What my Tuscan idyll can teach us about sustainability

As I write this week’s column, I am in one of my favourite places in the world. Every summer, I return to a Tuscan agriturismo, or country inn, known as ‘Il Pozzo’. The name literally translates as “The Well”, which commemorates an ancient spring discovered on the beautiful property.

I am seated in a courtyard between two 500-year-old stone buildings. A grove of olive trees spreads below me. A nearby cypress tree reaches to the blue sky and the chirring of summer cicadas accompanies the sound of my typing. (I am often teased that I type very loudly. But I like to say, “I type with purpose.”)

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No matter how you describe it, the reason I’m telling you where I am typing today is that I want to compare the sustainable approach with which this Italian accommodation is run to how businesses – small or large – can transform and maintain themselves.

Carla Veneri renovated this 17th century farm 15 years ago. She converted the former stables and outbuildings into eight self-catering apartments – tastefully decorated in the warm earth-tones and rustic designs commonly found in Tuscany.

Arriving guests are greeted with a home-baked cake and fresh milk. Dinners include locally sourced fruit, vegetables and meats. Even the flour for the cake and the pasta is local. Every autumn, the olives in the trees below are harvested, and the oil is pressed here. The party for this event is a festive occasion.

In addition to sourcing local food to positively impact the environment and economy, Carla is equally committed to a sustainable approach of waste disposal.

Among other efforts, each apartment is equipped with three recycling bins: one for metal and glass; one for paper and cardboard; and one for organic materials. The people who come here are mutually devoted which creates an atmosphere of shared aspirations and conviviality.

But, of course, sustainability is not just a buzzword for tourism, it’s also important in the workplace.

Corporate sustainability adds a competitive edge to a company’s bottom line. For example, corporate investors and shareholders often speak of an organisation’s brand as being supported by the three pillars known as “ESG” or Environmental, Social and Governance. Or as I like to more informally say, “Planet, People and Profits”.

1. Environmental – Planet

This one seems to attract the most headlines. The EU has already ordered that all member states halt use of single-use plastic straws, plates and cutlery by 2021, and companies making strides in further lowering their carbon footprints through changing water usage or reducing the amount of unnecessary packaging are smartly turning their efforts into good news stories and incentives for attracting future employees. For instance, while the car industry may be considered one of the heaviest polluters, the Ford Motor company is boasting an attractive series of policies committed to protecting the environment.

It is now offering a clean diesel pick-up truck and sustainable fabrics in its vehicles. Its factories are running on geothermal cooling systems and the paint fumes in the company’s main plant in Michigan is now being recycled as fuel.

On the other hand, companies in mining, or certain food production facilities which are not making efforts, are being held more accountable. What effort is your company making? Are you still allowing single-use plastic for cups of coffee or for bottles of water? It’s time to correct this. Journalists, investors and future employees are watching.

2. Socially responsible – People

Focusing on the people who make up a company is the next pillar of running a successful and sustainable business. I’ve written before about the importance of committing to creating and nurturing an employee-centric culture. Humans are social creatures and we need to feel valued to stay incentivised and loyal to any organisation.

Flexible scheduling, remote working and rewarding achievements are just some of the ways a company can attract and retain important talent. Campaigns to cultivate culture must be ongoing and creative.

External campaigns which give back to the community that your company serves are also critical.

Consider providing scholarships, holding fundraisers and sponsoring local projects that include employee involvement as part of your corporate social responsibility efforts.

Your business should also take responsibility for your supply chain.

Is child labour going into your end product? How safe are remote work environments? What about wages? Even something that occurs in a seemingly far-away country is a reflection on you if you are connected.

3. Governance – Profits

Businesses traditionally only focused on profits. If your balance sheet was showing a profit, you were a success. These days, profit does not stand alone. It must be balanced between the other two pillars. And this pillar is not only about earnings and revenue. It includes compliance, risk management and governance.

Corporate governance – the way management and board members get along, interact and relate – is now a major focus for shareholders.

If your company is facilitating effective governance and progressively committing to the other two pillars, you should be in alignment with your shareholders.

If not, may I recommend a team retreat to Tuscany…

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