Carol Adams is a Director of Integrated Horizons. She is also a part time research professor at the Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University, a visiting professor at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Sustainability Management, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg. Carol kindly shared her perspectives on sustainability with The Switch Report.

You are an expert on embedding sustainability into mainstream management and governance processes. In this context and from a mainstream management perspective, how do you define “sustainability”?

Sustainability is concerned with:

  • our natural environment, including the long term availability of natural resources, biodiversity, pollution and climate change;
  • global and local social issues, human rights, gender and race equality, labour rights, engaging community, education and creating transformational change for sustainability;
  • economic issues such as the impact of corporations on the global and local economies, poverty and so on.

All these elements are interconnected.

Many businesses use the term sustainability to refer to their long term success.  That’s fine as long as they recognise the impact of social, environmental and economic sustainability on their ‘sustainability’ and the importance of managing their own environmental, social and economic impacts.  A business which does not will not be around for the long term.

What type of companies do you work with?

I have worked with all sorts of companies (and other types of organisations) which recognise the importance of integrating and embedding sustainability to their own success – including banks, retail, chemical, pharmaceutical, energy, water and manufacturing companies.

Can you give some examples of companies that you feel are doing sustainability well?

There are quite a few. The Cooperative in the UK caught my attention again recently. It has been a leader for around a couple of decades.  Its Green Revolution programme for schools helps develop the next generation of sustainability leaders thus making an important contribution to transformational change.  Children are encouraged to make the links between social and environmental issues and take a global perspective. And the Coop reaches the next generation of customers.

Do you often encounter organisations that really don’t get the concepts that you champion? Or is it only organisations with a high level of interest that invite you to work with them?

I have worked with people in organisations, themselves committed, but facing internal resistance.  The trick is to make a case in the language and on the terms that others can relate to.  So for example, if you are trying to convince a CFO that sustainability is important to business success, you need to measure impacts in quantifiable (preferably dollar) terms. The CEO has to get it if it’s going to work – and people have to want to work collaboratively.

One of the tools you promote is “integrated reporting”. How do you describe this to managers who haven’t come across the idea before? How does it differ from the “triple bottom line” that is often talked about?

Integrated reporting takes a holistic (integrated) look at the business.

Sustainability or “triple bottom line” reporting focusses on the impact on and of different sustainability issues on the business.  It will remain important to business success and to a broad range of stakeholders.

Integrated reporting requires organisations to report on their governance and strategy as well as their financial performance and in the context of their internal and external environment – including, for example, their workers and the natural environment. It is aimed at investors.

Climate change, scarce natural resources, the workforce, etc all have an impact on the long term success of a business.  Integrated reporting should bring this into focus for accountants and boards so that the sustainability and CSR teams are not the only ones that get it.

In your view, how do most medium to large businesses really feel about sustainability?

A feel-good-to-do thing, but a bit of an optional extra.  Many haven’t yet grasped how important it is to their long term business success.

What led a financial auditor with one of the world’s largest accounting and advisory firms into sustainability?

I thought my colleagues were missing something.  That there were bigger issues than making money.  I was particularly concerned about global social justice issues. My concern for the environment came later as I learnt about the significant negative impacts of business and its consequential impacts on global social and economic equity.

But those leading advisory firms are now themselves warning of the dangers to businesses who have their heads in the sand on sustainability matters.

Much of your career has been in the academic sphere, but recently you set up your own management consultancy. Why the change, and how are you finding it?

I’d still like to influence Universities – through their research and teaching they have a significant role to play in the transformational change needed to address sustainability issues.

I like to make a difference.  Organisations need a vision and strategy which encompasses a wide range of social, environmental and economic issues and impacts. They need to measure and manage those impacts and incorporate the full range of material issues into their decision making.  That’s ‘integrated thinking’.

My research has been applied – working within and with companies and other organisations. I’d like to spend more time applying that learning to more organisations.