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Putting the strategy into sustainability and sustainability into the strategy

20 Mar 2020 | Kim Ansell Kim Ansell shares insights and reflections from the recent Advance HE Let's Talk Value Conference panel session, live webinar and live tweet chat.

Through the process of creating (or destroying) value, universities have an impact (positive or negative) on their internal environment, the wider environment and the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So, how can universities impact work, education, research and operations to address sustainable development issues in an integrated way? 

Professor Carol Adams joined live from Australia to remind us of the fundamental concepts that underpin the Sustainable Development Goals Disclosure (SDGD) Recommendations and the principles of SDG disclosure. 


Value creation supports the identification of material sustainable development, risks and opportunities, and Professor Adams asserted that these can be achieved through alignment with the integrated reporting (IR) framework, the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (CFD) and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).  

As Executive Teams and Boards are making decisions about the university they will increasingly want to know the positive and negative impact on global SDGs and what the university is doing. Professor Carol Adams commented in the discussion that this needs to be of particular interest to the governing body and institutions may well consider including expertise for embedding sustainable development into their governing body skills matrix.

Examples of evidence you can look for to ensure you are embedding sustainability include:

• Governance (Council Terms of Reference, Skills Matrix, Remuneration policy and Board papers)

• Strategy (Strategic plans, Minutes of meetings and documented outcomes)

• Management approach (internal control procedures and reports, risks and opportunities and stakeholder engagement process and practices)

• Performance & targets (data sources, protocols, integration of KPIs into reporting)

Professor Eunice Simmons, VC at Chester University, emphasised the importance of showcasing in order to provide examples of evidence and to create a shared resource for the whole sector to continuously improve.

Applying the fundamental concepts of the SDGD Recommendations to universities, the panel discussed how SDG disclosures should reflect the sustainable development context of the university and the sector and be relevant to that context. A university’s presentation of sustainable development issues should include: their relationship to performance and consider implications for what universities do and how they do it; consideration of material sustainable development information, which is any information that is reasonably capable of making a difference to the conclusions drawn by students, staff, government, communities and other stakeholders concerning the positive and negative impacts of the university on global achievement of the SDGs; and the ability of the university to create long term value for society.

Carol Adams shared her tried and tested, ‘Five steps: Four disclosure themes’:

Carol Adams 5 steps

Professor Simmons reflected in discussion that in universities the responsibility for sustainability has gravitated towards estates. It is really important therefore to either have estates as part of the leadership team doing the integrated thinking necessary to embed sustainability into the wider institutional strategy, or for the leadership team to take more ownership of it. 

Professor Eunice Simmons says there is a reason why sustainability is owned by estates, “everyone thinks of it as ‘environment’ first”, but integrating estates initiatives with sustainability is the real key. You have to “burst out of the estates bubble” and make it really obvious to people that this is not just about environmentalism. Then all stakeholders, including governors, can see and feel the possibilities.

Reflecting on her time at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), Professor Simmons said that their strategy went to a much higher level when it started to engage stakeholders beyond estates and when they started to talk ‘big money’, for example, encouraging students and staff to properly re-cycle, raising £800,000 for the British Heart Foundation. She also commented that, it is so easy for small things to compromise your overall strategy and social media can undo really good work if small things are left unchecked. Measuring and reporting was a critical part of the programme at NTU and making the whole programme completely authentic and joined up, for example it included instant desktop reporting for ‘lights on’ or ‘taps leaking’.

Hard data

Finally, presenting real hard data and information on a consistent basis to the Board enabled NTU to have environmental strategy embedded as a strand in the main university strategy. Partnership for the goals (SDG 17) can be one of the biggest challenges, particularly if you want this to be strategic and authentic. Key competitors in Nottingham, NTU and the University of Nottingham, have been working together to address this complex but it is important to also consider the really important issue of overlapping activities to maximise impact on SDGs.

There are a range of good examples, including NTU, from the EAUC Green Gown Awards 2019 winners.  

Outside of HE, ACCA shared highlights from the IIRC business network review of annual reports which has seen that for some companies, their integrated reporting journey has helped them to deal with new reporting challenges – such as the SDGs, the EU Non-Financial Reporting (NFR) Directive and the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures. In their annual review of integrated reports, they have found a significant increase in the number of companies reporting against at least some of the UN SDGs (21 in 2019, compared with 7 in 2018).

“Many of the issues faced by HE are also issues outside of the sector”, said Sharon Machado from ACCA, and the fundamental concepts and principles above are the same, but critically there are issues with integrity and reliability.

Organisations cannot say one thing and do another. Demonstrably doing what you are saying and taking a balanced approach to progress and risks in your reporting makes it feel less like a marketing document, this is a key risk for institutions if not done well. If HE builds integrity and reliability, we should see protection or even enhancement of trust and autonomy across the sector.  

ACCA’s own approach to integrated reporting and linking it into the development and deployment of their strategy particularly focused on ensuring sustainable business and societal value. Their approach on how to incorporate sustainable value creation into the business model, draws on the collaborative research conducted by ACCA and the CFA institute.

Only this week, David Price, vice-provost (research) at UCL, was quoted as saying that he felt there needed to be more focus on sustainability: “Thirty per cent of our carbon footprint at UCL is academic travel. We need to look at how we engage and collaborate across the world without destroying its atmosphere.”

Our panel went beyond that to urge universities to take a more holistic and strategic approach.

Professor Simmons concluded our panel and webinar with a call to action, that integration across the university leadership is not enough and integrating the university strategy with the student union strategy was also important, as is looking at impact on society which, integrated with widening participation and addressing inequality, is a key SDG.

Collaborative Programme - Let’s Talk Value (LTV)

The topic of this article will be part of the next Advance HE LTV collaborative programme for institutions. For more information and to express an interest please contact Kim Ansell


Watch the webinar of the live panel session on sustainability from LTV 2020 here.

Click here to download the report: 'Lets talk value: How universities create value for students, staff and society'.

For all other Lets Talk Value resources visit our Knowledge Hub page.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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