Navigant Research Blog

Sustainability as a Business Model

Tom Machinchick — December 12, 2017

Energy efficiency and emissions goals form an important piece of sustainability initiatives for many corporations and other professional entities. Sustainability is often solely associated with energy and climate-related metrics, but it is not the only factor contributing to a sustainable organization. Investors are starting to recognize what a sustainability-focused business approach can mean for long-term organizational success. Increasingly, sustainability performance (or environmental and social governance) is being defined more broadly to include social issues such as education, injustice, and poverty.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, the UN launched the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with the support of 193 nations. This agenda includes a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets that came into effect in January 2016. The purpose of the SDGs is to create standards that can measure progress on key issues like combating poverty, climate change, and injustice—among others. The UN agenda is designed to create an economic environment where the deployment of capital resources is considered in terms of economic, social, and environmental criteria. SDGs foster a discussion on investment quality beyond just the expected financials.

Socially Responsible Investment: A Growing Track Record of Outperformance       

Socially responsible investing may have begun in the 1700s with the Quakers, who refused to support “sinful” businesses such as tobacco, firearms, and the slave trade. More recently, sustainable investing has taken on the guise of promoting environmentally sustainable businesses, although financial performance is at the fore. The Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing performed a study on over 10,000 sustainable equity funds that found that these investments have met or exceeded the performance of comparable traditional investments. UBS, a leading global investment bank, claims to have $970 billion, or 35% of its investable portfolio, placed in socially conscious investments. Al Gore’s sustainability-focused private investment fund, Generation Investment Management (GIM), has returned about 16.3% after fees since September 2014, while the MSCI World Index has returned 7.7% over the same period. Assessing the sustainability of companies can be done using the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices, which are a group of benchmarks that track the stock performance of companies in terms of economic, environmental, and social criteria.

The Foundation of High Performing Companies

Why do sustainable companies often outperform their peers? For Gore and GIM, not only is sustainability good for humanity, it is also a significant indicator of investment risk, management integrity and quality, robustness of business models, and products and services that are aligned with real-world problems and needs. Put together, these characteristics can identify high performing companies that provide consistent returns. An interesting note about GIM and its investment thesis is that it has broadened the scope of the definition of sustainability to include company diversity, human resources practices, community interaction, employee benefits, healthcare, and the values and ethics of the C-suite—along with the usual energy- and climate-related strategies. Each sustainable investment decision is aimed at choosing the factors that are most important to the sector where the company competes.

Many companies that use Navigant’s Energy research and services deliver energy-related products and services that can help their own customers meet sustainability goals. However, energy and emissions are only a small component of sustainable participation in the global economy. Similar to the dramatic efficiency results that can be achieved with a holistic approach to commercial building energy management, corporate sustainability efforts—and often business performance—can be dramatically improved with a more holistic view of what sustainable business performance means and how it can be achieved. There do not have to be any tradeoffs, and the real-world results are starting to speak for themselves.

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