Should sustainability be part of your business strategy?

By | October 1, 2013

Don’t walk the line: part one

Photo_Elaine_Hickmottv2Guest blog by Dr Elaine Hickmott MBA, a business alchemist who helps technology companies become more sustainably profitable.  A scientist turned business woman, Elaine is a strategy spokeswoman and also Technology Ambassador for Surrey Chambers of Commerce, a supporter of Young Enterprise and proud to be a member of Bradford’s alumni.

How big a part does sustainability play in your business strategy? Perhaps you’ve heard of the circular economy but are still unconvinced about how it can help your business turn a profit.

Through this two-part blog, I will explore the differences between a linear and a circular economic approach; show you how the circular economy not only benefits businesses, but that real strategy and the drive for sustainability are inextricably linked; and explain how to implement sustainable practices and gain competitive advantage along the way.

Business strategy + sustainability = perfect chemistry

To say that the University of Bradford played a pivotal role in my career would be no understatement. From my early years in chemistry to assisting me on the road to becoming a business woman courtesy of studying business management on the School of Management’s part-time MBA programme, Bradford University will always have a place in my heart.

Bearing in mind this special relationship, I was both excited and honoured to be asked to write a guest blog for Bradford Business School’s ‘Management Thinking’ blog. Plus, as someone who actively takes a holistic approach to business, the opportunity to comment on strategy and the circular economy was one that I could not miss.

First, let me set the scene. I love strategy and I am proud to admit it. Not the pseudo-strategy that is regurgitated by many; where aimless plans are tweaked and then ignored for another year. The strategy I love is a dynamic empowering process which takes an all-round view of the business inside and out; creating value today, tomorrow and for years to come.

Business strategy and ‘The ACID Test’

My view is that, like the ethos of the circular economy, strategy is a circular process. One made up of four key areas: Analyse – Choose – Implement – Develop. I make no apology for the chemistry-orientated imagery and references; you can take the girl out of chemistry but…!

The_ACID_TestUsing strategy as a dynamic process means it can evolve, is flexible to changing demands and allows organisations to embrace future uncertainty rather than winging it or burying heads in the sand.

As Prof Roger L Martin says in his article, Strategy and the uncertainty excuse, “while using uncertainty as an excuse to put off making strategic choices, the competition may be doing something else entirely.”

But what does this have to do sustainability and the circular economy?

The ‘Linear Vs Circular’ economic approach

I recently watched a video produced by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation called Rethinking progress: the circular economy. It compares the circular way nature uses and replenishes resources to our human linear economy approach of:  take – make – use – dispose. It’s an economic model that we are surrounded by and have become accustomed to.  Taking a more sustainable, circular approach to producing and consuming requires more than a handful of evangelists to make it happen. It needs a strategic approach where the benefits of using a dynamic strategy process help identification and understanding of changes that must be made. As well as providing the momentum to turn those choices into reality.

As Bradford School of Management’s Dr Sarah Dixon wrote in her recent blog post, “the circular economy requires us to re-think all aspects of business.” I agree with Sarah and see that this affects organisations differently depending on their stage of development. Let me expand.

How businesses are linking sustainability and business strategy

In my work as a business consultant and strategy development spokeswoman, I have seen a shift in the values of new business owners and entrepreneurs. Drivers around sustainability are there from the outset and are often in line with those embedded in the circular economy philosophy. A great example comes to mind:


SusMobil is the award-winning sustainable transport company I have had the privilege of working with for many months. Engineering excellence, community and sustainability have always been watch words for Managing Director, Phil Edwards; the business management, model and strategy for the company have been developed with them at the core.

Obviously, the challenges faced by established organisations wanting to evolve and embrace the circular economy are different. Changing mindsets, appeasing shareholder angst, managing risk and maintaining ‘business as usual’ are all factors that can de-rail the best intentions. By using strategy as their ally and encouraging bigger picture thinking, organisations can successfully move towards a more sustainable, circular business model.  Let’s consider the work of one retail giant.

Marks and Spencer

Through the clothes ‘schwopping’ scheme, M&S has shown that integrating sustainability into business strategy doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Specific initiatives can still add value. Prof Peter Hopkinson highlights this example in his blog on how businesses can profit from the circular economy, in which everyone wins – customers to swap unwanted clothes for a £5 M&S voucher, and the clothes are donated to Oxfam.

How you can implement ‘The ACID Test’ in your business

Using strategy and following ‘The ACID Test’ increases chances of success for organisations who wish to be sustainable and apply circular economy-based business models.

By not ‘walking the line’ and instead taking an all-round approach, your Analyses will bring better understanding and information, which will help you Choose the best options. Your ideas will gather momentum and support because you Implement what you say they are going to do. Your organisation will continue to evolve and progress as you Develop decisions based on new insights, trends and learning.

So that’s the nuts and bolts of the sustainable, circular approach to business strategy. In Part Two, I will take this argument further by adding the ‘heart and soul’ to the argument and explaining how to power through change and sustainability.

Do you undertake a circular approach to business management and strategy in your organisation? Or do you find a more reactive approach works best in a changing market?

I’m keen to know your thoughts on ‘The ACID Test’ – is this a helpful model for planning and developing new products and services?

Do share your comments in the box below.