The UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy outlines a new approach to climate change. Defence organisations have an opportunity to play a key role in this collaborative ambition if they learn from private sector organisations that have made sustainability core to their purpose.
Since the 2016 Paris Agreement, companies have shown how driving sustainability through their purpose can lead to growth. Investors, customers, and suppliers are increasingly making environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics important criteria in decisions.
For defence organisations, this presents an opportunity to shift public perceptions of the industry. While the people who work in defence have a desire to make the world a safer place, some people continue to see defence organisations as arms manufacturers, rather than safety, security and justice guardians. By responding to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as humanitarian aid for disaster relief, combatting terrorism and crime, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, defence organisations can rephrase the narrative.
To make an impact, defence organisations should look at how other industries consider purpose, the case for sustainability and the intersection of sustainability and change.
The importance of purpose in sustainable business strategy
Organisations that successfully adopt sustainable business strategies constantly communicate purpose-driven values. The likes of Unilever and Dole talk about improving ways of working, dealing fairly with suppliers, and understanding their impact on the environment. And they publicise their sustainability investments.
Unilever, for example, recognised that to continue to grow and sell tea, it was important to appreciate small, local farmers and communities. Without acknowledging farm workers and, more importantly, supporting them, Unilever’s tea brands would suffer.
Likewise, Dole Asia Holdings’ approach to sustainability was borne of a need to maintain customer loyalty by committing to more sustainable practices. So, it’s becoming an industry leader in the sustainable harvesting and packaging of fruits.
While such progress is great, there’s a real opportunity for defence organisations to set an even higher standard and level of progression. One way is through the emerging measures of sustainability through project and programme delivery.
Defence programmes are increasingly mandated to report their sustainable practices and through embedding sustainability metrics within their project, programme, and portfolio management approaches. These practices drive a real and tangible need to justify older, carbon-heavy practices (such as new builds) with carbon-lighter and new practices of infrastructure refurbishment and renewal.
The case for sustainability
Purpose-driven companies strive to do well (make money) and do good (make a positive impact on the world). While traditional thinking says doing good would sacrifice some profits, sustainable strategies are good for business. They aim to build repeatable, non-destructive, and long-term focussed operations — and they engage all stakeholders better.
Making this case for sustainability requires a long-term view. One way of achieving this is through integrating sustainability objectives into each stage of the UK Government’s Five Case Model – strategic, economic, commercial, financial and management.
It’s important to look across all these areas to drive success. The strategic case for cutting carbon, for example, is compelling and has widespread support from 80% of the UK population. But there’s less consensus on the affordability, value for money and feasibility of introducing measures to lower carbon.
The interface between sustainability and change
When organisations set sustainability targets, they change how they operate. However, changing business practices can create uncertainty, which introduces risk. To mitigate this, robust change management is key.
The first step is to focus on tangible action areas, such as carbon, water, waste, product, and packaging, increasing feasibility maturity by learning from others.
The second step is to plan how rapidly the change should happen, how adaptive and flexible it be, and whether to be reactive or anticipatory.
Finally, communicate the plan across the organisation to gain buy-in from stakeholders. Ensure you make it clear the benefits will be worth the upheaval to ensure the change sticks.
Be flexible during the change and continue to engage, listen and communicate. Afterwards, check you achieved your stated aims and that business-as-usual activities have embraced the change.
Undertaking change in this manner will provide leaders with the confidence to take further calculated risks and weather short-term disruption for long-term benefits.
Sustainable approaches lead to sustainable profits
Defence organisations can learn lessons from other sectors to understand how to adopt sustainable strategies. Other industries are overcoming the challenges of adopting sustainable business practices, and this is shifting public perception of how tax-payer money is spent. Defence organisations must now do more to meet the challenge of sustainability objectively and transparently.