As each company has its own culture and complexities, there is no single recipe for success — but there are several considerations that I think can be applied to almost any organization.
Years ago, while working in a remote Dominican village on a water sanitation project, I awoke from the chicken coop that served as my sleeping quarters in extreme agony. With no doctors nearby, and after three bedridden days, a friend was able to find an over-the-counter treatment that helped me to fully recover. The experience of not being able to easily access clean water and basic medicines confirmed for me that a commitment to improve people’s lives requires a more holistic and integrated approach.
Fast-forward to today, and I doubt you can find a large company that hasn’t invested in one or more sustainability initiatives. Indeed, COVID-19 has highlighted just how critical it is for companies to be clear on what it is they stand for and to have a robust strategy in place to support that vision. Now, many corporations are taking it one step further by increasingly embracing a more systemic approach. Such efforts represent an evolution that goes far beyond being “green” or philanthropic (both of which are undeniably good), by embedding a sustainability strategy across all departments as part of a company’s normal operating business.
So, how does an organization make sustainability an integral part of its business operations? How can it be transformed from a siloed set of actions to a more enduring, systemic model? As each company has its own culture and complexities, there is no single recipe for success — but there are several considerations that I think can be applied to almost any organization.
Focus on what you do best, but remember: What gets measured, gets managed
A company’s contribution to sustainability should be aligned with its unique value proposition. Focusing on goals within your sphere of influence is the best way to perpetuate sustainable business practices. Done well, sustainability commitments become embedded into all aspects of the business — across the entire value chain — and can be measured with the same rigor as a company’s financial targets.
At Bayer, we have organized our sustainability goals under our vision of “health for all, hunger for none” — consistent with our mission as a life science company with competencies in health and agriculture. But a clear vision amounts to more than just words; it needs to be backed up with an enduring and measurable action plan. This is why, to stay on track, the Science Based Targets initiative reviews our climate-protection targets; and it is why we have created an external Sustainability Council to advise, review and challenge our efforts.
Stakeholder capitalism and leadership commitment
Businesses operate best when they do so from the bottom up. That’s why companies put so much energy into training, quality control and customer engagement. But sustainability strategies will never succeed without top leadership’s full support. And it’s not about paying lip service: Today’s shareholders care about a company’s actions — so much so that they increasingly expect corporate leaders to have “skin in the game” when it comes to their sustainability commitment.
As an example, our Board of Management’s compensation is directly tied to its performance against sustainability targets; and it is auditable, in the same way as the company’s financial reports. Half of the company’s quantitative, long-term-incentive sustainability KPIs for top management involve reducing its carbon footprint, and half is devoted to increasing access to health and nutrition for millions of people in underserved communities.
Be bold, but pragmatic
It’s essential that sustainability targets be practical and meaningful — but it’s also important that they be bold enough to create a sense of purpose that is inspirational and challenging, to motivate activity at all levels of the organization. It need not be sexy; but it must be inclusive and embedded cross-functionally, so that every part of the business has a defined link to sustainability in some measurable way. When integrated across the entire value chain, every function — from R&D, supply chain and finance to HR, communications, sales and marketing — works seamlessly together to be an impact generator.
After joining Bayer, I spent my first two months meeting with 180 employees in different functions across the globe to better understand our Consumer Health business and to align our 2030 goals. As a result, we identified providing access to everyday health for 100 million underserved consumers by 2030 as an unmet need that fits our business and motivates our people.
Don’t go it alone
One of the most important concepts in implementing a successful sustainability strategy is the recognition that no single entity has the means to do it alone. Collective impact is crucial if we are to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Understanding the challenges from different perspectives and forging uncommon collaborations across sectors and industries are key to driving positive change.
Put simply, public-private partnerships with governments and NGOs can greatly augment a company’s own capabilities. For example, we have a program in Guatemala on behalf of our vaginal health treatment, Canesten. We realized that many of the communities in Guatemala did not have easy access to a healthcare provider; so, if a woman thought she had something like a yeast infection, it was left untreated or she had to wait until a doctor visited her village. We partnered with a local NGO to roll out mobile health clinics with midwives, who are trusted authorities in these communities. These clinics went into the communities to teach women about vaginal health in a way that they were receptive to. We’re looking into a range of solutions like this — both real-life and virtual — to help reach people where it matters.
Making corporate sustainability more sustainable
Embedding sustainability into a company’s operations is more than just a “feel good” exercise; it also makes good business sense. Recent studies have produced compelling evidence that companies that commit to robust environment, social and governance (ESG) targets significantly outperform those that don’t. Not only are forward-thinking companies more productive, surveys show their employees are happier and more motivated — providing a strong incentive for worker retention and future recruitment.
Throughout my career, whether working in a remote village or for a global company, one thing has remained consistent: a desire to make a difference. Although it takes a lot of time, effort and commitment, making sustainability a key part of your business strategy can create long-term value for the company, its stakeholders — and quite possibly, the world.