Sustainability Must Be Lived Out and Believed In

The importance of sustainable development for the future of companies

Sustainable development means holding on to a future that is worth living. It is therefore more than just a mega-trend of the 21st century. It will secure the very survival of humanity – not just to vegetate as a gene pool, but to safeguard human culture. Sustainability is becoming more and more important for companies, too – whether out of personal conviction, or worries regarding the future, due to pressure from customers or politicians, or fueled by a desire to convey a positive image among clients or (future) employees. For almost thirty years, Steinbeis Entrepreneur Professor Dr. Ulrich Holzbaur has been working on the approaches towards sustainability and knows their various positive impacts for companies.

Elements of ISO standard 26000, which provides guidelines on social responsibility


Even when the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Applied Management had just been set up, Ulrich Holzbaur and his colleagues found themselves working on sustainability issues. With the topic gaining increasing importance in recent years on a variety of fronts, this focus has paid dividends and the Steinbeis Enterprise can now look back to many years of experience and acquired know-how in consulting clients and delivering projects in this area.

Sustainable development – everybody’s responsibility

Sustainable development extends beyond the temporal and spatial dimensions of our individual lives. As a result, it is worth every effort for people and companies to think more about this topic in the here and now. Ethical considerations also play an important role in this area, because sustainability is about individuals and organizations “doing the right thing” and taking responsibility. Ethical factors should be an integral part of the actions we take, in order to do justice to mounting public pressure. Every individual member of society should think about the things they can do to make the future more liveable for the generations to follow.

From a company standpoint, sustainable development often goes hand in hand with corporate social responsibility (CSR), reflecting the voluntary contributions made by companies to sustainability, over and beyond complying with statutory regulations. But it is about more than just social commitment; CSR takes into account all social activities and factors, including the impacts of decisions made by companies. Society, the global economy, and international value chains have undergone sweeping changes over the last 18 months, especially given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Management must be ready for sustainability

To promote sustainability within a company, one has to evaluate how the company thinks and acts. The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Applied Management helps clients to identify potential starting points, develop strategies, introduce systems for managing environmental and sustainability issues, and optimize processes.

Formulating and implementing a sustainability strategy is about much more than just honing your image. It has to be lived out and believed in. Even if operating sustainably has a positive influence on your image, environmentally friendly policies that promote the preservation of resources also offer the potential to improve business performance. Saving resources in the long term promotes sustainable success and, for example, compensates for rising energy costs. Showing that you are committed to sustainability helps companies with their activities in public areas, boosting team motivation and making it easier to attract qualified workers. To leverage the benefits of sustainability, the management of a company must be prepared to reflect on their own attitudes, to make them concrete, and to promote sustainable action within the company. But it is not only the managers of a company that are in a position to make valuable contributions to sustainable development, for example through the company vision. Workers are also able to add particular value through everyday actions by focusing on sustainable practices.

Depending on the company and its goals, a number of structural arrangements can be adopted to achieve this. For example, if a company is seeking direction it can look at how it interacts with society, its natural environment, and culture in general; it can use the pillars of sustainability, DIN standard ISO 26000 (which offers guidelines on taking social responsibility); or it can examine how it organizes processes to assess its carbon footprint. The German Education for Sustainable Development (BNE) program also offers a useful template for international training campaigns aimed at empowering individuals to think and act with the future in mind and take economic, ecological, and social factors into consideration. As well as imparting factual knowledge, the BNE program offers training on the values and skills that enable individuals to think with the horizon in mind, to take personal responsibility for their actions, to assume social responsibility, and to acquire interdisciplinary know-how. The aim of the education campaign is to provide individuals – including managers and their co-workers – with the competences they require to play an active role in shaping the future and taking responsibility.

Engendering sustainable thinking within the company

To foster a closer understanding of sustainability, companies can use experiential methods in the form of business simulations. Simulations offer a playful approach to showing employees how they can transfer sustainable development to their area of work. Events revolving around sustainability can be organized in a number of ways, and it is useful to make sustainability tangible, to arouse interest in the topic, and to motivate people – not only internally, but also when it comes to customers and other stakeholders.

Sustainability secures the future

One of the aims of sustainability is to be prepared for the future, to be in a position to satisfy the needs of future generations. As such, there are scientific, technical, normative, and ethical aspects to sustainable development, and in addition to its multifarious potential to fuel conflict, it also offers a variety of potential solutions to different problems. As Ulrich Holzbaur and his team know from experience, implementing sustainable development within companies requires a structured approach revolving around the goals and the given situation faced by every company and its managers. As the Steinbeis Entrepreneur emphasizes: “It’s important to create awareness for this topic, because sustainability offers a whole raft of benefits – it enhances corporate image, there’s potential to cut costs, and you bolster customer loyalty and staff motivation. Last but not least, and this is the crucial point, the company makes its own contribution to creating a livable future.”


Prof. Dr. Ulrich Holzbaur (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center Applied Management (Aalen)