What is ROI in sustainability?

ROI in sustainability

According to a Harvard Business School study, companies that strongly embrace business sustainability significantly outperform their counterparts over the long term. Companies adopting sustainable practices often see reduced operational costs through efficient resource use and waste reduction. 

Moreover, integrating sustainability into business strategies helps to mitigate risks, drive revenue and improve brand reputation. Continue reading as we explore the multifaceted benefits of integrating sustainability into business strategies, focusing primarily on the Return on Investment (ROI) in sustainability.

What is sustainability within a business context?

In business, sustainability refers to operating a company to ensure long-term economic performance while protecting and enhancing environmental, social, and economic resources. It involves integrating principles of sustainable development into business strategies and operations to create value for the company and society. 

The idea of ROI in sustainability and how it leads to cost savings

Return on Investment (ROI) in sustainability refers to the measurable benefits of sustainable practices and initiatives, encompassing economic, environmental, and social gains. This holistic approach recognises that sustainable investments enhance long-term profitability, resilience, and reputation while positively impacting society and the environment.

A key aspect of sustainability ROI is cost savings through increased operational efficiency. Implementing energy-efficient technologies, reducing waste, and optimising resource use can significantly cut costs. For example, energy-efficient lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems can substantially lower energy bills. 

A notable case study is Walmart, which has saved over $1 billion annually on energy costs by enhancing energy efficiency in its stores since 2005. Their focus on sustainable packaging and reducing plastic waste has further led to significant cost reductions in packaging materials and waste disposal.

Waste reduction and management are also critical components of sustainable practices that lead to direct cost savings. Minimising waste generation and enhancing recycling efforts reduce the costs associated with waste disposal and raw material purchases. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation highlights that a circular economy approach, which promotes recycling and reusing materials, can result in annual savings of $1 trillion globally by 2025. By saving over €200 million since 2008, Unilever has demonstrated these financial benefits through its “zero waste to landfill” programme.

Sustainable sourcing and resource management also contribute to cost savings. Businesses that optimise their supply chains to be more sustainable often reduce material costs and improve efficiency. According to the World Economic Forum, companies implementing sustainable supply chain practices can reduce procurement costs by 9-16% and increase supply chain efficiency by 15-30%. 

How sustainable practices enhance risk management

One critical area where sustainable practices contribute to risk management is regulatory compliance. As governments implement stricter environmental regulations, businesses that adopt sustainable practices are better positioned to comply with new laws, avoiding fines and sanctions. 

For instance, the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) requires companies to conduct thorough assessments of their sustainability impacts, risks, and opportunities. For instance, it mandates companies implement robust data collection and reporting processes including the use of established reporting standards such as the European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS). 

These standards are critical for achieving regulatory compliance. Another core principle of the CSRD is the double materiality concept which requires companies to assess and report not only how sustainability issues affect their financial performance but also how their operations impact society and the environment. This helps companies align their reporting with broader regulatory requirements and societal expectations. 

Sustainable practices also manage operational risks associated with environmental impacts. Companies investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources reduce reliance on volatile fossil fuel markets. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that renewable energy investments can save businesses up to 40% on energy costs in the long run. 

Additionally, companies with robust water management practices are better equipped to handle water scarcity issues, which are increasingly common due to climate change. Coca-Cola is an example of this, which faced significant operational risks due to water scarcity. By implementing comprehensive water stewardship programmes, Coca-Cola reduced its water usage by 27% between 2004 and 2019.

This improved the company’s water risk management and enhanced its resilience to water-related disruptions. Supply chain resilience is another essential aspect of risk management enhanced by sustainable practices. A McKinsey & Company study found that supply chain disruptions can cost companies up to 45% of one year’s profits over a decade, underscoring the importance of resilient and sustainable supply chains

How sustainable initiatives drive revenue growth

Consumers are becoming more conscientious about the products they purchase, favouring brands that are committed to sustainability. According to an IBM study, nearly 6 in 10 consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact, Additionally, over 70% of surveyed consumers said they would pay a premium for sustainable and eco-friendly brands. 

This shift in consumer preference directly translates into increased sales for companies that adopt sustainable practices. Investor demand for sustainability is also a significant driver of revenue growth. As investors increasingly incorporate ESG criteria into their investment decisions, companies with strong sustainability credentials attract more investment. 

A PwC survey found that 79% of investors believe that ESG risks are an important factor in investment decisions, and 49% are willing to divest from companies that fail to take sufficient action on ESG issues. This investor pressure encourages companies to enhance their sustainability efforts, which can lead to better financial performance and access to capital. 

A prominent case study demonstrating the financial benefits of sustainability is Unilever. The company’s Sustainable Living Brands, which include Dove, Hellmann’s, and Ben & Jerry’s, have consistently outperformed other brands within the company. In 2019, these brands grew 69% faster than the rest of Unilever’s business and delivered 75% of the company’s overall growth. 

Another example is IKEA, which has committed to becoming a fully circular and climate-positive business by 2030. In 2020, IKEA reported a 45% increase in sales of products that help customers live more sustainably, demonstrating the revenue potential of sustainable innovation. Additionally, Tesla saw its market capitalisation surpass $1 trillion in 2021 which is down to meeting consumer and investor demand. 


Incorporating sustainability into business practices is essential for achieving long-term success and resilience. Sustainable initiatives not only offer direct cost savings but also drive revenue growth and enhance brand value. By addressing ESG risks, businesses can better navigate the complexities of today’s risk landscape. 

Ultimately, the holistic approach of sustainability ROI demonstrates that investing in sustainable practices yields substantial economic, environmental, and social benefits, securing a competitive advantage for businesses while positively impacting society and the planet.

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