MU leads study on sustainability beliefs of Irish business leaders

Pictured (L to R): Colm Gaskin, Head of Research and Communities at 20FIFTY Partners; Professor Eeva Leinonen, President of Maynooth University; Tracey Donnery, Director of Policy and Communications at Skillnet Ireland; Dr Jean Cushen, Principal Investigator and Report Author, Maynooth University School of Business; Marian Curry, Senior Sustainability Adviser at Business in the Community Ireland; Maria Kelly, Director of Skillnet Climate Ready Academy and Head of Policy at 20FIFTY Partners
Monday, June 24, 2024 - 11:00

Irish business leaders believe that ‘disruptive’ change in leadership practices is needed to achieve sustainable goals, and are focussed on the new skills and forms of leadership they need to make progress.
The ‘Sustainability Capabilities for Leaders’ report examines the sustainability beliefs and capabilities of some of the most successful business leaders in Ireland and outlines how they are responding to the challenge of steering their organisations to more sustainable practices.  
Authored by Dr Jean Cushen of MU’s School of Business, and published by the Skillnet Climate Ready Academy, the report finds that business leaders have invested considerable time developing sustainability values and strategies for their organisation.
Progress has been made in achieving the social dimension of sustainability goals, such as incorporating inclusion, equality, and secure employment terms and conditions into their policies. However, the needed shift in environment practices lags behind, partly due to obstacles outside leadership control, such as consumer resistance and potentially higher costs associated with adopting more sustainable products and services.  In some circumstances, leaders say they cannot discontinue environmentally-problematic products and services until they have identified alternative sources of revenue.  This underscores the systemic ‘wicked problems’ that define the sustainability transition.   
The report found some of the key drivers of change for businesses include preparing for the forthcoming Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), aligning with national emissions reduction targets, meeting regulatory obligations, and the desire to position their organisation as an attractive employer.

However, the research also found a lack of clarity regarding the skills needed to drive sustainable change and effectively implement sustainable practices in organisations. The findings highlight the need for a constructive and collaborative response from Government and industry bodies to ensure that all necessary sustainability transition upskilling and support mechanisms are available and effectively communicated to businesses.
The report identifies for the first time an innovative framework to comprehensively examine leaders’ sustainability beliefs and capabilities. The framework has been completed by 46 prominent business leaders from some of Ireland’s largest and most successful organisations.
Commenting on the report, Dr Jean Cushen of Maynooth University, said: “This research shows that business leaders in Ireland are actively exploring what it means to run an environmentally sustainable business.  However, the complex and disruptive nature of the change required to become more sustainable should not be underestimated and leaders report that much of this change has to happen both within and outside of their organisations. We hope this research raises awareness of the complexities inherent to the sustainability transition, how leaders are meeting this challenge and how Irish industry is uniquely positioned to become a global leader in successful sustainable business.”
Maria Kelly, Director, Skillnet Climate Ready Academy, said: “This report is the first of its kind, providing a snapshot of the attitudes, actions and capabilities of Ireland’s leading business executives in relation to sustainability. The results and insights from this report are hugely important to help guide other business leaders to adapt and change to a more sustainable model of doing business.”
Marian Curry, Senior Sustainability Advisor, Business in the Community Ireland (BITCI) said, “Members of the BITCI network who took part in the research found it to be an extremely valuable exercise.  Completing the assessment was thought provoking as it addressed capabilities for leadership for sustainability under Strategy, Enacting Structures, and Enabling Culture.  Several members are already incorporating the findings into leadership development, and all agreed that ‘there is value in the leadership having an aligned view’.  We believe that building capacity for sustainability is key at all levels in an organisation if we are to accelerate our transformation to a low carbon economy and inclusive society.  A collective approach is the only way to achieve this transformation and the findings from this report will influence our dialogue and action with network members and wider stakeholders.

To read the full ‘Sustainability Capabilities for Leaders’ report, click here.