Sustainability Management a challenge

Cover chatted to Elias Masilela, Sanlam’s newly appointed head of corporate affairs and retirement reform, about the increasingly important role of sustainability management in South African business as well as developments within corporate social investment (CSI) and public affairs.

What is sustainability management?

Sustainability management refers to the overarching strategy which a business develops to consider how sustainable its current and future business practices are, with a view to ensuring future existence. In South Africa, both BEE and environmental matters define the sustainability management agenda. Internationally, environmental issues drive sustainability as companies take cognisance of issues such as climate change which will have fundamentally negative impacts on the way they do business, and consequently their future profits.

This is not the only challenge facing companies in our dispensation. South African companies will fail in their future planning scenarios if they do not align their staff profile with black economic empowerment (BEE) requirements. Though BEE is currently the only legislated area of sustainability management in South Africa, things are changing fast internationally, and we believe it is only a matter of time before local companies will be faced with more stringent requirements regarding their environmental sustainability practices. It is not, therefore, surprising that this is a growing profession in the global corporate environment.

How does CSI differ from Public Affairs?

CSI and Public Affairs are both critical as they present ‘the face’ of a company, with CSI specifically presenting the human face of a brand or business. CSI’s objective is to ensure a company ‘gives back’ to the communities in which it operates. At Sanlam, we recognise that our ability to do business is linked directly to the goodwill of communities and CSI is about enhancing the livelihoods of the people in the communities in which we operate.

An effective CSI strategy should have a common thread running through all activities. In Sanlam’s case, our chosen CSI themes are skills development and saving. These are fundamental to the sustainable growth of any society and any market. It is from this perspective that we are trying to better the welfare of the communities in which we operate.

Public affairs mainly relates to understanding, enhancing and influencing the way in which a company engages with stakeholders, namely the board, staff, clients and society at large, particularly for business purposes. In Sanlam there is a strong case for distinguishing between existing and potential clients, and public affairs focuses on dealing with both of these intimately. Public affairs is about enhancing the brand, making sure Sanlam is recognised and understood by everyone, and ensuring the company appeals to both existing and potential clients.

What are Sanlam’s main projects or events of involvement?

At the CSI level, Sanlam is deeply involved in universities and schools. We assist them to improve or enhance their delivery to students. All our initiatives in schools are designed to have a direct impact on society in its critical formative stage. Their impact may only be felt a generation later, but this is consistent with planning ahead and long-term sustainability.

As far as universities are concerned, our interventions are about assisting and improving the quality of the products which universities offer so that when those students come into the work environment they can be effective immediately. This is in line with raising the economy’s productivity levels and applies in particular to the previously disadvantaged.

Savings are extremely important and we are working hard to ensure that the level of understanding of the role which savings play in life is better understood. We are making sure that savings form part of everything we do in terms of CSI and financial literacy education. It is for this reason we have decided to pilot a staff involvement project based on savings and teaching our children how to save (TCTS), in partnership with the South African Savings Insitute (SASI) and Banking Association during Savings Month.

What challenges lie ahead for corporate affairs?

When a choice has to be made between a business decision and a sustainability decision, most often the business decision will have preference. This can be understood, as an entity will only be well positioned to assist if its health is guaranteed. However, this can also be attributed to the way in which incentive structures are defined in the corporate world and to how we do business worldwide. But this way of thinking can be quite short sighted and it will take a while to change this mindset, but if we ignore the future business imperative and the opportunity to play a leadership role, we do so at our peril.

Sustainability is a long-term issue. We may do well in the next year or so, but will we be doing well in the next 20 years if our current employee profile does not change? The answer can be found in the current economic meltdown, which was driven by short-term greed. This has proven to be unsustainable. And how will the state of our planet impact on our business in 20 years’ time? These are the questions every business needs to ask.

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