When the breadth and depth of the global financial crisis became evident it is unlikely that many businesses first response was to consider anything other than the sustainability of their bottom line.

However, as the recession has taken its toll and some businesses have faltered and other survived it has become clear that sustainable development or CSR considerations and businesses’ bottom lines need not be foes, but in fact can be allies, benefiting one another in a virtuous ‘win-win’ cycle.  Businesses, more than ever, can make important gains from harnessing sustainable development as the bedrock of their business strategy, through actions that both minimise environmental impacts and that through either their supply chains or distribution include and contribute to the livelihoods of the poor in the developing world.

Positive gains for businesses include; the minimisation of reputational risk; innovation; cost -savings; an important source of competitive advantage;  legitimate access to new markets thereby increasing market share; and increased shareholder value.

Graham McKay, CEO of SAB Miller argues that “when I look at our ten sustainable development priorities – which include using less water to make our beer; tackling poverty by stimulating economic activity among local suppliers; reducing the spread of HIV/Aids in our spheres of influence – I do not see how we could remain competitive if we invested less in these core business activities during difficult economic times… Our consumers do not see sustainable development as a discretionary activity either.”

According to the International Business Leaders Forum, responsible businesses and their leaders can continue to be the drivers of economic growth by:

  • Affirming their commitment to responsible and sustainable business practices;
  • Balancing the need to reduce costs with the importance of maintaining the long-term health of the company, its stakeholders and the communities in which the company operates;
  • Contributing to strategic social, economic and environmental investments for sustainable development by drawing on core business competences and resources;
  • Demonstrating determination to act collectively to set new standards of acceptable corporate practice and governance.

For those businesses who re-affirm their commitment to sustainable development throughout the crisis, they are likely to emerge all the stronger for it.