With an average score of 6.4/10 for their sustainability performance, Belgian companies acknowledge they still have a long road ahead. However, the outlook for sustainability is positive with many companies indicating they think sustainability will increase in strategic importance and saying they intend to have more attention for sustainability, even in the face of unchanged budgets. These are the main conclusions of a new study that Antwerp Management School conduction in collaboration with ING Belgium on the position and performance of Belgian companies in relation to sustainability.
Belgian companies rate their current state of sustainability with an average 6.4/10 score
The study, which resumes data of 293 Belgian enterprises, reveals Belgian companies give themselves an average score of 6.4/10 for their sustainability performance, and less than 10% of those consider themselves to be sustainability leaders. On the other hand, almost 9 out of 10 of the companies claim to pay attention to sustainability with Flemish companies seeing more substantial benefits than their Walloon counterparts. The Flemish companies also tend to have a stronger focus on product innovation when it comes to sustainability and allow a higher level of employee involvement (31% compared to 8% for Walloon companies).
Half of the companies indicate an ethical choice is their main motivation for engaging in sustainability. The other main motivations are however directly related to the economic benefits for the company: cost savings (37.1%), making the company future proof (29.7%), improved company image (28.9%) and increasing employee engagement and pride (27.7%).
Jean-Pierre Verbeken ING Belgium: “By partnering up with AMS to conduct this study we want to help our clients to turn the threats of climate change and fast-changing technology into opportunities. This study helps us to help our clients get a better idea of how a business can successfully initiate their own sustainable transformation process. In this way we want to help them to stay a step ahead in life and business.”
National and international standards most important driving factor for Belgian companies to engage in sustainability
In addition to uncovering the current state of sustainability in Belgium, the study investigates important practical aspects of the process that companies go through when implementing sustainability. These include companies’ expectations and experiences when it comes to the impacts of sustainability, the barriers they encounter in the process of sustainable change and their lessons learned from implementing sustainability.
The study reveals that the main drivers to implement sustainability are national and international standards, law and regulations, a market demand for sustainability and ideas from employees. Interestingly, nearly half of the respondents want the government to require sustainable business, a trend that is more outspoken for more sizeable enterprises. The results hence seem to suggest that sustainability is not crucial for differentiating the company from its competitors, but serves as an important part of companies’ license to operate.
Employees considered the most important internal barrier for implementing sustainability
Meanwhile, companies surprisingly consider their employees to be the biggest barrier towards sustainability, even though they recognize employees as an important driving force. Professor Lars Moratis: “To me, this shows that companies see the value of engaging employees, but seem to be struggling in practice how to do it. This suggests that HR has a crucial role to play in sustainability.” Companies primarily indicate that for their employees, it is primarily a lack of knowledge, time and enthusiasm that is a threshold. Other internal barriers are the management and Board of Directors.
Companies are also facing external obstacles. Suppliers are the number one external barrier, but investors, financiers and customers are not lagging far behind. This is mainly due to a lack of money to invest in sustainability. This is in line with the finding that cost savings are considered as one of the most important motivations for engaging in sustainability.
Lessons to be drawn and positive outlook
Overall, the results allow to put forward two key lessons:
- Companies should engage more with their employees on the topic of sustainability and pay more attention to the employees’ knowledge, time and enthusiasm for sustainability. HR can really play an important role here.
- Sustainability should be structurally embedded within the systems and structures of the company. It should be developed bottom-up and it can contribute to the economic and financial performance of companies.
While companies tend to agree with the statement that the attention for sustainability can potentially fade quickly, the outlook for sustainability is positive. Companies expect the impact of sustainability on strategic decision-making to increase during the coming three years. At the same time, they are planning to do more in terms of sustainability with similar budgets.
The complete study and the booklet, containing interviews with entrepreneurs and sustainability managers providing practical insights and suggestions for companies that want to start or spur their sustainability initiatives, as well as an infographic with the most significant findings are also available on www.antwerpmanagementschool.be/sustainablechange