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Sustainable development: trends and contemporary case studies

Posted on: February 13, 2023
Gloved hands fitting solar panels

Between a wealth of competing constraints in the present – including looming global economic stagnation, climate change and building back from the pandemic – and an uncertain future on the horizon, many investors have, understandably, shifted to adopt a more risk-averse stance.

Against a backdrop of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement and the critical requirement to safeguard the longevity of investments, the savviest funds are being spent with businesses who evidence solid environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials and ambitions.

In response, companies across the world are examining their business models, operations, processes and plans in a bid to push sustainability up the agenda. For 21st-century business leaders and entrepreneurs, a renewed focus on public health, preservation of the natural environment, social responsibility and building towards a shared, sustainable future is paramount – a focus which boosts, rather than impedes, the bottom line.

Sustainability trends for 2022 and beyond

Many organisations are already making substantial headway in their efforts to address sustainability issues in their sectors. However, with so much at stake – and numerous areas and interventions that could be addressed – where should leaders start?

The SustainAbility Institute’s 2022 Trends Report highlights 10 key areas of particular growth:

  • Integrating ESG: regulations; sustainability criteria; development of comparable and consistent frameworks; establishing ESG functions within businesses; linking executive compensation to ESG performance.
  • Valuing human capital: flexible working opportunities; investing in employee mental health and wellbeing; examination of company culture, values, vision and direction and connect work with purpose; empowering employees; professional development; enhanced human capital disclosures regarding work practices; regulatory requirements.
  • Responding to climate change: setting climate goals and commitments – such as net zero; end and reverse deforestation; reduction of greenhouse gases; commitment from financial institutions; climate justice efforts; climate risk disclosures; renewable energy sources.
  • Safeguarding natural systems: biodiversity targets and frameworks; climate-resilient, regenerative agriculture; fighting deforestation; nature-related disclosures.
  • Building sustainable and resilient supply chains: inclusive and fair procurement; targets to reduce value chain emissions; addressing human rights – such as modern slavery; safety and community issues; localisation of supply chains; ‘bridging’ and ‘buffering’; setting standards; industry-wide partnerships and initiatives; transparency and disclosure.
  • Enabling sustainable consumption and production: circular economy and business models; low resource-use strategies; sustainable, recyclable and recycled products; investment in green projects to offset environmental impacts; plastic reduction; tougher regulations; adding carbon footprint labels to products; reuse, resale and repair culture.
  • Applying technology to sustainability: bridging the ‘digital divide’; upgrading infrastructure; data and technology-tracked sustainability performance; blockchain technologies and artificial intelligence (AI); improve energy efficiency in production, transportation and consumption; shape more sustainable lifestyles.
  • Protecting fundamental rights: develop more-inclusive workplaces; transparency and disclosure around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practices; reduce and remove barriers to access; regulations for human rights and due diligence.
  • Shaping policy, regulations and norms: sustainability-focused regulations and legislation; lobbying policymakers; development of new business models; CEO and business-led influence; advocacy, policy development and engagement; leverage economic influence on government action; investment in sustainability-focused collaborations.
  • Moving towards stakeholder capitalism: ESG-focused and purpose-driven business; authenticity and transparency; internal roles and functions that deliver stakeholder capitalism principles; response to stakeholder needs.

There are clearly widespread sustainable solutions for companies to invest in and explore. With big decisions to make, McKinsey & Company suggest leaders guide organisational redesign of sustainability work around sustainability topics – rather than sustainability overall – find a structure that suits both sustainability and business agendas, and prioritise processes and governance. Whatever approach is taken, ensuring sustainability efforts are in line with the Three Es – economy, ecology and equity – is key.

Case studies in sustainability

Let’s look at three examples of how businesses – and nations – are taking meaningful action to reduce environmental impact, champion human rights, and pave the way for a more sustainable future for all:

Transportation and logistics behemoth, UPS, have re-engineered their business practices to address greenhouse gas emissions. In order to cut emissions and increase transportation and fuel efficiency, UPS harnessed AI technology. The system, ORION, optimises routes that vehicles use during deliveries, saving UPS 10 million gallons of fuel per year, reducing their carbon footprint by 100,000 metric tonnes per year, and delivers the equivalent of removing more than 20,000 cars from the roads.

Costa Rica is one country leading the way in switching to renewable energy sources – with 98% of its electricity produced from renewable sources for over seven consecutive years. Their combination of solar power, biomass, geothermal, hydro and wind power has meant that, in some years, they have also exported excess power generated to other countries. Other notable countries in the renewable energy space include Sweden, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Uruguay, Denmark, China, Morocco, New Zealand and Norway.

Sustainable tourism is gaining momentum in its bid to counteract environmental issues and support local communities. This September, World Tourism Day 2022 was held in Bali, Indonesia – a fitting location as Indonesia has not only signed the Glasgow Declaration, but is also the first ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) country to commit to Net Zero Emission in the tourism sector. Tetebatu Village in West Nusa Tenggara Province, for example, is involved in community-based tourism that safeguards the local environment, traditions and heritage, as well as mentoring and empowering its local population. Indonesia has numerous other sustainability initiatives in action, including reducing carbon emissions in coffee production by changing agricultural and processing activities and planting trees, helping to protect the local economy and provide jobs.

Integrate the learnings from contemporary sustainability case studies in your business practice

Are you passionate about environmental management and environmental sustainability? Want to prioritise responsible, inclusive and ethical approaches in your role as a senior leader?

Use your skills to design and drive sustainability and ESG initiatives with Keele University’s online MSc Management with Sustainability programme. With flexible study to suit you, you’ll develop your skill set and knowledge across sustainability-focused and broader leadership and management capacities – and learn how to apply them to real-life strategy, decision-making and problem-solving scenarios. Through specialist modules, you’ll explore operations and supply chain management, green finance, managing people and organisations, strategic marketing, and more.

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