Sustainability: a guide to substance over style

Embedding sustainability into your operations will set your business apart from the rest. But where do you start? Zeljka Davis offers a simple step-by-step approach

What is it 'sustainability champions' do that other companies don't? The short answer is: they've successfully built on their strengths from within. They have developed a unique sustainability strategy and plan that works seamlessly with their business and for their stakeholders, and have executed it to the highest standard.

Taking a look behind the scenes, here are five key steps that leaders in sustainability have mastered, which will serve as useful guidelines for companies with their own ambitions for sustainability with substance, from an internal perspective.

Examine and understand
Truly understand the company's values and corporate culture. The importance of this first step cannot be overstated. There are good reasons why any company today operates the way it does. At the core of a company's actions - and reputation - are its values and culture, and its effect on employees. After all, it is employees that develop new products, employees that provide customer service and employees that tell the outside world about the company's level of quality.

In order to implement any change successfully within an organisation - in this case a meaningful sustainability agenda - it is crucial to understand the driving factors behind employee behaviour. Without the endorsement and dedication from the people inside the organisation, leading effective change will be practically impossible, or in the case of sustainability, condemned to a future of lip service and green washing. When your values and culture are properly understood, further steps of modification and development can then be initiated.

Keep it holistic
Link the past with the future, and make it count. To make business sense of sustainability, it first has to make sense for the business. Sustainability leaders develop a strategy that works for the business and its stakeholders, building on established strengths and USPs.

An important way of doing this is by linking relevant experiences from the past to the business' current situation. This serves as a transitional bridge, so employees can relate to how the company has successfully implemented change previously. Companies that excel the strongest in sustainability have a CEO who is genuinely inspired by the benefits of sustainability and drives the new agenda with a sense of urgency.

At the same time, it is vital that sustainability targets are properly embedded into the organization, reinforced through standards such as key performance indicators. Make them count! This way everyone within the company is not only enabled, but also accountable for being part of the company's new targets. Before you know it, what gets measured will get managed.

Embed, embed, embed
Create a driving coalition. For a company's sustainability ambitions to reach their full potential, it is vital that they truly become part of the company's DNA. Establishing a task force for implementing sustainability principles is usually necessary, but it is crucial that such a group consists of dedicated employees with equal rights and responsibilities, and is without hierarchy.

This group of people will hold the critical role of being a connecting party between the board and the employees, and therefore must have the trust and respect from both parties in order to influence them. Good candidates for such a group would be employees who not only have energy and personal commitment to sustainability principles, but also have been recognized for successful engagement activities in the past.

Motivate and engage
Keep employees up-to-date, motivated and engaged. Once staff are excited about the company's new mission and understand how they can contribute, it is important to maintain momentum. Engagement is key. Employees will be far more willing to participate in the new agenda when they feel they are a part of it, which in turn results in much faster uptake of the initiative.

Communicating to staff about milestones achieved - even modest ones at first - will keep people motivated by making genuine progress visible as the benefits of the transition are highlighted. By creating a corporate map or progress timeline, employees can see for themselves the journey the company makes and the targets that lie ahead, and will be more likely to take ownership of it.

There will inevitably be times when targets are harder to hit than anticipated; however, these too should be addressed with transparency, emphasisng that the company is still moving in the right direction.

Prepare to adapt
Stay flexible and adaptable. There's no doubt that meaningful change takes time, and the journey of sustainability is an ongoing process. Along the way, there will always be unforeseen challenges and mistakes that need to be corrected. Again, the solution lies in company culture.

When the corporate culture is healthy, challenges will be addressed with flexibility and creativity, while transparency will create understanding. It's a well-worn expression, but it's especially true when it comes to sustainability: where there is a will, there is a way. And while the way might be long, the journey is worth the effort.

Zeljka Davis is a partner at EMG CSR Consultancy


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