by Emma Kotze

Stay on track

Students switch business onto a sustainable track

A better today, tomorrow
Students lead in future sustainability

Answering the global call for more sustainable business, recently the African chapter of Net Impact, a non-profit network headed by MBA students at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB), hosted one of a series of pilot events planned by Unilever, in association with Net Impact, to engage the next generation of business leaders and ingrain in them sustainable practice values.

According to Sue de Witt, Chairperson of Net Impact South Africa and MBA student at the GSB – while sustainability is a hot topic these days, the 2013 Accenture-UN Global Compact study of CEOs shows that while many business leaders acknowledge the importance of implementing sustainability practices into business, not enough is being done.

“The study of more than 1 000 CEOs across the world shows that a clear majority, 67%, do not believe business is doing enough to address global sustainability challenges. The study draws the conclusion that the global economy is on the wrong track, and business is not playing its part in forging a sustainable future,” said De Witt.

Getting business to change track forms a major part of the agenda of Net Impact, which has more than 40 000 members around the world - students and young professionals with a shared aim of driving social and environmental change.

Speaking at the event, Woolworths Head of Sustainability, Justin Smith, said that taking a sustainable approach has quantifiable benefits. Woolworths – the only South African retailer to be included in the Dow Jones sustainability world index – has to date saved R 189 million by incorporating sustainability approaches into their business. “Sustainability is often seen as a soft consideration – making it quantifiable is the most important thing a business can do,” Smith said. 

Smith said that there are a number of considerations for why a sustainability approach is so important, including the preservation of resources the company relies on such as energy and water, and the brand differentiation that is created by their position as an organisation that takes sustainability seriously. “There has been a large increase in international investment due to our stance on sustainability,” he said. 

James Inglesby, Marketing Manager of Unilever Nigeria and co-founder and Director at Clean Team Ghana Limited, said that in creating sustainable practice, it’s important to make sure the strategies are aligned with the broader businesses objectives. 

Clean Team Ghana Limited is an urban sanitation organisation run through a partnership between Unilever and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor, and has led to 3 000 people gaining access to improved sanitation in Ghana, and 145 tonnes of sludge removed from the streets. It is serviced by small entrepreneurs and so lends itself to job creation. One of the reasons it has been a success, said Inglesby, is because of the way it works in conjunction with Unilever’s objectives: “Unilever doesn’t make toilets – but we do manufacture sanitiser. So through this initiative not only do we work towards solving a crisis – but we also ensure the growth of the organisation,” he said.  

Inglesby said this thinking is part and parcel of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. Unilever’s strategy is to embed sustainability into their business. It sets out to decouple their growth from environmental impact, while at the same time increasing positive social impact. The partnership with Net Impact is one of the ways the company plans to accomplish this. 

“Through its engagements with Net Impact, Unilever hopes to inspire young leaders to build new businesses with sustainability at their core, or have them join existing businesses and lead change from within,” he said. 

A break-away session at the Cape Town event offered attendees the opportunity to question experts on how best to approach sustainability in business. Dianna Moore, GSB MBA alumnus and member of the Reel Gardening Team that recently competed for the Hult prize awarded by the Clinton Global Initiative, said that the organisation, which manufactures easy-to-grow seed packages that use 80% less water than normal gardening, had learnt three important lessons from their experiences: “It’s important to fall in love with your business model – because it has to align with your core capabilities; make sure you pilot early, and often; and be fearlessly focused on your objectives.”


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