Sustainability in the Twenty-First Century

There is now an increasing focus on issues of sustainability by businesses operating in India. The quest to re-define business processes occurs amidst an ever growing complexity in the running of businesses, from the sourcing of material to end products and subsequent customer interface. There are several layers embedded within the supply and value chains of businesses, encompassing the entire process from product manufacturing to products being bought and consumed by customers. There is now an ever growing expectation about the end-to-end sustainability of value chains, and the issue is to gain traction among all key stakeholders, including customers, communities, investors, and those in the market place. The issue is not limited to obtaining social licenses from communities in order to operate, but concerns wider exposure to the work place and market place as well. This is now becoming a conscience issue as India charts its way into global markets and strives to create its own niche, re-defining its competitiveness in the world market place.   

Led by successful examples of sustainability practice from leading businesses, there is a realisation of a need to identify the business perspectives and initiatives of leading businesses from across operating sectors, and collate these practices in one place for the wider dissemination that will achieve peer learning, benchmarking, and innovation around scale and replication of these practices. Realisation of recurrent innovation around sustainable businesses practice by Indian companies, and collaboration with other stakeholders such as community and civil society organisations, has finally led to transformational leadership by Indian businesses. These innovations capture the processes, instruments, benchmarking issues, scale, and efficiency of business practices around the broad theme of sustainability. Upscale business operations are just the by-product of leadership roles that Indian companies have taken in not just redefining business practices, but also ensuring that sustainability makes good sense and becomes a part of long-term sustainable business processes, supply chains, and value chains. 

Indian markets are growing at a rapid pace, involving new stakeholders whom until a few years ago did not have any visible and significant presence as far as supply chain space was concerned. Civil society organisations, communities, investors, and regulators slowly seem to be upping the ante, and are influencing not just the way businesses operate but also setting benchmarks for the sustainability of Indian business. This trend is no longer confined to India, but seems universally present across markets, workplaces, and communities.

The role of businesses in complementing governments in furthering the progress of the MDGs over the last 15 years has been well-documented. The overall thrust of businesses – much as that of government and civil society – has been to support communities by putting more disposable income in their hands and supporting opportunities that will empower people to break the vicious cycle of poverty, an overarching goal of the MDGs. Alongside a new set of 17 sustainable development goals developed by the United Nations, a more transformative role is now being adopted by businesses, leading to a more decisive role for business leaders. One way in which business leaders can play this role is by cleaning up supply chain issues and adhering to product responsibility and ethical business practices.    

Today, governments remain local while businesses move rapidly across national boundaries, operating in multiple countries and supporting local economies with private capital, jobs, employment, and by contributing to respective countries gross domestic product. The contribution being made by businesses is by no means small; it has become an engine of growth for national economies and continues to push for greater social good, going beyond compliance and social licenses to operating mechanisms. Amidst changing scenarios, businesses are adjusting with realism, realigning priorities that are national and global at the same time. Businesses are emerging as vehicles for social good and their contribution is increasingly visible across the people and profit spectrum. Businesses under the current regulatory framework are moving beyond defined agendas and continuing to improvise, standing tall vis-a-vis ethical conduct and business practice by virtue of reporting practices, disclosure, social audit, and non-financial reporting. There is also a growing trend for collaborative and partnership-driven approaches that deepen relationships with other key stakeholders in order to build sustainable businesses. This has come in handy for businesses and has yielded a greater ground for cooperation between businesses and other key stakeholders, leading to the ‘de-risking’ of unlikely conflicting scenarios.    

Businesses have realised that sustainability is no longer a discussion at the conceptual level but has moved beyond that stage to now being regarded as good business sense, because it creates robust processes that put businesses on long-term sustainable paths. The sustainability agenda is also not about changing the way businesses operate but more about mind-sets, led by top-level business leadership. It is also being taken up by companies as an intrinsic model that allows businesses to create more value on the ground; working with communities helps businesses outreach directly to communities. This is where it has mattered most: without the involvement of intermediaries, this model has been working well for businesses across the spectrum, regardless of sector, geography, operational remit, or the communities they work with.

