A Sustainability Strategy: Why it Matters

Jennifer Desharnais by Jennifer Desharnais | May 12, 2022

It’s on everyone’s lips. It’s in the news. It’s on conference panels. It’s a marketing hook. Sustainability is the hip word of our time. And in a way, that’s a great thing. We need people to know about sustainability, we want them to engage because it’s the only way forward. The climate risks and social inequalities emphasized during the pandemic could not have made it clearer.  

Businesses, including airports, are connected to countries, governments, communities – and the daily decisions they take go beyond financial outcomes. They play an active role in society and have commensurate responsibilities. Yet sustainability and business performance are complementary, not competing. Indeed, airports can benefit from energy and operational efficiencies, from investing in smart technologies and buildings, and from attracting and retaining the best talent.

One of the challenges with sustainability, is that it is an evolving concept and not everyone has the same understanding of its meaning. It’s not easy to grasp what it implies to have a sustainable strategy in place, and to be entirely committed to achieving the balance between the environmental, social, and economic pillars.

Not a box-ticking exercise

It may seem obvious, but it is not a simple matter of issuing a sustainability statement and ticking the box. This, rightly, is an invitation to accusations of greenwashing. As every organization grapples to put something in place, there is a risk of sustainability becoming a catch-all term, and broken promises can undermine the good work of others. Sustainability is a concept that must be embedded in all the activities of an organization. While it is a cross-cutting element, not everything should now be labelled a sustainability matter and the term bandied about as a corporate buzzword.

Similarly, a sustainable strategy is not a guarantee that a business is doing anything concrete to improve its environmental, economic, and social footprint. A recent Forbes article said that while “90% of executives think sustainability is important, only 60% of companies have a sustainability strategy,[1]” and just how many of this 60% walk the talk?

The exercise is about figuring out how an organization can be the best version of itself. This means delivering on promises to all stakeholders in a way that will have as few negative impacts and as many benefits as possible on people, planet, and economic health, now and in the future. It requires a deep understanding of where the entity excels and can be a leader, and where it must improve and seek guidance. Like developing any other type of strategy, it’s a well-thought-out process—a journey that takes time, commitment and dedication, that involves numerous resources, and requires a great deal of internal and external collaboration. Successful leadership in sustainability leads to breaking silos, and enables new business and partnership opportunities. It should be an endeavour that is taken as seriously as the most robust forecast and budgeting exercises.

A sustainability strategy must also be inspired by the top. It may be cliché, but it cannot be repeated enough: executive boards and senior management need to fully commit to sustainability. Afterall, if priorities lay elsewhere, the necessary resources simply won’t be allocated, and meaningful progress won’t be achieved.

Airports are not new to the practice of operating as sustainably as possible. Several show true leadership, and clearly have a solid sustainability strategy that cascades down and engages all employees. These airports typically create innovative partnerships, collaborate with both in-sector and out-of-sector stakeholders, invest in technologies and training, embrace change, understand the needs of the passengers and communities they serve, and measure their impact on society and the environment. Overall, the airport sector is one that recognizes the intricate interdependencies of all three pillars of sustainability, and the associated risks and opportunities.

Reporting on sustainability

If building a strategy is difficult, reporting is crucial. This exercise provides an opportunity to streamline operations and increase efficiencies, to identify and mitigate risks by taking a long-term approach, and to anticipate and comply with current and future regulations.  

Many airports communicate their sustainability strategy on their website, including roadmaps on how they measure and address their impacts on planet, people, and profit, and how they plan to achieve their sustainability goals. This type of outward-focused communication increases credibility and transparency with shareholders, employees, the public, the media, and other relevant parties. The most reported material issues by airports across the globe – in other words, which sustainability priorities were identified during the strategic planning – have been listed and explained in the ACI World Sustainable Strategy for Airports Worldwide, released in November 2021.

A rapidly increasing number of investors are using a company’s environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) performance to screen or drive their investments. Indeed, ESG materiality issues – topics that have a financial (material) impact on an organization’s assets – can bring financial and reputational risks. While ESG includes metrics and targets, it is also very much about strategy and ensuring strong positive impacts on the world; it is not only a fiduciary duty; companies that can prove they are working towards resilient, ethical, and sustainable infrastructure and operations, can improve their access to green financing and other incentives, such as sustainability-linked bonds. In the future, companies that cannot prove this, may well be prohibited access to any type of financial help.

