How to Build a Business Case for Sustainability: Four Tips on Getting Buy-In from Finance

How to Build a Business Case for Sustainability: Four Tips on Getting Buy-In from Finance

y arinas74. http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1117048

How can you persuade your finance department to invest in finding your company's business case for sustainability? It's not easy, but it can be done.

Sustainability professionals often find themselves caught in a vicious circle: They need resources to investigate the business case and the accountants won't release resources without a business case.

In a previous post I gave Six Lessons on Finding the Business Case for Sustainability Initiatives. This blog sets out how to take your finance managers step-by-step to the point where they understand the financial rewards in sustainability and are willing to support big projects, based on our experience at Forum for the Future helping companies escape from this trap.

1. View the business case as part of a wider change program. That means knowing who are the internal stakeholders you need to influence, especially in the finance function. Is there someone who could be a champion, or at least a curious friend, among the accountants?

Also, it is a good idea to have a core message that frames the search for your business case, for instance: "Sustainability is an opportunity as well as a risk to be managed."

2. Go to the finance department with a safe pilot. Unless someone in your C-suite has an epiphany, you will need to start with a small and safe pilot. Identify something -- an initiative, project, decision or process -- where the business case can be investigated without requiring too much resource. Whatever you investigate must also be relatively unimportant, so you don't trigger defense routines. I'll return to the technical part of the pilot in my next blog.

3. Use the pilot to build credibility and awareness. Wherever possible get the finance department themselves to investigate the business case. They will find their own results the most credible. You can use the pilot to learn how to speak their accounting language better, and to help them them understand sustainability too.

In our experience, rather paradoxically, it is not vital that there is a great business case for whatever you investigate. More important is demonstrating, first, that you are searching for how sustainability can create profits, and, second, that there probably is a business case for the company, even if not with what was piloted.

4. Keep creating a "permission and results" cycle. Hopefully, by this stage you have some credibility and interest from the finance function. You can use that to address larger and more important areas. How can you bring sustainability into capital expenditure decisions? Do sustainability-related risks get valued correctly in the risk register? Do people in strategy planning understand the size of sustainability-related opportunities?

Throughout the process, continue to build permission to investigate more of the business case, and use the results to get the next round of permission. Along the way you will want to build the capacity of individuals to understand and act on sustainability.

Of course, in an ideal world you would start with the big and important items listed at stage four, not least because they often have a more compelling business case. But in practice, you need support from the finance department, and you can only get that permission by starting small.

There is one final piece in the puzzle: How do you actually investigate the business case for a sustainability-related initiative, project, decision or process? That will be the subject of my next post. 

David Bent is head of Business Strategies at
Forum for the Future, a nonprofit sustainable development organization based in the United Kingdom.

Image by arinas74.