India’s sustainability champions are redefining responsible business

India's sustainability champions
India's sustainability champions have innovative strategies and unwavering commitment to shape a more sustainable world.

As the world grapples with the challenges posed by climate change, environmental degradation, and social inequalities, the role of businesses in shaping a sustainable future has become extremely important. Like the rest of the world, India also stands at a crossroads, poised to make critical choices that will define its economic trajectory. Amid debates about the authenticity of corporate intentions and the sincerity of their sustainability efforts, it is essential to applaud those businesses that have risen to the occasion.

This article discusses the inspiring journeys of India’s sustainability champions — companies that are redefining the contours of responsible business practices and setting examples for their peers. From embracing renewable energy and resource efficiency to championing diversity and community engagement, these businesses have transformed sustainability from a buzzword into an integral part of their corporate strategies.

As we explore their initiatives, innovations, and the impact of their actions, it becomes evident that the corporate world in India is experiencing a significant shift. The companies are not merely responding to the call for sustainability; they are leading the charge, demonstrating that economic prosperity and environmental and social responsibility can go hand in hand. Amid scepticism about corporate actions, these stories of genuine action towards sustainability serve as beacons of hope. They illustrate that businesses can be powerful agents of change, steering us toward a future where profit is not pursued at the expense of the planet and society, but in harmony with them.

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Setting ambitious sustainability goals

Leading the way is Reliance Industries, India’s largest private sector company, which has embarked on a transformative journey. It has acknowledged the pressing issue of climate change by committing to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2035. This bold step underscores the industry’s growing acceptance of the urgent need for change.

Numerous Indian companies, including Infosys, Airtel, and Tata Steel, are laying strong foundations for sustainability by establishing dedicated ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) committees within their boards. These structures are instrumental in developing and executing sustainable strategies.

Companies are recognising the importance of having a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) or an equivalent senior management role dedicated to sustainability. This move ensures that sustainability remains a central focus within the organisation. Many forward-thinking Indian firms are aligning themselves with international sustainability networks, such as RE100 (committing to 100% renewable energy) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. These affiliations promote best practices and encourage global cooperation.

Companies are increasingly adopting practices that prioritise resource efficiency and circular economy principles. They design products, services, and business models with an eye on minimising waste and extending product lifecycles. Recognising the substantial returns on sustainability investments, companies are deploying capital into renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that can yield rapid returns, often within the same financial year.

Companies further along in their sustainability journey are leveraging sustainable finance opportunities at favourable rates. Initiatives like sustainability-linked bonds are becoming increasingly common. Forward-looking firms are not only improving their own sustainability but are also engaging their supply chains to follow suit. This is particularly vital, given that micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) constitute a significant portion of resource consumption in the Indian economy.

Fostering innovation and workforce diversity

Innovation is a cornerstone of sustainability. Businesses like Tata Power, in response to investor demands for decarbonisation, pivoted from coal-fired thermal power to renewable energy. This shift is emblematic of the innovation-driven approach many firms are adopting. Forward-looking companies recognise the value of diversity in fostering innovation and adapting to unique social contexts in India. Initiatives to improve gender diversity, inclusivity for LGBTQ+ individuals, and the employment of underrepresented communities are gaining traction.

Sustainability-conscious companies engage with local communities and encourage participative decision-making, especially in land-use matters, where renewable energy projects coexist with agricultural activities.

Measurement and transparency are key to achieving sustainability goals. Leading companies are committed to tracking their sustainability performance over time and reporting transparently, often following reporting frameworks like GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) or IR (Integrated Reporting).

Avoiding greenwashing

A keen awareness of the pitfalls of greenwashing—the deceptive portrayal of a company as environmentally friendly—ensures that sustainability initiatives remain genuine and authentic. Companies are actively engaging with ESG rating providers to ensure that their performance is accurately assessed and communicated to stakeholders.

A hallmark of these forward-thinking businesses is their commitment to championing sustainable innovation. Whether it is the adoption of renewable energy, the development of energy-efficient technologies, or the exploration of cutting-edge sustainability solutions, these companies understand that innovation is central to their sustainability journey.

Sustainability champions are often led by visionary leaders who understand that their role extends beyond profit generation. They recognise their responsibilities toward local communities and society at large. Initiatives like improving gender diversity, offering inclusive and affirmative environments, and supporting local communities showcase their commitment to holistic sustainability.

In pursuit of global best practices, these companies actively engage in international collaborations. These partnerships open avenues for knowledge exchange and the implementation of tried-and-tested sustainability strategies. By connecting with organisations like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, they gain access to a wealth of expertise and resources.

Sustainability and rransparency

Transparency is a cornerstone of sustainability, and leading companies understand that their stakeholders demand clear and honest reporting. They regularly disclose their sustainability efforts, progress, and challenges, allowing stakeholders to track their performance and hold them accountable.

Forward-thinking companies also play a crucial role in nurturing startups and innovative ventures that focus on sustainability. By providing mentorship, funding, and collaboration opportunities, they help accelerate the development and adoption of groundbreaking sustainability solutions.

While scepticism about corporate motivations is valid, it is equally important to acknowledge the growing number of Indian businesses genuinely committed to sustainability. These companies are not only embracing change but also setting ambitious goals, implementing robust governance structures, and fostering innovation. They engage with their supply chains, support diversity, and actively contribute to their local communities. Sustainability has become a measurable, transparent, and integral part of their business strategies.

The journey toward sustainability is ongoing, and more companies need to join this movement. The sustainability champions in India serve as inspiring examples, showcasing the immense potential for positive change within the business world. As they continue to pave the way, it is imperative for others to follow suit, fostering a culture of sustainable business practices that benefit not only the companies themselves but also the planet and society at large.

(Dr Mukund Rajan is the Chairperson of ECube Investment Advisors Private Ltd, which supports the ESG and Climate transition of Indian companies. This article is the edited transcript of his presentation at the India Sustainability Summit, organised by Policy Circle in New Delhi.)