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Sustainability strategies succeed when managers believe in them, report finds

24 Jan 2020 By Elizabeth Howlett

Research reveals manager buy-in is essential to successful environmental policies, but sustainability goals are not always prioritised over company profit

Employers need managers to buy in to sustainability policies if they are to be successfully implemented, researchers have said.

A report by Cass Business School found that while many managers supported sustainability strategies in principle, often these became largely symbolic where they competed with other business objectives such as cost-cutting or efficiency.

It said managers needed to be supported to prioritise environmental or sustainability goals over organisational profit.



The report was the result of a three-year qualitative study of a large US tech firm’s simultaneous implementation of a sustainability strategy alongside a new business strategy.

“Sustainability has become a strategic priority for companies worldwide as consumers, shareholders and employees become more environmentally and socially aware,” said Paula Jarzabkowski, a professor of strategic management at Cass Business School and one of the co-authors of the study.

Where sustainability policies were successfully implemented, the report found they often had to take precedence over other objectives. “We found that rather than suppress the sustainability strategy, or do only the minimum, sometimes managers prioritised it over competitive actions they could have taken,” said Jarzabkowski.


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She added: “[Managers’] belief in, and commitment to, incorporating sustainability within the business played a significant part in the success of both strategies.”

The report suggested employers needed to understand where there were tensions between sustainability and business targets, and work with managers to decide on appropriate compromises when this occurs.

Recently, a report by the UK’s governance watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority, chastised businesses for effectively replacing workplace cultures with slogans. It said many firms were focusing on “box-ticking compliance” and were just “paying lip service” to the Corporate Governance Code – which sets out best practice on several leadership areas including company purpose and values.

Speaking at the time, Ed Houghton, senior research adviser for human capital and governance at the CIPD, said company boards trying to change culture and employee relations would “fail fast” if they did not utilise the knowledge and insight of their HR functions.

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