The answer is an unequivocal yes according to Sir James Wates in this recent article in The Times to mark the start of the Institute of Family Business's annual Family Business Week which ran from 22 to 29 November.  These sentiments were echoed this week at the annual STEP Business Family Special Interest Group's Spotlight session on the subject of sustainable and successful family enterprises, which I had the pleasure of chairing.  

The event comprised a panel discussion comprising:

  • Amy Clarke, Chief Impact Officer at Tribe Impact Capital; 
  • Rennie Hoare, Head of Philanthropy at C Hoare & Co Ltd and an 11th generation family business member;
  • Harry Swan, Managing Director of Thomas Swan & Co Ltd and 4th generation family business member; and 
  • Will McMahon, Commercial Director at Kendal Nutricare Ltd, and a 2nd generation family business member.

The Spotlight enabled us to take a deeper dive into what it means to be sustainable, and why family businesses are the perfect proponents to achieve sustainability.  Here are some takeaways:

  • We are at a social and environmental tipping point and to ignore the constraints we are under would be to the detriment of future prosperity; a sustainable environment generates wealth.
  • Family business are, by their nature, sustainable, taking long term time horizons to ensure longevity of the business for future generations. 
  • Identifying a shared purpose as a family and ensuring this is reflected in the strategy of the business is key to the process; developing a sustainability strategy should not be viewed in isolation.
  • This collective purpose is powerful and something unique to family businesses, whose values will typically run through everything they do and every decision they make.
  • Sustainability should not be viewed as a generational issue, an awareness only Millennials or Gen Zs have, instead it cuts across generations.  
  • Cultural and faith based issues will have a bearing on the attitudes to sustainability across the world.  The global disparity in wealth will also have a bearing on the impact of sustainability.
  • Businesses cannot view sustainability as a "tick box" exercise, so called "green washing", to satisfy their customers or suppliers. Integrity is paramount, it will be more damaging for a business in the long run if a meaningful approach is not adopted.  
  • It is incumbent on advisors to drive discussions forward and put into place governance structures, both for the family and the business, that are aligned with their agreed sense of purpose.
  • Clarity and action will inspire a workforce and encourage collective buy-in from wider stakeholders.
  • Developing sustainable work practices does not necessarily require seismic changes within businesses; often incremental changes will promote understanding and demonstrate results, leading to wider collective buy-in and a scaling up of future initiatives.
  • Measuring sustainable outcomes can be achieved using various benchmarks including the B Corp framework which is open to all businesses, not just B Corps, and can apply to all sectors.
  • Non-family businesses should draw lessons from the values optimised by family businesses and corporate frameworks amendment to reflect a more stakeholder-focussed approach to business.

Much like Sir James, the panel concluded that above all family businesses are incredibly important to developing a more sustainable future.