It is commonplace now that businesses are increasingly adapting to voluntary guidelines and codes of conduct to ensure transparency and disclosure. The Ten Universal Principles, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), and Carbon Disclosure routes are paying rich dividends for businesses in stating their seriousness towards business process improvement. Participating businesses are also seen to be driving sustainability through product responsibility by the setting of a higher bar in and of itself, reflecting the commitment of key stakeholders. Many businesses are also benefiting from improved interaction with communities and finding the financial sector looking  positively at such initiatives as a core model of business operations, which they are accordingly keen to support.

Businesses participating in the publication of voluntary guidelines have been ahead of the curve by taking the route of innovation, and  have been leveraging technology to undertake course correction not only in product design but also across product development, and more importantly, they have also offset negative carbon foot prints by upgrading business processes and extending them to scale across value chains. These attempts are being seen as part of a value chain clean-up, and as an improvement in value chains that supports product responsibility initiatives of businesses. Participating companies have been part of the Global Compact and have been voluntarily reporting on outcomes and improvements on the Ten Universal Principles, spread across human rights, the environment, anti-corruption, and labour standards. This voluntary process of reporting by businesses through communication on progress (CoP) has been gaining traction as the number of such reporting exercises has risen worldwide.  

Sustainability is finding a firm ground in businesses led by top-level leadership. These leaders are ‘transformational’ in the sense that they see creative value in driving sustainability practices across business value chains, with an embedded take-away of greater social good, all the while pursuing increases in shareholder wealth and also caring for the environment. Businesses are clear that they need to press hard for positive outcomes and have consequently been pursuing sustainability practices that are directly aligned to business processes and have the ability to generate wider public good.

Businesses are open to learning, innovation, and collaboration with key stakeholders, including governments, civil society organisations, and communities, and they feel that there is a ‘soft peddling’ role for government in situations where sustainability practices and initiatives need to be scaled up several notches up from current levels. Business leaders are unanimous in saying governments at regional and national levels can play a more decisive role in allowing businesses to grow faster and innovate by providing enabling policy support, stable tax regimes, and incentivising good business practices with tax breaks and soft loans. This would allow businesses to scale their initiatives and play a more vital role in the growth and development of economies where they yield positive outcomes in the creation of capital, job opportunities, and the development of infrastructure for more inclusive, sustainable, and justice-driven societies. This also helps businesses build a sound foundation on which they can operate with economies of scale and move the existing ‘business-as-usual’ model into a more ‘transformative business’ blueprint.    


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Pooran Chandra Pandey

Former CEO of the DOC Research Institute (2016-2018), IN

Pooran Chandra Pandey is one of India’s leading experts on advocacy, economic and social development work, management and the voluntary sector. From 2011 to 2016, he served as Executive Director for UN Global Compact Network India. Prior to taking up that post, he was Director at the Times Foundation, one of India’s leading corporate foundations working in the areas of health, education, environment, women’s empowerment, and disaster management. From 2004 to 2007, he was CEO at Voluntary Action Network India, the country’s largest association of voluntary organizations, comprising 2,400 members within India. Credited with pioneering the notion of involving civil society, businesses and government through a consensus-building approach for inclusive social dividends, Pooran Chandra Pandey has led the launch of national public service campaigns within India such as Lead India, Teach India and the social impact awards. Specialising both in development and humanitarian assistance, he has also chaired and co-chaired a number of Indian Government task forces and committees developing national policy on the voluntary sector, implementing the UN Handbook, non-governmental charter of good governance, rationalisation of policies for NGOs, and the foreign contribution regulation act. Pooran Chandra Pandey holds a BA and MA from the University of Allahabad, an M.Phil in International Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and was also a Chevening Scholar in Leadership and Global Organization at the London School of Economics.