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The importance of law firms in driving sustainable business development in Africa

Alan Keep, Managing Partner at Bowmans

In a world rapidly awakening to the imperatives of sustainability, law firms stand at a unique crossroads. Far from being passive observers, they are emerging as vital players, shaping the contours of how businesses navigate the complex terrain of environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles.

Traditionally, the direct environmental impact of law firms might seem inconsequential – after all, their carbon footprint is minimal compared to businesses in the industrial sector for example. However, their indirect influence on moulding corporate behaviour can be profound.

In emerging markets this is particularly beneficial. Take African law firms for example. Because they engage with multinational entities, they are informed by both the rigorous compliance standards expected by developed nations and the unique developmental challenges intrinsic to Africa. This dual vantage point offers a nuanced perspective on sustainability. Their role, therefore, becomes one of translating the language of sustainable development into actionable blueprints, ensuring Africa’s voice resonates in the global chorus for change.

However, this is easier said than done.

African businesses, particularly the predominant small to medium-sized enterprises, grapple daily with the tension between short-term profit and long-term sustainability goals. Immediate revenue streams are lifelines, crucial for survival and meeting stakeholder expectations. Yet, overlooking sustainability risks, depleting vital resources, and alienating an increasingly eco-conscious consumer and investor base, can be costly in the longer term.

Additionally, while businesses across the continent have heeded the sustainability call, the ESG landscape is still murky.

ESG initiatives regularly face scrutiny, primarily due to their often-nebulous nature and absence of standardised guidelines – especially when it comes to monitoring and reporting. This is not a phenomenon only applicable to Africa.

Without clear legislation and consistent frameworks, businesses are often left to self-regulate, leading to a potential mismatch in sustainability efforts and goals. This lack of clarity has implications beyond mere compliance: it can dissuade potential investors and impede the influx of crucial capital into African markets; cause companies to operate in grey areas; leave stakeholders uncertain of their rights and obligations; and compromise the broader societal goals of a company’s sustainability agenda.

One of the primary merits of enhanced legislation is the establishment of a common language. This universality of terms, definitions and standards provides a consistent foundation upon which businesses can base their ESG initiatives – setting common benchmarks and making comparisons and progress tracking more feasible and objective.

It also strengthens accountability. In the current scenario, the lack of stringent regulation in certain areas often means businesses can adopt a selective approach to ESG, focusing on areas of convenience while neglecting more challenging aspects. With more standardised reporting requirements and periodic reviews, companies would more easily be compelled to holistically integrate ESG into their operations.

This is where the role of African law firms is imperative.

On one hand, they can guide clients through existing regulations, and on the other, anticipate and shape the trajectory of future sustainability discourse, drawing insights from jurisdictions that are ahead of the curve to ensure Africa’s regulations are both robust and contextually relevant. Such advisory roles can guide companies in risk mitigation, ethical compliance, and strategic sustainable planning.

Their responsibility, however, does not stop with businesses.

By engaging with policymakers, law firms can share on-the-ground insights about the practical implications and potential pitfalls of existing regulations. This proactive collaboration ensures that new legislation is not merely reactive but foresees emerging trends. Additionally, through public-private partnerships, law firms can facilitate dialogues between businesses and regulatory bodies, fostering a collaborative approach to policy. This can influence legislators so that that legislation, when enacted, resonates with both commercial imperatives and societal objectives.

To effectively carry out these roles, African law firms must first internalise sustainability and incorporate ESG into their own operations.

For example, Bowmans recently became one of the first law firms in Africa to introduce a Sustainability Policy formally and publicly. The document outlines Bowmans’ commitment to running the firm according to sustainable principles while remaining relevant to all key clients and supporting the development of law, especially on climate change issues. It aligns with UN SDGs and ESG policies, addresses the firm’s operations, client influence and Africa’s ESG issues and ensures these inform the firm’s major decisions and actions.

In addition to this Bowmans has committed to continue contributing in areas in which law firms are uniquely placed to make a difference, such as promoting the rule of law and directing pro-bono activities carefully and deliberately to drive sustainable outcomes.

The evolving landscape of sustainability may present a myriad of challenges.

Yet, for those equipped with foresight, adaptability and expertise, these challenges morph into opportunities. African law firms stand at this pivotal juncture, ready to guide, influence and reshape the corporate future in alignment with global sustainability benchmarks, all while catering to Africa’s unique developmental narrative.

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