The Role of Corporates in Sustainability and Development 

Supported by the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development, the Social Impact Club at London Business School recently hosted ‘The Role of Corporates in Sustainability and Development’, a panel moderated by Elias Papaioannou (Professor of Economics at London Business School and Co-Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute) at the annual Social Impact Conference.

The panel featured Amit Mehra (Managing Director and Global Lead for Sustainability Services at Accenture), Jorge Carpio Aguilar (VP and Head of Sustainability for the UK, Europe, Middle East, and Africa at Citi), and Emma Reyburn (Business Development Lead for Corporate Partnerships at UNICEF). The session focused on the evolving role of corporations in sustainability, showcasing successful initiatives, implementation challenges, impact measurement, stakeholder collaboration, and emerging trends. 

Evolution of the role of Corporates in Sustainability

Elias began the discussion by inviting the panellists to share their experiences and perspectives on how the role of corporations in sustainability has evolved over time. Jorge recounted the early scepticism towards sustainability efforts, contrasting it with how the field has grown significantly since. He pointed out the importance of comprehensive resource management and aligning corporate missions with sustainability goals, while stressing the need for financial support and community involvement to achieve long-term environmental impact. 

Emma discussed the critical role of public-private partnerships, noting the increasing demand for private sector funding to support non-profit initiatives. She shared a successful example of UNICEF’s collaboration with Microsoft, which combined financial resources and technological expertise to create the Learning Passport, a tablet that aids displaced children in continuing their education. Emma made it clear that such partnerships are essential for scaling impact and addressing urgent development needs. 

Amit provided a historical overview, identifying two key phases: the initial phase that focused on philanthropy, and a subsequent phase where sustainability was seen as an opportunity for business value creation. He noted that in recent years, sustainability has become a mainstream concern, driven by compliance and risk management. Amit explained that his current work involves integrating sustainability into the core strategies of large corporations, working closely with C-suite executives. 

Successes and Failures in Sustainability Initiatives

The panel discussion continued with panellists sharing successful and challenging sustainability initiatives from their careers, highlighting lessons learned from each experience. Amit discussed a successful initiative involving the emission profiles across the supply chains of FMCG companies where scope three emissions account for 90% of overall emissions. He explained how Chief Procurement Officers of large companies focus on their scope three emissions, which account for most of their carbon footprint. By collaborating with start-ups, civil society organisations, and technology providers, these companies have gained visibility in their supply chains, enabling them to track carbon emissions, ensure ethical practices, and authenticate payments to farmers. This approach is crucial for achieving net-zero goals. 

Amit also described a less successful initiative in India, which was aimed at promoting sustainable agricultural practices among farmers. While the project reached millions of farmers through feature phones, it struggled to scale because it required farmers to pay for the service. Despite reaching 35 million farmers, this was only a fraction of more than 500 million farmers in the country. This initiative however, has since evolved, with large companies now scaling it significantly across India, Asia, and Africa. This shift underscores the importance of partnerships and the potential for sustainability projects to grow when integrated into mainstream business strategies.  

Jorge reiterated the need for communication and cooperation across teams, highlighting that these elements are crucial for success. He also noted that top-level commitment is essential, sharing how Citi’s CEO – the first woman to hold the position at a major Wall Street firm – has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, with significant milestones by 2030. This ambitious goal requires accelerating efforts and fostering exponential growth in sustainability practices. Jorge reiterated the importance of learning quickly from both successes and failures to develop effective strategies, underscoring that top leadership support and comprehensive team collaboration are key to driving meaningful progress in corporate sustainability. 

UNICEF’s Transformation and Corporate Partnerships

Moving on to the transformation of UNICEF and the role of corporate partnerships in this evolution, Emma highlighted the growing importance of private sector funding in addition to traditional government funding. This shift has led to close collaboration with various organisations in social development and humanitarian aid. 

