By Alex Evans, Editorial Director, National Business Awards

A roundtable debate on what businesses have learnt from embedding sustainability in their organisations, organised by ICAEW in partnership with the National Business Awards, brought together a mix of sustainability champions and pioneers to talk about where we are now, where we want to be, and the challenges and opportunities to get there.

Led by ICAEW chief executive Michael Izza, the panel included several finalists of this year’s ICAEW Sustainability & CSR Award alongside some thought-leaders on sustainability in business. Michael kicked off the debate by asking whether businesses had bought into sustainability and what the key drivers were.

“We realised that it was being driven by the supply base, with around 40% of questions asked by clients relating to sustainability,” said finalist Simone Hindmarch-Bye, Co-founder of office supplies company Commercial, who has spearheaded sustainability throughout her organisation. “We’re not a global player but we do compete with global players and we became acutely aware that we needed a survival strategy in a market that was declining by 30%. Our measures helped us to grow by substantially more.”

“What’s changing business attitudes is a better understanding of what sustainability is really about,” said Carmel McQuaid, Climate Change Manager at Marks & Spencers. “It’s about brand differentiation to customers; and it’s about greater efficiencies. M&S’s Plan A delivered £50m to the bottom line. It’s about employee engagement and motivation.”

Some big businesses have started to see some substantial bottom line benefits, but a lot of smaller firms have put it on the back-burner during the recession. “During tough times there is an even greater need to look at sustainability — not only as a point of difference but as a way to build long term strength,” said Nita Clarke, a director of Involvement & Participation Association (IPA) - which gives guidance and support to companies on industrial relations.

Isn’t everyone doing it?

Nonetheless, while the panel agreed that more businesses had bought into sustainability, chair Michael Izza asked whether it was still seen as a Unique Selling Point (USP).

“With around 10,000 recruitment companies in the UK, it has helped us to present a different tone of voice,” said Gavin Megnauth, Operations Director and Head of CSR for recruitment company Morgan Hunt, while Hindmarch-Bye added it was her company’s ‘biggest differentiator and part the culture of the business.

Picking up on this last comment, Clarke Nita Clarke said that a commitment to sustainability must be authentic because green-washing had the potential to severely damage corporate reputations.

To read a full review of the roundtable, visit www.nationalbusinessawards.co.uk now.

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