More and more jurisdictions are also taking an interest in sustainability and ESG reporting and with sustainable finance taxonomy, governments are starting to legislate which economic activities are considered sustainable, in the hopes of giving clarity to investors and companies, perhaps making today’s standards tomorrow’s regulations.

People and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) incorporation are realities in the world of ESG reporting. Investors will look beyond hiring practices, to elements such as who sits on the board, who oversees investing and other financial decisions, how invested in the communities a company is, which of these communities benefit the most, or are impacted the worse, by the businesses around them, etc.

The spotlight on sustainability is resulting in a multitude of ESG ratings and rankings, sustainability reporting frameworks and guidelines, and target setting guidelines, popping up all over the sustainability landscape. Often dubbed the “ESG alphabet soup”, the topic continues to gain greater attention every day, demonstrating the pressing need for standardization. For airports and many other businesses, it can easily become confusing. ACI’s ESG Management Best Practice aims to help airports better understand the differences between ESG and sustainability reporting, the steps they can take to start or improve reporting, and the reasons why investors are interested.

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Employees really matter

While human resources and DEI are gaining the attention of investors, they should also pick up employer’s attention, as the value of social ethics grows. One of the many consequences of the COVID-19 crisis has been to remind us just how fragile, yet essential, the workforce is. Without workers, nothing works. Organizations that recognize this and truly care about the mental, physical, social, and financial health of their staff, will be the ones who attract and retain the best talent, and perform better. 

During the process of implementing a sustainability strategy, airports and other organizations can take the time to identify the needs of employees. Although it means additional work and responsibility for companies, it also translates into a strong competitive advantage and healthy company culture. The time when sporadic quick-wins for employees were sufficient is gone: supporting people, giving them the tools to be successful both professionally and personally, helping them to learn and grow, mentoring them, and ensuring they can enjoy a healthy work-life balance is becoming the reality. Just like advising the aviation industry to not get locked into short-term solutions to address climate change, airports and other organizations should make sure they introduce internal policies that provide permanent improvements for employees.  It could be flexibility in schedule or work location, additional time off, wellbeing and mobility benefits, financial incentives, family-friendly perks, or training and career development pathways – a “one size fits all” will not be the solution and that is why understanding the workforce is key.

As investors and consumers are getting better at spotting green washing, employees are learning to recognize “social washing”. Millennials and Gen Z are asking for transparency, empathy, integrity, and social responsibility. And as they are tomorrow’s workforce, ignoring their needs is just not…sustainable. Real, tangible, measurable actions need to be enshrined in company policy and culture and enacted every day. A website’s career section displaying all the right integrity and inclusion values will simply not make the cut.

We must be cognizant that in many parts of the world, people are still struggling for access to the basics and strive towards a decent quality of life. The challenges are of course substantially different from those in more developed countries, and we must keep fighting to expose companies who blatantly ignore human rights. However, we must also keep the pressure on investors and leaders to improve the lives of workers everywhere and not allow companies to use comparison to defer action at home.

Changes are well underway. While the effects will take place over time and at different rates across different regions and industries, in a few decades, our current reality may seem antiquated.  Employees and passengers will view sustainability as a natural part of daily life; in the same way that we currently approach safety and security – as something essential, expected, normal. Businesses will need a clear and coherent strategy in place to attract and retain personnel, funding, and a positive reputation. Just as a strong brand identity is essential, sustainability and sound ESG policies and practices will be fundamental to a company’s success.


[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2021/02/10/why-corporate-strategies-should-be-focused-on-sustainability/?sh=478035237e9f

Jennifer Desharnais

Jennifer Desharnais

Manager Sustainability
Jennifer joined ACI World in April 2019. Her role focuses on managing the ACI World Environment Standing Committee (WEnSC), acting as the advisor for ACI Observer to the ICAO Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP), and continuously developing technical expertise on environmental matters. She brings with her over 18 years of combined experience in the tourism industry, including hospitality, events, tour operators, and aviation. She holds an Executive MSc in Air Transport Management from Cranfield University in Bedfordshire.
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