Nigerians Define 'Business Sustainability'

In recent times, 'Sustainability' has become a certified buzzword! Interestingly, I thought the term had recently gained momentum, but when I checked Google Trends I saw that it has actually been in circulation for quite a while. But what's different now?

I can identify two main reasons for the recent explosion in sustainability: first is that many cannot now express disbelief in climate change, not with the recent rise in temperature experienced everywhere around the globe! So much so that NASA proclaimed March 2016 to be the hottest month since pre-industrial levels. Climate change is more fact than myth these days. The second reason is the massive awareness COP21 in Paris generated for sustainability, especially with the landmark acquiesce of both China and the USA to sign the agreement. At least 35 corporations also pledged to sign the agreement - another landmark!

Many of these corporations also operate in Nigeria, so Nigeria is part of this movement. Although it may seem that the Western countries are the main contributors to climate change, Nigeria contributes its quota too. Most noticeably are the GHG emissions from the ubiquitous generators, firewood that burns smoke, massive deforestation and soil erosion, and spills from the extractive industry.

So now I wonder, with these developments, and Nigeria's activities above, how aware is the Nigerian public about sustainable development, particularly as it regards to how companies (government MDAs, corporates and SMEs) conduct their businesses to best reduce their negative impacts. I decided to find out.

The first poll I made in late March 2016 was quantitative and formed part of a short presentation I put together on the Nigerian business sustainability space. The results showed that slightly more than half of the people surveyed did not understand the concept of business sustainability. See the poll below:

To be honest, that was a better result than I anticipated. But it may also have been the demographic of people surveyed - young Twitter users who are likely to be aware of global issues.

So I decided to dig a bit deeper and be more qualitative. I asked 30 new people to actually define 'business sustainability' in their own words. First I found that this different, smaller poll (carried out via Facebook and email) validated my first one (carried out on Twitter). I found that 53% of them did not fully understand the concept, and several expressed they had no idea where to start from (I didn't count this number). Of this 53% who took a stab at the definition, all of them stated business sustainability in solely profitability terms. For example:

A profitable and continuous business
Strategies, ideas, innovations and practices that can keep a business growing, strong and relevant
The factors, conditions or plans to improve the long term sale of certain goods and services
How you can make your business interesting and attractive time to time so it does not fall into a dormant phase and prevent loss clientele
Business sustainability can be said to be the capability to carry out business applying required skills and manpower adequate enough to keep the business afloat
Businesses that sustain them self (has broken even and has a supportive business mode)

The other 47% gave more apt definitions of business sustainability as revolving around factors other than profitability. However, exactly 50% of this group mentioned at most two factors only (stating profit and planet, people and planet, or profit and people), thereby omitting the triple bottom-line principle. For example:

Giving back to the community
Profit sustainability and then eco-sustainability
About a company’s overall effect or impact on people and the environment
Business Sustainability is a practice employed by most businesses today which focuses on eco-friendly initiatives that affect the environment

So in actuality, only about 23% of the people surveyed associated a triple bottom-line to their definitions of business sustainability! I must say though, that given the relatively low discourse (on a mass scale outside the community) on this topic in Nigeria, 23% of people getting this spot on, and 46% having an idea of it, is pretty good.

Still, these results show that way more needs to be done to tackle the first huddle of sustainable development - awareness. If the public are not aware enough to demand sustainable practices from the businesses that serve them, then we would be overly optimistic to assume that these businesses would take up the mantle all by themselves. A lot of the companies that are currently doing so have international ties, and see some reputational gain from reviewing their practices (especially as the public in developed countries are more aware). But to ensure these businesses go the distance, the Nigerian public needs to push them. And this starts with public awareness.