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CBBC Insights | How the UK is contributing to sustainable business models in China

BritCham / CBBC
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By Simon Stewart
Director, Education, Training & Talent Development (China)
China-Britain Business Council
Carbon dioxide levels are reportedly at historic highs. News of pollution has become so routine in China that we risk becoming immune to the urgency of the message. In a business context, the question is not whether we are experiencing environmental degradation, but rather whether companies have the appetite to do something about it – and if so, how?
The UK’s executive education sector is working in China to encourage international businesses to shift their mindset from traditional business decision-making models to sustainable models. There has been progress at a policy level and an increase in the number of domestic and overseas companies championing the sustainability cause. However, the reality is that not enough governments, companies or consumers are yet willing to make the sacrifices required to create real change, although international leaders such as Standard Chartered and Unilever are questioning the traditional model to introduce sustainable practices.
Businesses that are successful in delivering commercial growth alongside social and environmental well-being understand that sustainability cannot be a separate policy pillar that creates competing priorities. It must be wholly integrated into the decision-making of governments, businesses and consumers. This is easier said than done because the integration of complex sustainability risks and opportunities into policy and strategy requires the engagement of multiple individual decision-makers, all of whom have their own motivations, targets and stakeholders. But helping governments, companies and individual businesses to align profitability and sustainability is an area where UK education providers excel.
UK organisations in China
The Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership (CISL) has been working in China since 2005 with leaders from across government and business, especially the financial sector, helping them to develop strategic responses to sustainability challenges and to translate new knowledge and awareness into practice. 
“China has significant influence globally,” says Lindsay Hooper, director of strategy and operations at CISL. “The action taken by leaders in China will shape the actions of many regions and organisations internationally. We are committed to supporting China’s ambition to achieve a sustainable economy.”
CISL is working to support a number of China’s commitments, including the development of sustainable infrastructure in relation to the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative; the realisation of sustainable, resilient supply chains; the implementation of new urbanisation strategies to build sustainable low-carbon cities; the establishment of a ‘green’ financial system; and the promotion of business and industrial growth – all while meeting Chinese government targets for environmental protection and social inclusion. Some case studies of CISL’s work in China are given below.
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) is also playing its part. Accounting departments may seem an unlikely champion in the fight for sustainability, but they contain many key decision-makers. Ultimately businesses measure what they care about: profit and loss, customer and employee satisfaction. CFOs need to be conversant in sustainability to help companies make decisions based on clear data.
ICAEW’s ‘Sustainable Business Initiative’ describes the integral part that accountants play in realising sustainability. They have an important role assessing opportunities and risks, monitoring standards and operating policies, and providing reliable information to stakeholders on the business and environmental impact of company policy. They must also provide reliable information to the board and customers about how the company’s sustainability policies are progressing and measuring up against industry standards. And in an ever-changing regulatory environment, they act as an early-warning system to alert the management to new regulations which may give rise to sustainability-related taxes or subsidies. 
“Sustainability is one of those words that gets used a lot and in many different ways,” says Richard Spencer, head of sustainability at ICAEW. “For many businesses it is still something that’s good to do if you have the time and the money. At ICAEW we take a different view. We believe that sustainability is core and not optional. We have to change the way we do business and run our economies in order to solve social and environmental challenges.”
Concluding thoughts
The success of high-level strategy hinges on how it is applied throughout the company, which in the Chinese context means fostering awareness of sustainability. Education and training workshops delivered by UK institutions such as CISL provide the vital link between policy development and execution, while standards and qualifications offered by the likes of ICAEW foster staff who can provide the data on which sustainability programmes are based. 
This is the bridge that British education is building in China between government policy, corporate strategy and business decision-making, which enables companies to execute and track sustainability programmes that benefit corporate stakeholders, consumers and the environment.
If you are a UK educational organisation and are interested in learning more about developing your business in China contact simon.stewart@cbbc.org.cn in China or nathalie.cachet-gaujard@cbbc.org in the UK.
CBBC would like to thank the following contributors to this article:
Case studies of CISL’s work in China:
  • The Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership delivers education programmes for Beijing Municipality and the Provincial Government of Guangdong, which are designed to support mayors and senior officials lead the development of sustainable, low-carbon cities and effectively meet their 2020 targets on infrastructure and the environment. Speaking about the programme, the deputy mayor of Beijing’s Miyun County said, “From the theory and guidance to the specific applications and practical support, this programme allowed us to fully understand the concept of sustainable development.”
  • In 2014, the China’s fifth-largest bank, the Bank of Communications, commissioned CISL to design and deliver an education programme for executives and help them promote innovation and strategic management within the bank. The course raised awareness of changes in the business operating context and identified how issues such as climate change present risks and opportunities. It examined the skills required to anticipate and adapt to these changes, drawing on expertise from academics, thought-leaders and businesses, to structure different types of conversation with clients. Speaking about the programme, Mr Yin, head of the delegation, said: “The course highlighted what our strategic approach needs to be and demonstrated how we can equip our clients to deal with this complexity and continue to grow.”
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