Megatrend Sustainability

Prof. Dr Sarah Jastram on ethical competence and the strategic relevance of sustainability for companies.

Sarah Jastram, HSBA Professor of Sustainability and Business Ethics, has become an advisor on the Sustainability Advisory Board of Porsche AG in March 2021. This suggests that a strategic integration of sustainability at management level is no longer a niche topic but is taken really seriously in the corporate management of many industries. The reasons are certainly complex, but fortunately the effect remains the same, doesn't it? We talked to Professor Sarah Jastram about how credible corporate sustainability initiatives are, what reasons there may be for this and how important sustainability has become for our students in their everyday lives and when choosing a job.

You are an expert on sustainable leadership, strategic CSR and sustainable fashion to name only a few. You have been teaching on these topics for over 15 years and therefore are always very close to the young generation.  At HSBA, students are trained to become the leaders of tomorrow. How important is sustainability to them, can you see a development/change here?  

It’s rather obvious that sustainability as a topic is becoming more and more relevant for the students, and has actually already become a matter of course. In the past, we still had to do a lot of convincing in teaching to show that sustainability is a megatrend and a strategically relevant topic for companies. Now it’s taken for granted.   

We are also seeing a growing demand for our Bachelor's specialisation on "Sustainable Leadership". The students who choose this focus are also highly engaged outside the university. They are interested in sustainability topics and are generally very informed. Not least because the topic has now also found its way into school curricula. 

Have companies really become essentially more sustainable? Has the topic now considered holistically reached the strategic level or is it still the exception?  

There is no universal answer to this, but overall, many more companies today provide information on sustainability (e.g. on their website) or publish a comprehensive sustainability report. 
If you look at this information, it becomes clear that it is much more systematically filled with content in order to make the commitment on the part of the company credible. In my opinion, there still is room for improvement, especially when it comes to developing truly sustainable business models. 

Many entrepreneurs certainly act out of conviction, but presumably there will be other reasons for sustainable, economic conduct, right? Does it make a difference? 

For me, it is important that companies take sustainability into account in their actions at all and that this topic is on the agenda. And by sustainability I mean not only environmental issues, but also social aspects, especially with regard to international value chains and possible human rights violations.  

Why or for what reason this is, whether out of conviction, for strategic reasons or due to regulations, is of secondary importance to me for the time being. I think it's good when companies get involved in these areas. Certainly, it is an advantage if the company management is guided by inner conviction or motivation. Because these are usually the companies that implement sustainability issues all the more substantially.

So in the long term, can sustainability secure the competitiveness of a company, of a product? 

Yes, I am absolutely convinced of that. Because, conversely, this has proven true many times. If a company is not sustainably oriented, it has a recognisably negative effect on its ability to compete and survive. Sustainability has become an elementary component of entrepreneurial success.

Sustainability has to be thought of in the long term, that's the only way it makes sense. In crisis situations, such as the current Corona pandemic, is sustainability the first issue to disappear from the strategic agenda when it comes to saving a company? 

That  is an interesting question that I have also asked myself. From my point of view, it does not seem that sustainability issues immediately disappeared from the agendas during the pandemic. It is possible that those responsible for sustainability - as well as other managers - of companies that were caught in an economic crisis due to the pandemic, had less budget at their disposal. But I have not yet heard that the topic itself no longer played a role or, for example, that a sustainability position was eliminated. 

Again, the opposite is more likely to be the case: many companies have become involved in the Corona context or have proven to act responsible. At the beginning of the pandemic, masks were sewn & produced, disinfectants were made, donations were made, and companies tried by all means to keep their employees. In this respect, Corona is not only an issue that has or could have limited sustainability, but also one, where companies had the chance to show that they are taking responsibility. 

The chances for verifiably sustainable companies to attract qualified & motivated junior staff are certainly much better. Or does it rather work the other way round - i.e. companies are increasingly looking for junior staff who are trained to act responsibly & sustainably? 

Yes, that is correct. Sustainability is an important point in employer branding.  HR managers confirm to me again and again that young, highly qualified talents in the majority of cases ask about sustainability and corporate responsibility in job interviews. At the same time, we also see that ethical competence and moral conduct play an important role in recruiting on the corporate side. This is especially true for management positions; but not for junior staff.

From your point as a business ethicist, is there a special piece of advice you want your students to internalise? 

I don't believe in absolute guiding principles or thoughts, the circumstances often are too complex. But of course, there is something that is particularly important to me, something that I would like to pass on to my students, and that is to think critically! It's all about questioning things, for example what we find in society or in companies, such as structures, processes, norms and management decisions. Is it in line with our ideas of how we want to live and work? In this way, critical questions can be formulated and, if necessary, new paths can be constructively explored.

Prof. Dr. Sarah Jastram has been Professor of International Business Ethics and Sustainability at the Hamburg School of Business Administration since 2015. Her research focuses on human rights, sustainable leadership, strategic CSR, sustainable supply chain management, impact measurement, governance & legitimacy, artificial intelligence and ethical consumption. She has been a member of the Porsche AG Sustainability Advisory Board since January 2021. Currently she is researching the impact of European regulation on sustainability.