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Centre for Building Sustainable Value

The business case for sustainability

  • Mayuran Sivakumaran
  • |
  • Aug 6, 2020
The business case for sustainability

This article was written by MSc Candidate, Mayuran Sivakumaran, as part of his role as VP Research of the MSc Sustainability Club. This is the first of a series of articles that aim to bring awareness to Ivey students about business sustainability issues. 

The word sustainability is often both misunderstood and overlooked. When asked to describe what sustainability meant to us as an executive board for this club, everyone’s thoughts were different yet they shared commonalities. An emphasis on the protection of the environment, social responsibility, and economic growth were common themes and while these are right, they are rather touchpoints on something broader. The missing element in many of these definitions and was only mentioned once, is that sustainability is time-centric.

The generally accepted definition of sustainability is grounded on that of sustainable development which is, “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987). What is important to note is that sustainability happens across generations and, not within one which implies that it is a long-term endeavour. If this definition is kept in mind, it is rather easy to recognize that our society today does not operate in an sustainable manner.

You might think, “What does sustainability have to do with me as a business student?” To an extent that is a valid question, but the direction in which business is moving suggests that sustainability is something that should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind regardless of what career you decide to pursue. If a career in finance is something that you see in your horizon, understanding business sustainability should be of interest to you as there are an increasing amount of funds centered on this theme (see Figure 1)

Furthermore, investors and asset managers are pouring into green investments and anything that is touted as sustainable (see Figure 2). In five regions (Europe, U.S., Canada, Japan and Australia) money flows into sustainable assets makes up one-third of tracked assets under management, and in some regions have reached more than half (Landberg, Massa, & Pogkas, 2019).

If consulting is the career for you, know that many of the big firms are increasingly spending their time advising on sustainability related projects.  For example, Boston Consulting Group delivered over 700 social impact projects with over 450 organizations, and has invested to enable almost $300 million in climate change and environment consulting projects in 2019 (Boston Consulting Group, 2019).

Figure 1:

Total assets of management under ESG and sustainability-themed funds

Figure 2:

share of total managed assets in 2018

Source: Global Sustainable Investment Alliance

The concept of sustainability is complicated for a number of reasons, the simple one being that it is cross-disciplinary and encompasses so many different areas of business. However, this brings us to the main argument in that as students, there is a strong business case for understanding sustainability. Not only is it extremely relevant at the current time, but it will guide business decisions moving forward as technology continues to disrupt and the state of our climate continues to worsen.

To iterate, this is not a view shared only by a certain group of people or people on a certain side of the political spectrum, but rather reflects the sentiment of the broader business community. When the Business Roundtable was founded (a non-profit that consists of exclusively CEO’s of America’s leading companies), it only promoted principles that were primarily shareholder centric with the sole goal of the corporation being to maximize value for the shareholder (BR, 2019). Last year, the Roundtable put out a statement which shifted its purpose to maximize value for all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and shareholders, in a manner that is sustainable (BR, 2019).

Thus, it has become very apparent that growing the economy and preserving the environment should not be a trade-off that has to be made, and as we begin to move into our business careers, this is something that the MSc Sustainability Club will aim to consistently remind its peers.

Hopefully the case for understanding sustainability has been made in this post and that the value  of understanding such a topic is understood. In the future the club will aim to disseminate articles, blogs and relevant resources in which we can all better understand the business of sustainability and incorporate these learnings as we move into our careers.

For further reading, please take a look at: