholders and regular disclosure of material data and performance. In order to achieve ambitious goals for sustainability, businesses of all sizes need to be able to work in relevant, impactful partnerships, which in turn means having a partnering mindset and skillset for collaboration.

The onus is on all those of us, who believe in the positive impact that businesses at their best can have, to improve our own collaborations and ways of working

Leading companies on sustainability are increasingly magnifying their efforts by advocacy,  encouraging other businesses to become more sustainable too and working for system change to create an enabling environment that promotes sustainable development. In individual businesses, it needs effective governance: the role of the board is critical, as is leadership at all levels of a business from front-line supervisors to CEO/C-suite. This is the playbook for effective embedding of sustainability today.

Unlike 20 years ago, when Toby Webb and colleagues started Ethical Corporation, we know today, far better what businesses need to do. The onus is on all those of us, who believe in the positive impact that businesses at their best can have, to improve our own collaborations and ways of working, in order to get many more businesses successfully on their sustainability journeys. Luckily, we have the example of the early adopters to point to and the passion and interest of Generation Z to harness, in support of this mass mobilisation of business.

David Grayson CBE has been a regular speaker and moderator at Responsible Business Summits over many years, as well as a frequent contributor to Ethical Corporation magazine and the Reuters Sustainable Business website. He was a member of the Advisory Board for many years and was the Responsible Business Honoree in 2021.

Credit: Prasit Rodphan/Shutterstock


This article is part of the Winter 2021, and anniversary issue, of The Ethical Corporation. See also:

Celebrating 20 years of Ethical Corporation

Why business journalists need to challenge the ESG orthodoxy

In 20 years, Ethical Corporation hasn’t lost its pioneering spirit

‘Ethical Corporation has been a beacon of light in a sea of CSR dross’

Slim Pickens and wooden water pipes: Tales from a U.S. sustainability consultancy

‘By 2041, I suspect most major brands of today will be unknown’

To fight greenwash, brands need to become advocates for change

Nine business trends that will power us to a more sustainable future

Why nature is the secret, under-priced sauce of the global economy

‘As climate change takes an increasing toll, it will be a case of adapt or die’

Hope for achieving the SDGs lies in a new generation about to take over the boardroom



ESG  Cranfield School of Management  business education 

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