Sustainability Strategies: Time to Act for Swiss Companies

Regulations, corporate responsibility and a competitive environment lead to a need for action on sustainability strategies for Swiss companies. Strategy consultant and lecturer Frank Brechlin explains what companies need to look out for. 

In discussions with Swiss companies, it is often argued that sustainability strategies and reports are a bureaucratic hurdle set up by the EU and, at best, a “nice-to-have”. Many companies are not yet fully aware of the fact that this is changing rapidly, that the demands on Swiss companies are increasing sharply, and that a sustainability strategy ensures not only competitiveness but also strategic advantages.

Notebook mit Nachhaltigkeit Symbolen

The reporting obligation is currently being extended in the EU – a similar situation can be expected for Switzerland. While currently only large companies are directly affected, the new rules also affect smaller companies, as they are often part of international value chains. A study commissioned by the federal government shows that up to 50,000 companies in Switzerland could be indirectly affected by the new EU regulation. In addition, there are far-reaching strategic issues related to corporate responsibility in the area of sustainability and a rapidly changing competitive environment. Regardless of the size of the company, it is recommended to develop a sustainability strategy, create the necessary structures and make a decision on reporting. Early and proactive action offers significant strategic benefits.

Extending direct and indirect reporting obligations

The current reporting obligation in Switzerland applies only to large public companies and companies in the financial sector. In the EU, the far-reaching CSRD (Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive) will cover all companies with more than 250 employees, as well as non-EU companies with larger subsidiaries.

There is an indirect obligation for companies with customers or suppliers in EU countries. They must also report on the sustainability of supply chains and therefore consider which requirements are important.

Should the new CSDDD (Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive) enter into force, much more far-reaching duties of care will follow. Because obligations will be passed on to companies in the value chain, 10,000–50,000 companies in Switzerland may be indirectly affected.

Proactive sustainability strategies open up opportunities

According to a study conducted by the accounting firm Mazars and the ZHAW (Zurich University of Applied Sciences) in 2023, the main strategic motivation for a sustainability report is voluntary and conscious positioning. Other drivers include demands from stakeholders and preparation for obligations from public authorities or investors.

The benefits of a proactive, strategic approach were confirmed on the basis of individual discussions with Swiss companies conducted as part of the ZHAW's Master's degree program in Circular Economy Management:

  • Increasing stakeholder trust
  • Avoidance of competitive disadvantages due to changing customer requirements
  • Unlocking additional competitive advantages and strategic potentials
  • Strengthening resilience to potential regulatory tightening
  • Identification of innovation potential in products, technologies and business models
  • Fulfillment of goals & values for customers and employees

Examples used to show innovation and strategic potential were the rapidly growing markets for new forms of transport & technologies or for reusable products & materials.

It is important that the appropriate sustainability strategy is chosen for each company in line with its business activities, strategic objectives and values. The right strategy can bring great benefits, whereas the wrong approach carries great risks. The analysis of the current situation, the choice of strategic positioning and the definition of objectives requires company-specific knowledge, as well as additional know-how in terms of strategy and sustainability.

High complexity requires know-how and a strategic approach

A key point of a sustainability strategy is to carry out a materiality analysis, which can be carried out either internally or with external support. This identifies the subject areas and ranks them according to their relevance for the company and their impact on its sustainable development. The ecological footprint is a decisive factor and helps companies to determine the status quo, define objectives and take appropriate measures. There are many standards, systems and instruments for determining the baseline, as well as for planning, implementation and reporting, the selection of which requires specialist know-how and in-depth consideration of the individual situation.

In order to develop a sustainability strategy and determine the appropriate course of action, it is strongly recommended that companies either build up internal resources or call on external expertise.

Conclusion: Need for action on sustainability strategies for export-oriented companies

For Swiss companies without a sustainability strategy, there is an acute need for action. They should consider the strategic advantages and disadvantages that may arise and how their direct and indirect obligations are to be addressed. A proactive approach can anticipate future demands, enable innovation and competitive advantages, and open up strategic potential. The timely development of a sustainability strategy and the establishment of structures, resources and possible partnerships are therefore strongly recommended.

Frank Brechlin is a strategy consultant and visiting lecturer in Circular Economy Management at the ZHAW (Zurich University of Applied Sciences). He has over 20 years of experience in strategy and business development, and is deeply involved in sustainability strategy, the circular economy and issues related to the energy transition.

Frank Brechlin
Brechlin Consulting


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