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Intangible sustainability values for business and society

On November 16 2023, Wouter was invited to a Breakfast Research and Practice seminar hosted by the Research Center for Grand Challenges at HEC Lausanne. The aim was to share his experiences and pioneering thoughts on the integration of the intangibles of the sustainability agenda to be able to help accelerating sustainability transitions in business and society. The discussion of the seminar focused on the inclusive competencies we need for integrating sustainability in decision-making processes. This blog touches on some specificities and nuances crucial for governance and the economic system in general. Also, it provides inspiration for university teaching to be leading the opening of new angles upwards sustainability integration and drive positive change in the sector.

Today, we can see how business best-practices are enveloping tangible sustainability topics in their daily activities. Such measurable values appear in ESG reporting tools or dashboards of larger business organisations. However, standard ESG reporting typically omits non-measurable, or ‘intangible’ sustainability values. In our discussion, I emphasized the importance of such sustainability intangibles and the need for them to be included and to play a leading role for achieving broader sustainability impacts. Such values defined and alive in business can also serve the common good: core principles that inspire everyone, build trust and align around a company’s mission, purpose and behaviour (Seidman, 2012). Values-based businesses can be defined as those that are driven by people who believe in their products and services, appreciate their employees, listen to their customers, give back to their communities and are friendly to the environment (Elsen, 2006), having an ideal mission and identity (Bruni and Smerilli, 2009) and being able to create a link between its values and activities.

Interestingly, it has been proven that companies actively working with such inclusive sustainability values tend to perform better, both financially (Van Lee et al., 2005) and in terms of innovation (Manohar and Pandit, 2014; Bart and Pujari, 2007), according to Breuer and Lüdeke-Freund (2017). Given this potential positive contribution to an organisation, it is remarkable such values are not integrated much more widely so far.

Often mentioned in literature today is the systems thinking competences needed for integrating sustainability in business. Therefore, to be inclusive upwards all sustainability pillars (human, social, economic, ecologic and maybe also some spiritual) we need an evolutive economic system, one that is not only based on numerical values. Economic value will be redefined by a new ownership and responsibility regarding the inclusion of all such sustainability assets, tangible or intangible.

I would like to share some personal experiences to give sense to the importance of such systems thinking. Throughout the last decade, I have been able to intensively meditate, connect with nature and other common good caring individuals (common good is inclusive to humankind). A profound conscious caring state of mind and connection with nature and others developed a new sense-based capacity to capture, catalyse, analyse, hear and care for the impact we have on each other and our planet. This gave me an entirely intangible but tremendously powerful force to consciously care for neighbours, family, planet, systems, business strategies and ourselves. In other words, a feeling of rootedness, of belonging, connecting and taking individual responsibility. Frankl (2011) describes such human values as a red line for meaning that is key for survival. For business endurance such profound conscious and caring connection is vital to capture and vision future strategies. Future business strategy should align with such value systems to develop an evolving economic system based on inclusive care for our planet. To achieve this, I developed a management concept that I call ‘Integrative sustainability performance’ which describes in details and facilitates a human, natural way to enact such values through the entire organisation, also its strategy planning (see flowchart).

Savrij Droste, W. (2017) How a values-led management approach influences an organisation’s strategy. Unpublished Mst dissertation. University of Cambridge.
Savrij Droste, W. (2017) How a values-led management approach influences an organisation’s strategy. Unpublished Mst dissertation. University of Cambridge.

Integrative sustainability performance in business will include the intangible sustainability values aside of the financial values in the responsibility of its roots, its strategy planning process. My advice as a former business controller: (i) embrace such evolving economic systems’ thinking and integrate human and planetary care in the roots of the company on top of the measurable ESG reporting tools; (ii) live entirely upwards your values; they cannot just be imposed or shared as a ‘nice to have’; That’s the challenge for the next “internal control” but also for academic teaching: how do we operationalise and teach the intangible values of sustainability in our organisations and society without imposing, controlling them? Therefore we need to create a new ‘common ground’ (way of working, acting) for inclusive planetary care in which we naturally take ownership for sustainability responsibilities.  We will have to enlarge our view on what strategy is for business and inclusivity for human-kind and society.


I am grateful for the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership who welcomed my ideas during my studies 2015-2017. I am also grateful for my grandmother, parents, friends who set such a great example of living a sober, wise but also caring values driven life.


Bart, C. and Pujari, A. (2007) The Performance Impact of Content and Process in Product Innovation Charters. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 24 (1), pp. 3-19.

Breuer, H. and Lüdeke-Freund, F. (2017) Values-based innovation management, innovating by what we care about. Palgrave, London, pp. 24-25, p. 46, p. 123, pp. 133-139.

Bruni, L. and Smerilli, A. (2009) The Value of Vocation. The Crucial Role of Intrinsically Motivated People in Values-based Organizations. Review of Social Economy, 67 (3), pp. 271-288.

Elsen, C. (2006) True to Yourself: Leading a Values-Based Business/Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun. Library Journal, 131 (10), p. 132.

Frankl, V. (2011) Man’s search for ultimate meaning. (New ed.), London: Rider.

Manohar, S. and Pandit, S. (2014) Core Values and Beliefs: A Study of Leading Innovative Organizations, Journal of Business Ethics, 125 (4), pp. 667-680.

Savrij Droste, W. (2017) How a values-led management approach influences an organisation’s strategy. Unpublished Mst dissertation. University of Cambridge.

Seidman, D. (2012) The HOW-report. Available at: (Accessed: 10 May 2017).

Sustainabilism™© (2024) Available at: (Accessed: 18 March 2024).

Van Lee R., Fabish L. and McGaw N. (2005) The values of corporate values, Strategy and Business Magazine, 39, pp. 1-14.

  • Wouter Savrij Droste

    Wouter is a visionary, authentic leader with over twenty years of multi-sector experiences within sustainability SME, start-ups, but also international organisations and corporate. His professional and private goal is to continue operationalising sincere sustainability care and values-based leadership in business and society. Wouter challenges the innovation of organisations’ strategy planning by bringing direct conscious responsibility and delicate care into management decision making. He shares freely his ideas, experiences and vision other economic thinking which he calls Sustainabilism (, 2024).

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