By Andreas von Buchwaldt, Grant Mitchell, Seth Reynolds, and Steve Varley
CEOs could once focus almost single-mindedly on their businesses and value chains. Now, along with driving a strategy that generates competitive advantage and enhanced value, they face another core task: satisfying a broad base of stakeholders with diverse interests who all demand sustainability policies and practices in different variations.
Delivering on both (often apparently conflicting) fronts is essential. Investors will only support a firm’s long-term strategic initiatives if they yield an above-market return and address the future needs of investors themselves, customers, regulators, and employees.
Like digital before it, sustainability has become an overarching strategic concern today. Judgments about a company’s sustainability performance affect talent acquisition and retention, access to capital, and consumer choices. And new regulations, such as the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, are translating sustainability imperatives into economic shocks, notably in the energy sector. CEOs also see competitors growing and increasing customer loyalty through sustainability-linked products and services.
As a result, CEOs have largely accepted the need to embed sustainability in their strategies to create competitive advantage. But while existing frameworks describe the elements of a sustainable business, they rarely show how to get there.
At the intersection of sustainability and strategy, many companies adopt an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategy. In doing so, they can be strongly influenced by the external focus on third-party ESG metrics, which are framed as a way of measuring a company’s performance in ESG.
ESG strategies, which often aim to improve key metrics in a way that a firm finds acceptable or manageable, have given many businesses a pragmatic start toward becoming more sustainable. However, as a path to a better strategy, they have drawbacks.
Managing to metrics isn’t the best way to deploy sustainability as a driver of competitive advantage and value, or to hasten meaningful improvements in environmental and social outcomes. Being still immature, metrics are far from comparable, rigorous, or transparent. And the evidence for a link between economic value and ESG ratings is modest. Investors support genuine gains in sustainability, but they won’t tolerate strategies that don’t deliver economic value. While stakeholders closely observe ESG metrics, financial performance remains much more important in corporate valuations.
Rather than focusing on ESG metrics, a more effective path to improving both financial value and sustainability performance is to integrate sustainability into the development and implementation of corporate strategy. In doing so, CEOs can ensure their strategy makes the most of the market, technology, customer, and regulatory trends created by sustainability imperatives.
CEOs can unite strategy with sustainability in three ways:
1. Adapt classic, CEO-level strategy questions by viewing them through a sustainability lens: “Is my purpose the best possible fit with competing stakeholder demands?” “As sustainability plays out in my industry, how should I position my strategy and portfolio for maximum advantage?” The collated responses should be tailored for individual business units or portfolio sectors.
2. Ensure strategic choices include sustainability imperatives by applying top-down and bottom-up analysis.
- From the top down, ask, “How will increased sustainability modify or create new strategic drivers?” To test existing strategic themes, use such means as moving from climate scenarios that capture climate risk to embedding climate elements in strategy scenarios and tailoring customer research to test hypotheses about critical sustainability issues. Insights gained can indicate how industry ecosystems will evolve as sustainability grows in influence.
- From the bottom up, ask, “Which specific sustainability concerns will our strategy need to accommodate?” To identify such concerns, CEOs could consider which issues are most significant for stakeholders—and so, how likely they are to create competitive advantage. Three interrelated qualifiers can help identify these: the future prominence for stakeholders; uniqueness of contribution; and size of business value, net investment. Careful analysis helps rank these issues.
3. Use common methods to assess investments in sustainability and commercial initiatives. Investments with negative value miss the opportunity to increase meaningful impact. While some investments with unclear links to value may be pragmatic to avoid reputational risk, they should phase out over time. Most organizations can do more to use data such as that on stakeholder attitudes and future economic impacts, and connections to estimate the business consequences of investment.
Organizations need to execute sustainability initiatives with the same rigor as traditional strategic activity. They need to anchor these initiatives in the ambition, resourcing plans, and incentives of all key decision makers—not isolate them within a sustainability team. CEOs will need to identify early the new internal business and impact data they need to measure the progress of key sustainability initiatives, as legacy systems may not capture such data.
EY-Parthenon research shows that taking these steps can give meaningful sustainability actions greater prominence in a CEO’s long-term agenda and may lead to better outcomes—helping a business achieve both the financial means and investor support to create a more sustainable future. Read more about how corporate strategy can deliver both growth and sustainability here.
Find out how the EY-Parthenon team can help you drive and develop your Sustainability and ESG Strategy.
Andreas von Buchwaldt – Senior Partner, EY-Parthenon GmbH
Grant Mitchell – EY Asia-Pacific Strategy and Transactions Sustainability Leader
Seth Reynolds – EY Americas Sustainability Leader
Steve Varley – EY Global Vice Chair Sustainability