In today’s ever-evolving world, debating whether to incorporate sustainability into your business strategy is no longer an option. Considering a values-driven approach when developing business strategies can be vital to long-term success.

Before getting into why sustainability is essential to successful business strategies, it's important to define what sustainability in business is.

What Is Sustainability in Business?

In short, sustainability in business refers to the effect companies have on the environment or society.

A sustainable business strategy aims to positively impact one or both of those areas, thereby helping address some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Some of the global issues that sustainable business strategies help to address include:

  • Climate change
  • Income inequality
  • Depletion of natural resources
  • Human rights issues
  • Fair working conditions
  • Pollution
  • Racial injustice
  • Gender inequality

Although it may sound like it, sustainability in business is not purely altruistic. As Harvard Business School Professor Rebecca Henderson notes in the online course Sustainable Business Strategy, you can't use business to do good in the world if you're not doing well financially. Doing well and doing good are intertwined, and successful business strategies include both.

shared value opportunity Venn diagram with 'do well' on the left and 'do good' on the right

Many of today’s firms have adopted the triple bottom line, which suggests that organizations should focus on more than just profits, or the “bottom-line,” and also measure their environmental and social impact. These focuses can be referred to as “the three Ps,”: people, planet, and profit. Quite often, this sustainable approach to business ultimately boosts business performance.

Why Is Sustainability Important?

In addition to driving social and environmental change, sustainability initiatives can contribute to an organization's overall success. It may seem counterintuitive that spending more money on sustainable business practices can boost a company’s profitability, but studies show that the most sustainable companies are also the most profitable.

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics are often used to determine how ethical and sustainable an organization is. According to McKinsey, companies with high ESG ratings consistently outperform the market in both the medium and long term. While sustainability strategies might be an investment in the short term, they can lead to long-term benefits.

Benefits of Sustainability in Business

1. You’ll Protect Your Brand and Mitigate Risks


Ending up on the front page because of a scandal is a CEO’s worst nightmare. Not only do improper practices damage an organization’s reputation and cost it customers, but dealing with a public relations disaster can divert valuable human and financial resources from the core business.

You don’t want to become the company that allowed an oil spill or forced employees to work in unsafe conditions. By instituting a sustainable strategy that protects the environment and your workers, you also protect yourself from any damaging incidents.

2. Being Purpose-Driven Is a Competitive Advantage


Sustainability doesn't detract from business goals, and infusing your company with purpose can help attract a motivated, skilled workforce that drives financial success. In a Facebook Live discussion, Henderson noted a recent study showing that 89 percent of executives believe an organization with shared purpose will have greater employee satisfaction. Additionally, 85 percent say they're more likely to recommend a company with strong purpose to others.

Making your company an organization that does good in the world—rather than just a place that provides a paycheck—can be a competitive advantage when attracting the best talent.

Related: HBS Professor Explores the Impact Purpose Can Have on Your Organization

3. There's a Growing Market for Sustainable Goods


A 2019 study found that 73 percent of global consumers are willing to change their consumption habits to lessen their negative impact on the environment, and sustainable product sales have grown by nearly 20 percent since 2014. Millennials in particular are more willing to pay more for products that contain sustainable ingredients or products that have social responsibility claims. If your organization commits to sustainable products and practices, it could gain market share by converting sustainability-minded customers and increasing sales.

4. Cooperative Action Can Drive Change


As an individual, it can feel overwhelming, isolating, or simply impossible to effect change in a meaningful way. That’s not the case when the most innovative, successful, and powerful companies are collaborating to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. While governments struggle to address public goods problems, purpose-driven companies working together to address these issues have experienced great success.

For example, palm oil is cheap, versatile, and found in about half of all packaged products, including soap, lipstick, and ice cream. But palm oil production has resulted in record greenhouse gas emissions and contributed to climate change.

In light of this, consumer goods producer Unilever committed to only using palm oil from certified sustainable sources in 2008. The organization cooperated with its competitors—as well as governments, NGOs, and indigenous peoples’ organizations—to lead an industry-wide adoption of sustainable palm oil. As a result, Unilever continues to be a thriving organization, and the world has reaped the environmental benefits of sustainable palm oil harvesting practices.

Sustainable Business Strategy

The Value of Sustainability

Sustainability doesn’t mean sacrificing profits or putting success on the backburner. Instead, it has become a crucial element to any organization’s successful strategy. A business that doesn't factor in sustainability risks is less successful in several measures, including profitability, growth, and employee retention.

By integrating sustainability into your business strategy, you can find success because, rather than in spite, of sustainability.

Do you want to take a more values-driven approach to business? Explore our three-week online course Sustainable Business Strategy and learn how organizations can succeed financially while also playing a role in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

This post was upated on March 22, 2021. It was originally published on November 6, 2019.

Natalie Chladek

About the Author

Natalie is an Associate Product Manager at Harvard Business School Online working on Alternative Investments, Leading with Finance, Negotiation Mastery, and Sustainable Business Strategy. She received her B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University and M.B.A. from UCLA Anderson. In her free time, she enjoys running, cooking, and staying up too late rooting for her Bay Area sports teams.