Growing awareness of and interest in ethical and responsible alternatives, both from a business and a customer perspective, are encouraging entrepreneurs to innovate and think more holistically about their business practices.
Indeed, two-thirds of business owners say social and environmental concerns are important to their business planning and so split their time between activities like creating a positive social or environmental impact, ensuring business practices are ethical or creating a positive company culture.
With this in mind, international partnerships and crosssector collaborations are likely to emerge as new ways of developing impact-driven business models, exploring social entrepreneurship cultures and making the most of global networks and experts.
We talk to Susanna Wilson (HSBC’s Global Head of Sustainable Networks and Entrepreneurship), Matt Robinson (HSBC’s Sustainability Engagement Head) and Pip Wheaton (Ashoka’s Country Director for the UK) about what steps entrepreneurs, wishing to integrate sustainability into their everyday business practices, can take to make this daunting task more achievable.
“We need to think about sustainability by taking into consideration the true cost of doing business,” says Ms Wheaton. “This means integrating all the short- and longterm externalities of a business’ operations to really bring sustainability to the core of a company’s financial viability.”
Ms Wilson echoes these views: “Our aim is to contribute to a sustainable global economy, particularly through sustainable supply chains by supporting sustainable business growth practices. Entrepreneurs are a part of that ecosystem – smaller companies looking to internationalise and become a part of the global supply chain.”
From our conversations we identified seven ideas that can help businesses increase their core sustainability.
1. Hire change-makers
“Think about hiring people differently. Because a company is an amalgamation of its individuals, its thinking will depend on those individuals’ beliefs, drivers and passions,” says Ms Wheaton.
Businesses need what we refer to as ‘change-makers’ or people with innovation skills, they need to go beyond simply finding that talent and foster that talent internally.
“I would also recommend surrounding yourself with people who are great supporters but who can also be critical friends. You need people who have the nerve to put their hand up, regardless of their position in a company, be honest with you and say – We can do this differently!”
2. Seek collective action
“We also need to think how to better organise fluid open teams across companies, so we go beyond specific individuals or departments. It’s important to have teams which can be open to new ideas, to change, and to sharing information,” says Ms Wheaton. “This enables companies to adapt and co-create against the hard boundaries of a company.”
“We’re seeing a lot of companies co-create with entrepreneurs – when social entrepreneurs and businesses come together to find a solution to existential problems. Consider textile companies, for example. A couple of them will create an alliance, or identify a joint venture they want to partner on, to encourage long-term commitment and change to the way they do business. This kind of collective action de risks the venture and maintains competitiveness by ensuring the playing field remains balanced for everyone.”
3. Learn from others
“Learn from other businesses, especially those known in the market for having sustainable brands – why reinvent the wheel and waste precious time, when you can be using this to develop and grow your business?” says Mr Robinson. “Co-working spaces can be helpful in enabling entrepreneurs to work collectively and collaboratively, sharing ideas and growing together.”
4. Find the root cause
According to Ms Wheaton: “When entrepreneurs embed social impact into a business venture – they need to make sure that they deeply understand the issue(s) that they are grappling with and the system it operates in; or find people who do. So often we see social enterprises tackle the symptoms [rather than root causes] of the problem with no lasting change; it’s a waste of energy, passion and talent,” says Ms Wheaton. With this in mind, and given the increasing importance of skills in today’s dynamic economy, entrepreneurs may need to consider further education or training either around specific themes or global megatrends.
5. Grow your networks
Building on the foundation of education and training, for Ms Wilson developing sustainable business practices “is also about supporting entrepreneurs develop as growing businesses through connecting, signposting and scaling of global networks.”
Sustainability partnerships can help social entrepreneurs to find targeted mentoring support as well as networking opportunities by matching them with companies in relevant fields. “We do due diligence to make sure we are finding the most impactful entrepreneurs, with new ideas and innovation that can be benchmarked. We also look for entrepreneurs who are looking at the root causes of issues and not just symptom factors… The Ashoka Fellowship is highly regarded in the industry and offers validation around the impact of their work.”
6. Start local, go global
“Today, an increasing number of small businesses are being set up specifically with the aim of addressing global challenges,” says Mr Robinson. “Focusing on three areas – future skills, sustainable networks, and sustainable finance – enables a more structured response to disruptive global megatrends such as globalisation, urbanisation, the onset of AI and machine learning and climate change.”
“Consumers and the public at large are becoming more aware of things like pollution, plastic wastage, and ethics in supply chains. These influence their buying decisions and ultimately determine which businesses they choose to buy their products and services from, or indeed associate themselves with.”
“Getting your own house in order is therefore a must, especially if you are looking to build your business model, products and service around sustainability. Some initiatives cost little or no money. Simple efficiencies in how you operate, such as reducing paper and turning to digital ways of working are good examples. Other simple examples include turning down your thermostat by 1 degree, or closing windows and doors when the heating or air conditioning is operating. Other initiatives do require a capital outlay but often have a good ROI.”