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The trade-off that pays off: why businesses should invest in sustainability

Sustainability is the kind of buzz word that could attract scepticism, or even cynicism. But far from being an add-on – a tick-box exercise for good public relations – companies are increasingly finding that putting sustainability at the heart of their strategy is not only good for business, it’s essential.

Written by Allie Fitzgibbon |

A wind turbine
“Sustainability is part of everything we do – it touches every aspect of our lives. The world is changing, we’re all going to have to change.”

We spoke to Royal Holloway’s Professor Katie Willis about why Sustainability was chosen as one of two exciting new specialisms on offer in the MSc Project Management.

It is clear that the world is facing a number of unprecedented sustainability challenges. From environmental issues, such as climate change and plastic pollution, to challenges around human rights, poverty and inequality, the message is clear: the world must act now.

Climate economists advise that the world should be investing two to three per cent of GDP each year to stand a chance of hitting the 2050 target of net zero carbon emissions; and if we don’t, global GDP could drop by as much as 10%.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that businesses of all sizes are now seeing the need to invest in sustainability, whether that’s to meet tougher regulations, fulfil their CSR (corporate social responsibility) targets or improve their reputations.

The University of London, in partnership with member institution Royal Holloway, has developed an exciting new Sustainability specialism within the MSc Project Management. With modules that examine issues of environmental sustainability, social sustainability and corporate governance and ethics, this ground-breaking specialism is designed to give you a practical understanding of how to balance the environmental, social and economic aspects of projects that can be applied to a wide range of industries.

Katie Willis is Professor of Human Geography at Royal Holloway. Her research interests focus on social development and sustainability in ‘the Global South’ and, along with colleague Dr Mike Dolton, she leads the ‘Environmental Sustainability’ and ‘Social Sustainability’ modules in the new MSc specialism.

Professor Willis said: “We chose sustainability as a specialism for the MSc Project Management because sustainability is part of everything we do – it touches every aspect of our lives. The world is changing, we’re all going to have to change. If you’re managing a project you will have to think about how you use ideas of sustainability in every stage of that project.

The challenges we’re facing can seem so enormous that they feel insurmountable – that only governments can deal with them. But as a project manager you have the opportunity to think, ‘how can my organisation contribute to these global challenges?

“Sustainability does require change but that doesn’t always have to be something negative…it can increase profits, improve your reputation and make you a more desirable place to work.”

Sustainability is no longer an add-on. Organisations in every industry, in both private and public sectors, are realising that sustainable business practices must be at the heart of their strategies – not only to meet legislation in the area, but also to attract and retain staff, build a strong customer base and maintain a positive reputation.

According to research by McKinsey, 40% of  business leaders they spoke to said they expected their sustainability programmes to help them attract new, environmentally conscious consumers and therefore increase profits. Indeed, 65% of consumers admit they worry about global warming and 34% are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

Professor Willis explained why sustainability is often good for the bottom line.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions of sustainability is that it requires giving up everything we like doing and that for business it means taking a financial hit. Sustainability does require change but that doesn’t always have to be something negative. In fact, lots of businesses find that it brings significant benefits: it can increase your profits, improve your reputation and make you a more desirable place to work.

“One really important skill in project management is constantly managing the trade-offs within a project in order to deliver it – so that might be trade-offs around budget, time or staffing. Sustainability is another area that has to be considered, but  it doesn’t have to mean a trade-off between sustainability and profits.”

Any project manager will now be expected to have some idea of the issues around sustainability in a project, but we’re also seeing an expanding set of jobs in specific sustainability teams.

These programmes are not without challenge, however, and a 2022 survey of UK SMEs (small to medium enterprises) found that as many as 75% of leaders did not expect their business to become more sustainable within 12 months. Some of the most common reasons given were the cost of change and the lack of in-house skills. It is no wonder, therefore, that demand for specialist project managers is forecast to grow by seven per cent year on year to 2031.

Professor Willis explained: “This is very much a growing industry. Any project manager will now be expected to have some idea of the issues around sustainability in a project, but we’re also seeing an expanding set of jobs in specific sustainability teams. Students who have joined our on-campus masters programmes in Global Futures and Sustainability and Management have gone on to work for a huge range of organisations – from local government to big corporations and non-profits.”

Applicants to the new MSc Project Management are not expected to have prior experience in the sustainability field. Professor Willis’ main advice is: “be open-minded”.

“Sustainability affects all aspects of our lives,” she said. “Be curious. Come in willing to share your ideas but also to be challenged on what you think. We have a global student cohort – people coming from different countries, backgrounds and environments – and understanding the tensions and discussions that arise from those different experiences will really help you to navigate your own projects.”

Find out how you can gain the highly sought-after skills that will set you apart from the competition with our MSc Project Management (Sustainability).