Sustainability is going to be the next digital and every business will be a sustainable business.
It’s a bold prediction from Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture, at the ‘virtual Davos’ gathering of the World Economic Forum this week, but one that she reckons the services giant has the forecasting credentials to make with conviction:
Back in 2013, we were the first company to say every business would be a digital business. CIOs argued [about that] and industry said, 'You're crazy!’. Today, we were already headed there, but COVID has made it very clear that technology is a lifeline in every business and you hear that in every discussion.
While it might be feared that the economic impact of the pandemic on so many business sectors worldwide could have caused sustainability to slip down the corporate agenda, the opposite is the case, she says:
As people are re-building, re-platforming in the cloud and investing, there's a huge interest in doing so sustainably. Consumers want it, employees want it. Research that we just did in Europe said that companies who embrace both technology and sustainability are two-and-a-half times more likely to be tomorrow's leaders.
The same research also throws up talent management considerations as it suggests that one out of every two employees states that it matters more to him or her today whether their company has sustainable practices. That leads Sweet to conclude:
This is something that has an economic case and the pandemic, and the collective experience of what the pandemic has done, is really driving different behavior. So I'm very hopeful that when we have this dialog in 2025, we'll be talking about how every business is a sustainable business.
From the sidelines
There is a sustainability commitment within companies, insists Sweet, but she questions whether this is fully understood across the enterprise:
There's not yet linkage with those in the company who truly understand the various sustainability issues and the business runners. For example, in supply chain, you have lots of accelerated investment [going on] in things like data and analytics. You can, when you invest to better run your supply chain, build data sets and algorithms that will allow you to identify human trafficking and child labor. But oftentimes those who care about those things are not the same ones who are making the decisions and...seeing the art of the possible.
What's needed, advocates Sweet, is to embed responsible business into every part of the overall enterprise, adding that Accenture is eating its proverbial own dog food here:
When we are creating new offerings and solving industry problems, we specifically look at, 'Is there a re-scaling opportunity? Is there a sustainability issue? And how would we embed it?'. When we do cost take-out, which is obviously very popular now, we don't just say, 'Here's how you reduce your energy costs'. [We say], 'Here's how you can switch to renewables at the same time'.
My message to companies around the world - and particularly CEOs - is, ‘The only way that we'll do this [shift to sustainability] faster is if you bring [the various] parts of the company together… That's where there's a long way to go and it's one of the reasons we switched our strategy to say, 'We're going to bring the [sustainability] question at least into everything we do’.
The most recent development in Accenture’s sustainability drive is an extension of an existing alliance with Salesforce. As part of this, Salesforce is delivering its Sustainability Cloud offering, built on Salesforce Customer 360, which the firm pitches as providing a 360-degree view of an enterprise’s environmental impact to provide for easier management of carbon footprints, as well as enabling transparent reporting of "investor-grade climate data".
Meanwhile Accenture will offer integration services to tie Sustainability Cloud into corporate business strategies, operating models, technologies and core processes and systems with industry-specific requirements, alongside developing sustainability insights.
Future developments will see an expansion of both platform and services to track and analyse broader ESG (environmental, social and governance) metrics, ranging from water and waste management to diversity & inclusion.
For Sweet, all this is, she says, in part down to a commitment to her two children to address the damage done to the planet, blame for which is firmly ascribed to their mother’s generation. This has led to a resolution to up Accenture’s game, she says:
We've been known as a leader, but we needed to do more. We announced in October that we will have net zero emissions by 2025; we will use 100% renewable energy in our facilities around the world, up from only 26% last year; and then also focus on water, which is an important area that probably doesn't get enough conversation.
Now it’s a case of taking that conversation and others like it to the Accenture client base, she explains:
We work with the world's leading companies and they look to us to help create solutions, so that they themselves can meet their goals. We want to embed responsible business by design, with sustainability as one of the first focus areas, and to do that most effectively we should be doing it with our partners, like Salesforce...bringing technology, the knowledge of companies, and then helping them accelerate their own journey to being a more sustainable client and therefore also being able to bring more sustainable products and services to their own customers.
The biggest challenge here, she admits, is that sustainability is not the core competency of those clients:
A lot of times sustainability has been off to the side. It's part of corporate responsibility or it's just in a portion of the organization. To become more sustainable as a company, you have to have different operating models, you have to have a mindset that's different. That's where this idea that we have a responsible business by design [comes in] and doing it by design means that you actually have to have the leadership mindset as well.
But of course business leaders already have a long ‘to do’ list, one currently made inevitably more complicated by the pandemic. This necessitates a focus on priorities, advises Sweet:
If you prioritise, ‘What's your business area?’ and then you use the lens as you think about re-building of, ‘How do I think about sustainability as a part of the lens?’. So rather than trying to pick [from], ‘Is it sustainability versus inclusion and diversity?’, it’s about taking the priorities of your business and then embedding these things around inclusion, diversity, re-skilling and sustainability into that strategic priority. That is a huge shift for many companies that we're helping with.
What you do is you prioritise the business initiatives, but you do so with these things embedded. So, when we develop our assets and our offerings and we work with partners like Salesforce, it is part of the lens in everything we do now. That was a shift for us, because it's not on the side; it's about how we do business and how we serve our clients.
This has the potential to be a powerful tie-up and one that might set a good example for more vendors to follow. We’ve already seen promising commitments and action plans from others anyway, such as SAP and ServiceNow in recent months alone, as well as from end user companies, such as Bentley Motors and Schneider Electric, but there’s clearly a long way to go.
With that in mind, it’s also to be hoped that the enterprise boardroom influence of Accenture And Salesforce encourages more organizations to ask themselves some deep - perhaps difficult - questions about their priorities at a time when the pandemic and the macro-economic environment around the world have given business leaders more than enough to tackle as we move into a Vaccine Economy.
Sweet’s anecdote about her kids berating her over the fate of the planet they’ll inherit rings all too true. For his part, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, himself a parent to two young children, has openly worn his sustainability credentials with pride over a number of years. As he said this week:
This is so important to me because we've seen so many changes in the world, just in the last year, with weather patterns, with deforestation, with these horrible California wildfires that have been happening here at my home.
Sustainability needs to be a corporate priority for everyone. That’s a big ask for many. For example, in the US, climate change has all too often been dismissed by right-leaning political forces, a self-interested denialism unfortunately encouraged by science-phobic individuals at the very top of government until earlier this month. And in the likes of India and China, there’s a long, long way to go to have this crisis taken seriously by those most guilty of making the situation worse.
In whatever does pass for the cliched ‘new normal’ after COVID passes, one silver lining that might emerge is a realisation of the need to pull together as a global community in times of crisis. In this fond hope, business should take a lead. Benioff this week declared that CEOs had been the heroes of 2020, stepping up to take responsible action where governments had proved dysfunctional. If it can be done to tackle a pandemic, it can be done to save the planet.