Is Business Doing Enough to Address Global Sustainability Challenges?

Nov 11, 2014 10:00 AM ET

Is business doing enough to address global sustainability challenges?

The business landscape is very different now to when I started my career in the field of sustainability over 15 years ago, writes Joe Franses.

Businesses today face significant pressure to deliver value beyond a return for investors. They must generate a profit whilst also addressing the significant social and environmental challenges we face.

At Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), we wanted to better understand whether today’s business leaders and those of the future think that the business community is currently doing enough to address global sustainability challenges. We commissioned new research with The Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield University, Net Impact and the Financial Times’ FT Remark to explore the expectation from both generations about the role of business in society.

The research revealed there is a strong alignment on the topic of ‘profit and purpose’, with 90 per cent of future leaders and 88 per cent of current leaders believing that business should have a social purpose. However, only one in five future leaders thinks companies already do so (compared with four in five future CEOs) indicating that business either isn’t doing enough to address global sustainability challenges, or isn’t communicating its achievements to a global audience.

Management attitudes and inconsistent government engagement were cited as some of the barriers to combining profit and purpose, preventing business from taking the action that the future generation expects.
At our recent Future for Sustainability Summit, held in partnership with the Financial Times, our peers and stakeholders came together to discuss the challenges that businesses are facing in incorporating sustainability as well as share best practice.

Many businesses are indeed addressing sustainability challenges and turning them into business opportunities. For example, Laura Storm, Executive Director of Sustainia, highlighted Atlantic Leather – on the ‘Sustainia 100’ list – which turns food waste (fish skins) into a sustainable material that can be used to make handbags and other luxury items.

MBA Polymers – founded by Mike Biddle – has shown that businesses can tackle the sustainability challenge related to society’s use of plastic, by creating a new business opportunity: in this case, a recycling plastics company. Built on the premise that plastics are financially valuable, Mike set up MBA Polymers to separate and recycle plastics from complex waste streams, ensuring that the material can be used again and again.

Despite many positive examples, one of the key themes to emerge from the Summit was the importance of businesses defining their social purpose in the first place – being clear that to be successful companies need to ensure that profit and social purpose are fully complementary. Sharing best practice at summits and conferences is an important way to encourage businesses to do more and learn from industry leaders.

Business leaders need to be inspired to take action and the future generation of business leaders, who have such high expectations, are key to the challenge. Today’s companies must play an active part in inspiring future leaders and encouraging them to build a brighter future, by supporting them in acquiring skills and understanding of the workplace.

At CCE we are working hard to integrate sustainability into our operating framework and core business strategy. We have an ambitious sustainability plan that was launched in 2011 as a result of significant collaboration with stakeholders across our territories in Western Europe.

We strive to incorporate new innovation, technology and collaboration into our future plans, and we recognise the benefits each holds in unlocking the opportunities across our value chain. For example, our recent partnership with online collaborative platform allowed us to draw on inspiration from across the globe to generate new ideas to increase recycling at home.

We’ve made strong progress as a result of our approach, both within the context of our own business and across our wider value chain, and we’ve learned a lot about the role of innovation and technology in accelerating the pace of change. However, we also acknowledge that we, along with many companies, still have a long way to go on our sustainability journey.

We recognise that today’s business leaders clearly have an essential role to play in addressing global sustainability challenges in order to enjoy continued success. Our focus is on maintaining positive momentum through innovation and collaboration to ultimately combine profitability with purpose – which we very much believe are two sides of the same coin.


Joe is Director of Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability at Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE). His role is to continually evolve CCE’s sustainability strategy and to advise CCE on how to put sustainability at the heart of day to day business. You can also follow him on Twitter at @JoeFranses