Sustainability: Getting Down to Business

Interview with Nikos Avlonas

As the Millennium Development Goals near their 2015 deadline, the role that the private sector must play in driving a global sustainability agenda is becoming clearer than ever. Below, Nikos Avlonas, founder and President of the Centre for Sustainability & Excellence (CSE), discusses the importance of doing business sustainably, the steps organisations must take to integrate sustainability into their day-to-day operations, and how CSE is helping companies around the world improve their sustainability performance.


Tell me a little more about the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence (CSE), and the role your organisation is playing in the globalisation of sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

CSE is a leading boutique firm specialised in global sustainability consulting, coaching and training. Since its early entry into the international sustainability services market in 2004, CSE has been helping clients achieve higher performance, build brand loyalty and innovate through the continuous integration of sustainability principles into their culture, products and/or services.

Public and private sector clients can benefit from CSE’s expertise in serving diverse sectors, markets and organisational cultures in the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

CSE believes that investment in human capital through education, training and coaching is the single most important determinant of future value for all organisations.


What steps can organisations take to better understand and identify their sustainability needs and create successful CSR strategies?

Based on our global expertise we believe that organisations must take the following steps to identify their sustainability needs and create successful strategies:

• Awareness and Training: Provide sustainability teams with the training necessary to foster a common understanding on sustainability (CSR).

• Stakeholder Mapping and Engagement: Map your key and secondary stakeholders, identifying risks and opportunities for engagement. Stakeholder engagement is crucial for every organisation’s sustainable growth.

Sustainability Assessment: To be undertaken using one of the international guidelines, such as GRI, ISO 26000, UN Global Compact, GHG protocol (Carbon Footprint), and/or other guidelines.

Sustainability Goals and Strategy: Set appropriate goals and create action plans for all sustainability (CSR) key pillars in order to increase your organisation’s competitive advantage. Sustainability Strategy is a core element for success.

Sustainability Reporting: Address all key material areas that should be included in your organisation’s Sustainability Reports.


What are the benefits of having trained sustainability professionals within a business’s organisational core?

CSE believes that investment in human capital through education, training and coaching is the single most important determinant of future value for all organisations.

CSE has just completed its 2014 global study to determine the contribution of Certified Sustainability Practitioners to the overall sustainability rating score of the corresponding companies, based on CSRHub data. CSRHub is a proverbial corporate social responsibility ratings tool that allows managers, consultants, academics and activists to track the sustainability performance of major companies. In CSE’s Global research, 20 companies with senior sustainability professionals from Europe, the Middle East and North America served as a statistical sample to investigate their overall sustainability ratings and annual performance during the period 2011–2013. The aim of this research was to discover any relationship between companies’ sustainability ratings before and after having trained Sustainability Practitioners within their teams. The actions taken to compare the 20 companies’ CSR scores comprised of looking at the ratings from one year before as well as one and two years after CSE training, and comparing this to the corresponding industry average of the last year.

Overall, the results of the research indicate a clear improvement in sustainability scores in the companies that had trained senior sustainability professionals (Certified Sustainability Practitioners trained by CSE). Based on the conclusions of this research, we value that CSE sustainability practitioner trainings have positively affected the sustainability performance of more than 300 companies globally.


How has CSE helped companies achieve this improved sustainability performance?

Through its Global Advanced Sustainability Trainings (certified by IEMA), CSE aims to increase global awareness of sustainability and the immediate need to consider its practical benefits – not just for individual organisations but for the environment and society as a whole. By training senior executives from worldwide Fortune 500 companies, CSE is trying to provide all key decision-makers with a healthy and accurate perspective on the essential principles of sustainability, as well as on the latest advanced industry developments and up-to-date legislation.

Since 2008, CSE has trained more than 5000 CSR professionals who have both improved their organisation’s performance and furthered their career in the field, according to our recent internal survey. This year we continue our mission by providing the advanced version of our IEMA CSR-P course and other global courses on environmental issues and Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G4 reporting.

Our only hope is that organisational policymakers and key stakeholders will gain the appropriate understanding of what needs to be done and what their objectives should be in terms of sustainability, and find a way to integrate sustainability into their long-term vision effectively.


Why is stakeholder engagement with the sustainability process so important, and how can companies get stakeholders on board?

The latest UN report shows that there has been lots of progress. However, we still have a lot to do. There are big challenges to meeting all of the MDG targets by the 2015 deadline. Natural disasters, climate change and the global financial crisis all threaten the progress achieved thus far. Governments must stick to their commitments to achieve the goals, and much more progress is possible if organisations take a principle-based approach to business (ethical sourcing, supply chain management) and engage in projects that also have a positive developmental impact. By integrating sustainability into day-to-day business, there will be good chances of accelerating progress towards a more sustainable and inclusive global economy.


What direct benefits can companies themselves derive from investing in sustainability?

The spectrum of benefits resulting from investing in Sustainability covers all organisational aspects; it improves the overall performance of the organisation by a chain reaction of benefits such as:

Enhanced brand value and reputation

Positive image to stakeholders (Stakeholder Perception)

Positive image to investors (Relationships of Trust with Shareholders) – one out of every eight dollars under professional management in the United States is involved in socially responsible investing. That $3.07 trillion represents a huge pool of money that is being invested in companies that have been found to be sustainable.

Increased societal recognition

Improved risk and crisis management

Workforce/employee satisfaction: skilled, knowledgeable and engaged workers who perform consistently to deliver quality products on time

Positive relations with government and communities

Opportunities in ‘green’ markets, which are estimated to reach a value of $2.7 trillion per year globally by 2020.


How is CSE working to increase global awareness of the importance of sustainability in business?

Since 2007, CSE has raised sustainability awareness among business communities by hosting roundtables. In doing this, CSE brings together thought leaders in the arena of CSR, distinguished speakers from the public and private sectors as well as academia to discuss fundamental and key sustainability topics, acting as a melting pot for innovation. So far, CSE has hosted its round tables in New York, Atlanta, Washington, Brussels, Athens, Dubai, London, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and plans to do many more in the near future.

About the Author

Nikos-Avlonas-2011-aNikos Avlonas is founder and President of the Centre for Sustainability & Excellence (CSE), a global sustainability advisory and training organisation active in more than 25 countries. Nikos has been named one of the “Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior” by Trust Across America and is currently Co-Chair of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce Sustainability Strategy Committee. He is also co-author of the books Practical Sustainability Strategies (Wiley, 2013) and Management Models for the Future (2009).


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.