Numbers aren’t enough – why connecting to nature is key to success
By Tamara Withers
Senior Corporate Sustainability Manager at EWS WWF
Corporate sustainability in the United Arab Emirates is the opposite of nations like the United States, where business is leading on sustainability issues. Here in the UAE, it’s the government driving sustainability with the private sector lagging.
While the government is actively leading the charge towards a sustainable future here, the private sector must enact a series of vital steps to reconfigure its standing on the sustainability spectrum and keep pace with national ambitions. Urgent transformations are therefore required if businesses here are to succeed in a rapidly changing corporate sustainability landscape.
This requires an understanding of the sustainability spectrum: a linear trajectory, moving from low to high corporate sustainability engagement. The spectrum model is used to benchmark where a business currently sits on this journey towards greater levels of sustainability.
On the left side (low sustainability), we see philanthropy and piecemeal CSR, indicating an interest in sustainability, but with low levels of long-term engagement. As a company moves further along to the right side (high sustainability), we see strategic initiatives and long-term strategies embedding sustainability thinking into an organisation’s core business activity. Here, sustainability is no longer a stand-alone effort but rather is incorporated into job functions and into decision-making.
While it appears that most private businesses in the UAE are still at the low philanthropy and piecemeal CSR end of the spectrum, a few of the more established companies are currently sitting further along the spectrum. What’s interesting is that there are a handful of international businesses that are known to be leading on sustainability globally – with strong targets addressing supply chain and climate risks, for example – that are not demonstrating the same commitments locally.
Furthermore, we often see that CSR is weakly implemented in the UAE, with a limited understanding of sustainability as a practice being demonstrated. For example, ‘hit and run’ initiatives such as beach cleanups or tree planting rather than strategic and long-term commitments such as NGO partnerships are a common occurrence.
For a business seeking to achieve higher levels of sustainability, it is not necessary to include every step of the sustainability spectrum into their actions, however we must see the inclusion of many of the core elements in a sustainability strategy.
Following a full assessment from a sustainability consultant, businesses should seek to incorporate core elements including targets to reduce waste, energy, water – extending to the supply chain; collection of data, data transparency, and benchmarking; the development of innovative products and services related to sustainability; a strong assessment of environmental risks throughout the supply chain and a plan to address them.
Additionally, there should be an employee engagement programme with measurable impacts, and the embedding of sustainability objectives into training and employee KPIs, allowing a corporate culture of sustainability to thrive. And finally, engagement in the community to support pertinent community initiatives and partnerships with relevant stakeholders.
The business case for corporate sustainability is often not enough to ensure necessary action. Ultimately, developing an understanding of the issues and connecting to nature on a personal level is needed to drive decisions in favour of long-term corporate sustainability; economically, socially and environmentally.
Businesses seeking out quick wins and short-term projects may create a onetime PR buzz for the company, but as the government progresses further with its ambitious plans for a sustainable future, we will see greater need for a genuine approach to the sustainability cause, with higher levels of understanding and engagement. Indeed, we are already seeing several companies taking the lead and progressing along the sustainability spectrum in the UAE, moving more in line with the government's ambitions and companies in countries like the US.
In the not too distant future, we can expect to see a challenging situation for many companies here that fail to take this issue seriously. As history has demonstrated elsewhere, those who take the long-term strategic view today, will be significantly better positioned to thrive in the corporate sustainability landscape of tomorrow.