Emma stressed that corporate partners bring rigorous reporting requirements, necessitating detailed tracking of fund usage and impact. She cited a partnership with a telecom company aimed at global internet connectivity. However, this can restrict UNICEF’s ability to flexibly allocate funds across regions. She added that fundraising challenges are common and that some emergencies receive significant support while others are left underfunded. UNICEF’s mandate is to support every child everywhere, not just those in well-publicised situations.  

Challenges for the Next Decade

When asked about the major challenges companies will face in the next five to ten years, Amit identified several key issues, particularly in setting and achieving sustainability goals. He explained that many large companies have committed to net-zero targets by 2030 and 2050, including their entire supply chains. This marks a shift from questioning the importance of sustainability to how sustainability goals can be implemented. 

Only 37% of the 2000 largest organisations globally have set their net-zero targets. Of those, only 18% are on track to reach net zero emissions in their operations by 2050. The primary challenges are data accuracy and cultural change. Companies need reliable data to understand their emissions profiles and make informed decisions. This involves ongoing data collection, integration with financial information, and dynamic reporting. 

Cultural shifts within organisations is crucial. Employees at all levels must understand and integrate sustainability into their daily roles. For example, relationship managers at banks must consider sustainability when providing financing to corporations. While top-level commitment is often strong, changing the behaviour and mindset across the entire company remains a challenge. 

Amit also pointed out the lack of collaboration within and between sectors. Silos within companies and across industries hinder the sharing of best practices and data. Breaking down these silos and fostering a culture of collaboration is essential for achieving long-term sustainability goals.  

Data and Targets in Corporate Sustainability

Relying on her experience at UNICEF Emma mentioned the importance of collaborating closely with governments and tailoring strategies to local needs. This often takes the form of working with governments to create country-wide programme documents, outlining strategic goals and results frameworks for three to five years. These strategies incorporate detailed data to assess risks and set priorities, varying significantly across regions. UNICEF’s country representatives, who understand the local context, play a crucial role in gathering and interpreting this data. By looking beyond national statistics and focusing on individual stories, UNICEF gains a comprehensive understanding of hardships children face in different communities. 

Emma stressed that data is not just about numbers, but about understanding the broader context of a child’s life. This holistic approach informs UNICEF’s decision-making and programme development, ensuring initiatives are well-targeted and effective. Independent evaluations and collaborations with other NGOs and private sector partners are integral to this process.  

UNICEF collects and analyses vast amounts of data at global, regional, and national levels. This helps identify areas where children are most at risk and guides programme decisions. Conversations with insurance companies about risk mitigation are informed by detailed risk assessments.  

Emma emphasised the importance of data in securing funding. Detailed, measurable outcomes, such as policies implemented, demonstrate UNICEF’s impact to donors. As mentioned earlier, this transparency is crucial for maintaining support from flexible and earmarked funding sources. 

Balancing Standardisation and Specific Data Needs

Amit addressed the complexity of data in sustainability reporting, bringing up the need for standardisation while acknowledging that it won’t solve everything. He cautiously appreciated the launch of the International Sustainability Standards Board, which aims to simplify reporting for companies, making metrics comparable and auditable. However, he warned that the nuances of data requirements across industries are significant. For instance, a beverage company might prioritise water impact data, while a pharmaceutical company focuses on access to medicines. Standardisation helps, but companies must also collect granular data critical to their business strategies.  

Emma discussed the increasing role of digital financial mechanisms in sustainability. She pointed to a successful parametric insurance initiative called Today & Tomorrow Initiative, which aids climate resilience in developing countries. Programs like these enable swift financial responses to weather events, making them more efficient than traditional funding methods. These innovative financial solutions, driven by private sector expertise and technology, are crucial for creating sustainable financial models. 

Amit identified two main trends: risk management and compliance, and the need for significant financial investment. Corporates are focused on reporting requirements and managing risks from climate events, with compliance to governmental mandates being a top priority. Additionally, the growing need for trillions of dollars annually to meet sustainability goals was addressed. Collaboration with development finance institutions and innovative financing methods will be vital to bridge this funding gap. 

