‘Going green’ in the office used to be about separating glass and plastic, switching to energy efficient light bulbs and exercising restraint at the copy machine. Today it has evolved into an integral part of corporate identity – we have seen social and environmental sustainability programs become assimilated into overall business strategies across industries. However, maintaining the balance between caring for the environment and heeding the profit motive still requires meticulous planning and complete organisational commitment, particularly in the financial services sector.

One of the themes being investigated at Monash South Africa’s International Symposium on Building a Sustainable Future in Sub-Saharan Africa will take an in-depth look at how banks and other financial services organisations can integrate the environmental and social sustainability initiatives without negatively affecting their bottom line. The symposium will bring together a group of leading researchers and development practitioners from around the world to examine how Sub-Saharan Africa can meet the multiple challenges of water security, food security and business development.

“Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious about how business activities impact their communities and our natural resources,” explains Monash South Africa Associate Professor H B Klopper. “Businesses can no longer get away with conducting themselves in a manner that jeopardises the needs of future generations by irreparably harming society or the environment.”

Due to their intermediary role in the economy, banks hold a unique position with regard to sustainable development. ‘Green’ products/incentives are becoming part of the financial service offering. Banks in emerging markets are rapidly moving away from localised community projects and the occasional philanthropic gesture. Strategic objectives around sustainability are becoming more sincere and long-term.

FirstRand Bank Limited (FRB), a subsidiary of Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed FirstRand Limited, has adopted the approach of viewing every single transaction or interaction with stakeholders as an opportunity to create sustainable value. The direct impact of daily operations as well as the indirect impact that the bank has on the environment in terms of responsible lending practises is monitored by an environment, health and safety compliance officer in each business unit.

Carefully chosen social initiatives and environmental programmes reflect FRB’s values and objectives and function as an important business tool and source of competitive advantage. A study published by Robert G. Eccles and George Serafeim of Harvard Business School revealed that organisations that have placed sustainability at the heart of their strategies have consistently better performance than their peers with regard to valuation and return on equity.

“This symposium will explore strategies focussed on formulating effective policies and establishing good governance structures in order to create a sustainable future,” remarks Professor Klopper.

The symposium will be convened on the 26 and 27 November at the Monash South Africa campus in Ruimsig, Johannesburg.