Anthony Hilton: Sustainability is serious business

The senior partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers is convinced that sustainability will soon become a central issue on corporate agendas.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

Companies will not only have to integrate sustainability into their core business processes to meet the expectations of customers and staff, but they will have to demonstrate that they have done so.

Others seem to agree. HSBC chairman Stephen Green added his contribution in a speech where he sought to map out his ideas for a sustainable financial system.

He highlighted the need for individual companies to nurture customers, to engage with their employees and to be aware of the broader impact of business on society and the environment. The way in which business interacts with the wider world must be fundamental to how it thinks and goes about its business, he said.

The CBI also has a view. To coincide with its annual conference last month, it published its take on business in the next ten years. Much of it was the same mix of bland cliches and group thinking we heard for the past ten years, but it also said: 'Sustainability and ethics will become more integrated into the business model. Firms will seek to improve accountability and corporate citizenship further to ... retain customers and staff.'

But if this is indeed the way business is going, it will have to become a lot smarter at getting the message across, because sticking pages in the annual report is beginning to be counterproductive. Indeed, the Financial Reporting Council protested a short time ago that 'social issues waffle' was cluttering financial statements and getting in the way of what should be the core purpose of these documents.

Partly, though, one suspects this is because many companies continue to see a commitment to sustainability as cheap and easy PR, rather than a fundamental shift in business positioning and strategy. If the aforementioned luminaries are right about the extent and power of the shift in public attitudes, they are going to have to get a lot more serious - and so are PR departments in devising ways to make sure the public understands and appreciates the shift.

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