Discussing job opportunities for a younger generation, Jorge compared organisations to a human body, where sustainability acts as the muscles creating movement. He noted that sustainability impacts all fields, offering diverse opportunities for young professionals. Companies are seeking individuals who understand the benefits and implementation of sustainable practices. The increasing demand for skills in risk management, compliance, and innovative financial schemes was underscored. Educational programmes focusing on sustainability are becoming more prevalent, preparing graduates to meet this demand. 

Business performance, reward and social impact

One attendee asked Amit how corporates can maintain their focus on benefiting society while also scaling up business solutions. Amit explained that balancing business value with sustainability impact is crucial. He acknowledged that the recent focus on compliance and economic challenges has made it harder for companies to invest in innovative sustainable solutions. However, embedding sustainability into core business strategies can ensure that these efforts are not side-lined. By integrating sustainability metrics with business value, such as revenue and cost savings, companies can achieve meaningful impact without compromising their bottom line. 

Another participant questioned the panel on the link between sustainability and executive compensation. Amit responded by noting that more companies are tying sustainability-related metrics to executive bonuses, particularly those with net-zero plans. He also observed that Chief Sustainability Officers are increasingly reporting directly to CFOs or CEOs, ensuring that sustainability considerations are integrated into business decisions. This shift helps make sustainability a core part of the business strategy rather than a peripheral concern. 

Emma added that demonstrating the financial value of sustainable investments is essential. For example, investment in resilience programmes can yield significant returns by reducing losses and damages. She emphasised that educating C-level executives about these benefits is crucial for gaining their support and ensuring long-term commitment to sustainability goals. 


Overall, the discussion covered the increasing importance of public-private partnerships, the critical role of comprehensive data and targets, and the necessity of balancing business value with sustainability impact. Panellists highlighted successful initiatives, implementation challenges, and the significant impact of collaborative efforts across sectors. They also addressed future trends, such as digital financial mechanisms and innovative financing methods, while underscoring the growing opportunities for young professionals in sustainability-focused roles. It was concluded that embedding sustainability into core business strategies and executive compensation was crucial, reinforcing the integral role of sustainability in modern corporate practices.

About the speakers

Amit Mehra is Managing Director and Global Lead – Sustainability Services for Strategic Clients and Commercial Growth at Accenture where he is responsible for growing the sustainability services business at the firm’s top global accounts, embedding sustainability in large transformational deals, and driving select strategic partnerships in sustainability.

Jorge Carpio Aguilar is VP and Head of Sustainability for the UK, Europe, Middle East, and Africa at Citi. He is a seasoned Sustainability professional with vast experience and documented work history in the retail and consumer goods industry. Jorge has experience in ESG, Circular Economy & Net Zero initiatives, ISO standards, environmental management, awareness and auditing.

Emma Reyburn is the Business Development Lead for Corporate Partnerships at UNICEF UK. Prior to this role, Emma held various positions in corporate relationships and partnerships at Serpentine Galleries, Tate, Saatchi Gallery, and SUTTON. Emma also gained experience in the art world through internships at David Zwirner, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and The Economist. Emma holds a Master of Arts in Art History from the University of St Andrews.

Elias Papaioannou is a Professor of Economics at London Business School, and Co-Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development. In the academic year 2019/2020, Elias held the Varian Visiting Professor of Economics at the MIT Department of Economics. His research has been recognised with a consolidator ERC grant in 2018, the inaugural 2013 European Investment Bank Young Economist Award, the 2005 European Economic Association’s Young Economist Award, and the Royal Economic Association’s Austin Robinson Memorial Prize, 2008. He is a research affiliate of the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

About the writer

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Vitaly Zakalskiy
 (LBS MiM 2024) is an Outreach and Communications Intern at the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development. Vitaly holds a BSc in Economics & Politics from the London School of Economics. He has experience in strategy consulting and research in the field of business strategy in emerging markets.

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