Four essential mindset shifts for mapping out a sustainability-driven business transformation

The path toward any sustainability-driven transformation is rarely straightforward. It is often filled with twists, turns and even the occasional bump in the road. To navigate these detours, organisations need to be data-driven and collaborative to be able to make informed decisions that prioritise integrating sustainability into each aspect of operations—from the materials you source to the design of your products to how you engage with stakeholders, and much more.

Sharing what you know and what you don’t know, facing challenges head-on, and building trust through clear and transparent communication is the fuel that propels you forward along the sustainability path anchored in accountability. Reflecting on the journey of our company and others, I’ve got four strategies to consider as you work towards empowering your organisation’s own transformation:

  1. Balance ambition and realism when setting targets

With the product life cycle as your anchor, operationalise your ambition by transforming your product portfolio and taking a design-thinking approach to product development.

Embedding sustainability systematically and holistically into R&D at every stage of the product life cycle sets a new expectation and gives your R&D teams a frame to operate with. It’s also important to incorporate and normalise the quantification of sustainability at various steps along the way and set technically determined target(s). This visibility helps create the necessary accountability to structure, analyse, prioritise, sense check and measure your execution plan.

Your approach will be further strengthened when your organisation engages your suppliers, partners and customers in these conversations; this helps you gain clarity that, in turn, helps you further refine the next steps and where you should focus innovation to drive new, “greener” products and more sustainable approaches to package, ship and address end-of-life elements of your products — all of which are key to driving the emissions reductions and other environmental impact that you want to deliver in the short term and longer term.

  1. Root your targets in data, evidence and radical transparency

Have rigorous and robust discussions — not just about the targets your organisation is setting but also the tactical steps you will need to accomplish those targets and the interdependencies along the journey.

To this end, you may want to create a roadmap for each key initiative, laying out the specific actions and progress milestones over the journey. These living documents can guide your work and help ensure transparency and accountability of your progress — and pivots — as you move step by step through the plan.

If you can’t see a clear path to achieve a certain target, it will be easier to see that you need to adjust the target. Once a target is set, you should conduct regular, rigorous reviews of how the work is progressing and what pivots may be required based on what the data tells you. Our organisation does semi-annual roadmap reviews that increases our accountability by assessing our stakeholder engagement, outcomes and deliverables.

When sustainability is firmly embedded in your business strategy and part of your corporate identity, you must expect your customers will want to see the facts and data behind your targets and plans. So, it’s best to approach target and goal setting with that expectation in mind.

Engage your suppliers, partners and customers in your sustainability journey to do the same thing, be transparent about how you collect your data and what you want to accomplish with that data, and be as candid about your shortcomings as you are about your successes. This will help you build trust and foster even stronger collaboration and partnership.

  1. Act as a sustainability multiplier to accelerate the pace of change

There is no doubt that massive change is required to address climate change and other environmental challenges. The best chance your organisation has at moving the needle is by constantly assessing whether there are new opportunities to accelerate your journey towards net zero and to create a multiplier effect in your industry and broader society.

At Merck, we’re mindful that one of the biggest impacts we can have on our footprint is by helping our suppliers accelerate their sustainability (including climate neutrality) journey. So, we use our knowledge, experience and insights to help our suppliers reduce climate and other environmental impacts across every stage of their operations. This partnership mindset is a key differentiator of our approach as we work to accelerate change.

We are also helping more scientists around the globe understand the principles of green chemistry and how to practice more sustainable science. This has been made possible in part by partnering with the global nonprofit Beyond Benign, where we not only support current scientists with education opportunities on green chemistry, but also reach future chemists and scientists early on to think critically about “sustainable science.”

  1. Close the trust gap in reporting to earn stakeholder trust

The trust gap in corporate commitments — and similarly in ESG and sustainability — reporting is sobering. Closing that gap is critical to earning the trust of your stakeholders, starting with keeping and attracting the talented people who are key to your company’s innovation, growth and success.

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been beating this drum for some time. A PwC survey finding that 87% of respondents believe corporate disclosures contain unsupported sustainability claims — or greenwashing — didn’t really surprise me. It is a wake-up call for any company that sees sustainability as something that exists alongside day-to-day operations instead of being integrated throughout every aspect of its business and operations.

It also is a reminder to pay attention to the age-old adage, “say what you mean and mean what you say.” That is, people — from your customers to your community partners to your shareholders and especially your employees — are not just paying attention to your pledges and commitments but also want to understand the path you are on to achieve them and tangible proof points that those plans are resulting in progress.

So, if you aren’t doing so today, I encourage you to focus on the quality and integrity of the data you put forward. Be sure your methodology for collecting, measuring and analysing data is documented — and indeed, you have a paper trail to verify that this methodology is being followed. Audit your process to validate the integrity of the data and approach.

While I’m proud of Merck’s progress on climate and sustainability more broadly, I’m mindful that there are many challenges ahead and that we must earn the trust of our employees, customers, partners and other stakeholders daily. Our design-thinking approach, combined with a data-driven mindset and transparent communications, shows that it is possible to credibly scale and pace your progress while helping your customers and communities reduce their footprint.

Jeffrey Whitford is vice president of sustainability and social business innovation for the Life Science business of Merck KGaA.

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