Anthony Hilton: Sustainability is good business

There was a theory in the 1970s that you could chart Britain's economic decline by the growth in numbers and influence of accountants.

Anthony Hilton: Sustainability is good business
Anthony Hilton: Sustainability is good business

Given that they were not very imaginative and sometimes not very good at counting, it meant that the financial side of the business received most of their attention and other areas of business life, such as brands, employee engagement, intellectual capital, customer satisfaction and business reputation - indeed most of what is now fashionably called sustainability - simply did not come into their calculations.

Unfortunately, it tends to be just those things that don't appear on the balance sheet that determine whether a business will be here in five or ten years.

The think-tank Tomorrow's Company ran a conference last week devoted to the promotion of sustainability in business, and speaker after speaker argued intelligently and coherently that companies that were good corporate citizens did better than those that worked on the old selfish model.

They sought to discredit the view that 'finance is the only thing that matters'.

Interestingly, more and more chief executives will say privately, but not yet to their shareholders, that being a good corporate citizen matters more to them than maximising shareholder value. Unfortunately, few have yet had the courage to make this their public position in the face of the inevitable derision from investment analysts, and the comms challenge of overcoming this.

Instead, they fudge the issue by adopting policies towards sustainability as a retro fit to the basic financial model - a bolt-on - in a way that too often looks like and gets dismissed as a PR gimmick.

The supporters of sustainability understandably rejoice in any small sign of progress, but the trouble is that a bolt-on approach is not, well, sustainable. The need for business to re-establish trust and preserve its licence to operate means that sustainability, not finance, has to become the core purpose of the organisation.

A glittering career awaits the comms guru who understands how to frame this message so that our 40-year obsession with finance comes to an end.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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